Henry Bennett supports his family on the income from a 38-acre fruit farm. Hattie Allen is surviving on the proceeds from an urban vegetable garden — and a related wintertime gig.
And, Keith Irwin runs a prosperous bakery in southern Delaware, a region that is notoriously unpredictable economically because of its dependence on seasonal tourism.
The reason all of them have survived is because of the success they have achieved at local farmers markets.
“A lot of the farmers in our market are dependent on us to make a living,” said Helaine Harris, co-founder of two highly successful farmers’ markets in Lewes, Delaware.
And, the fact that local markets are helping boost farm income is not much of a surprise in Delaware, a state where agriculture is a key component of the economy.
In fact, a new study shows that Delaware farmers markets recorded one of the best years ever in 2017, generating over $3 million in sales at 21 community-run retail sites in the state’s three counties.
Farmers market proponents say the robust sales figures are evidence that more and more consumers are interested in locally raised fruits, vegetables and other farm-raised products.
“It is a benefit for both sides. Residents gain access to fresh, local product and our farmers gain a local market demand that continues to grow,” said Kenneth Bounds, Delaware deputy agriculture secretary.
Sussex County, home to Delaware’s popular coastal beaches, has 10 farmers markets, many of them positioned to attract seasonal tourists. Sussex County also leads the state in farmland acreage.
Bennett Orchards in Frankford, Delaware, has been tilled by six generations dating to 1867. Because the farm is surrounded by rampant coastal development, expanding the farm has been out of the question because of rising land costs.
“Land is just too expensive for us to expand,” Henry Bennett said.
The Bennetts have survived by concentrating on retail sales — on the farm and at local markets.
Bennett said they are currently selling peaches and blueberries at a number of Delaware markets, including Bethany Beach, Rehoboth Beach, two in Lewes, Sea Colony, Fenwick Island as well as one in Ocean City, Maryland.
“Farmers markets have helped us grow,” Bennett said.
The Bennett operation includes 30 acres of peaches and 8 acres of blueberries. They also have a farm stand and heavily promote “pick your own.”
Bennett said they have a total of 10 employees involved in picking fruit and selling it at market.
“Farmers markets have allowed us to sell directly,” he said.
Though it is not a requirement statewide, most markets in Sussex County insist that vendors sell only what comes from their own farm.
“The farmers who sell at our markets all have grown the product they sell,” said Harris, manager of two markets in Lewes, including a Saturday event that attracts 35 vendors and as many as 3,000 visitors.
Two years ago, they expanded to a second location at the edge of Lewes, next to the popular Crooked Hammock microbrewery. The second market is open on Wednesday mornings.
Most Delaware markets are open from May through September.
Allen, one of the first to sell produce at the original market on the grounds of the Lewes Historical Society, has a small greenhouse to raise potting plants and off-season produce.
Though her garden is small — roughly half an acre — she supplements her income by conducting gardening classes.
In the off-season, she bolsters her income — and helps other local farmers — by running a weekly home delivery service for a range of market-related products, including greenhouse-grown produce, eggs, seafood, cheese, mushrooms, baked goods and locally raised meats.
“I really enjoy doing it, but I can assure you I made a whole lot more money in my other life,” she said.
Irwin, owner of Old World Breads in Lewes, sells his artisan baked goods at nine farmers markets, including one in downtown Washington, D.C., and eight in Delaware.
Irwin said the market sales help his business survive during slower times of the year.
“It’s definitely worth the effort for us,” he said.
Kent County, Delaware, has one market, in downtown Dover, a few blocks from the state capital.
Its market manager, Tina Bradbury, said the market “basically serves the lunch crowd” with several notable exceptions.
The Dover market participates in the Women, Infants, and Children Farmers Market Nutrition Program and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP. Both provide financial support for low-income residents who want to buy fresh produce.
In the summer, the Dover market partners with the Capital School District to provide meals for low-income children. While at the market site, activities, including storytelling, are provided for the children.
The Dover market also serves inner-city families who lack transportation.
“Dover is not a food desert, but it is close,” Bradbury said.
Based on its success so far, “we are looking for ways to expand,” she said.
Though some worry that younger residents are not attracted to farmers markets, coordinators in all three counties say that concern has not materialized.
“We see a lot of young families,” said Harris of the Lewes market.
New Castle, Delaware’s northern county, also has 10 markets. Most are located on park land.
Michael Begatto Jr., county community services coordinator, said the market at Carousel Park in Pike Creek, Delaware, is probably the most popular, annually attracting about 14,500 visitors who spend an average of $230,000.
Unlike markets in Sussex, the New Castle venues do not specify that vendors must grow everything they sell. And, the market attracts vendors, including craftspeople, who not selling farm-raised produce.
Begatto said the New Castle markets attract a number of Amish farmers from Pennsylvania and some of them sell produce they bought at regional wholesale markets.
“The Amish farmers are a big draw,” he said. “And we believe that it is still local produce even if the farmer didn’t grow it.”
Each of the markets in Delaware charges a vendor’s fee that runs between $400 and $500 annually.
Though incomes can vary, some of the most successful vendors in Delaware are bringing in as much as $4,000 per market.
“Most of our vendors are pretty satisfied,” Begatto said.
Rae Tyson is a freelance writer in Delaware.