A Growing Movement

by Dave on June 25, 2009

First seen in Coastal Sussex Weekly, June 4, 2009:


That is the only proper way to describe the feeling of biting into a piece of lettuce grown locally here in Sussex County and pulled from the ground that day. Not really a crunch or a snap. A pop.

You can actually taste the earthiness, what those in the wine business call “terroir” to describe the unique character given a crop by the conditions of the geography that produces it. That terroir is evident in the radishes, soybeans, corn and other foodstuffs grown within 100 miles of the Delaware beaches.

It is within that range that defines the ‘foodshed’ and is the domain of the ‘locavore,’ a term defined as ‘a person who exclusively eats food from their foodshed.’ The word was originally coined by four San Francisco women who, in June of 2005, challenged Northern Californians to buy, cook and eat locally for one month. By 2007, the term “locavore” was selected as the New Oxford American Dictionary’s Word of the Year.

It is that locavore movement which has captivated the Delaware beach area to varying degrees over the last two years. From organic markets like Clarksville’s Good Earth Market and Organic Farm and Lewes’ Good For You Natural Market, to “farm to table” offerings at restaurants like Rehoboth’s Nage and Bethany Beach’s Bluecoast to the re-emergence of a 1940’s phenomenon, the victory garden, the journey  toward purchasing and consuming food grown locally is taking off.

Nowhere is that movement more alive in Delaware than at its epicenter: the Historic Lewes Farmer’s Market. Started by local volunteers in 2006, the market has grown to become the best in Delaware.

“The Lewes market is the best in the state,” says Mark Leishear, director of marketing for organic dessert-maker Bella’s Cookies of Milton. “There is really nothing like it. There are others that do well, but nothing beats Lewes. You can find cookies, fresh fruit & vegetables, meat, cheese, whatever your fancy, and it’s all done locally. People love it.”

On the bright, sunny first day of this year’s Lewes Farmer’s Market season, volunteers in aprons scurry about tending to the needs of the vendors and shoppers, all the while stopping to chat and catch up with neighbors and visitors.

“This has become a great community gathering point,” says Lewes Councilman Ted Becker, who runs Lewes’ Inn at Canal Square. “It really represents the best of Lewes in terms of people’s interest in wholesome food and the community spirit. I think you see it well-demonstrated here this morning with the crowd that’s turned out for the opening day of the market.”

On this Saturday morning, thirty-three vendors spread out on the grounds of the Lewes Historical Society at the end of Second Street. One of the first hot spots is Kogler’s Old-World Breads, where customers line up to get ‘shorties,’ a combination of bread, butter and cinnamon that is so sinfully delicious that it would undoubtedly be illegal in the Bible Belt. From there, people descend on vendors like Hattie’s Garden, Lucky Penny Produce and Flowers and Chesapeake Bay Farm, a new vendor this year offering cheeses, butter, truffles and more from their Worcester County, Maryland farm.

Also on hand were representatives from the “Ya Dig Our Farm,” a product of the local Sussex Consortium school, offering heirloom lettuce varities like buttercrunch and Blackseed Simpson as well as arugula, mustard greens and spinach.

Lewes is just one of 15 such markets in the state of Delaware, according to Kelli Steele of the Delaware Department of Agriculture.

“People want to know where their food is coming from,” says Steele. “People want to know it’s locally grown and safe. So the markets are growing by leaps and bounds.”

Steele notes that the number of markets have gone from nine, grossing $292,000 in 2006 and $450,000 in 2007; to 11 markets in 2008 that sold $798,000; to the current 15.

“We have high expectations for those markets, and Lewes is the epitome of those farmer’s markets,” adds Steele.

Sue Ryan of the Good Earth Market stands at her tent at the Historic Lewes Farmer’s Market and reflects on the growth in the entire locavore movement.

“The past three years, this market in particular is phenomenal,” says Ryan. “We do four markets, two in Fenwick, one in Bethany and here. There’s just an enormous amount of consumers coming out to the markets. The farmer’s markets are the absolute cream of the crop, because they’re selling retail and they’re selling a lot in a short amount of time, so it doesn’t get a lot better for the farmer. That’s why it’s so wonderful that tha consumers support it. And the restaurants are really looking for fresh now. They’re the growth market.”

That growth is visible. Proudly displayed next the Fifer Orchards table at the Lewes market is a banner promoting Fifer’s joint venture with award-winning Rehoboth Beach restaurant Nage, offering Thursday night ‘farm to table’ dinners featuring fresh, local, organic produce.

Matt Haley of SoDel Concepts (see interview page 29) incoporates the farm to table concept nightly in his various beach restaurants.

“The majority of our special sheets, the produce sets are 100% local,” says Haley.

The Delaware Department of Agriculture will this year be specifically promoting the farm to table concept.

“We’re going to go out this year to local restaurants, talking to the local chefs and trying to get them to use local produce, local meats, local fresh flowers.“

The Department of Agriculture will also highlight that relationship between “The Farmer and The Chef” this year in an event at the Chase Center in Wilmington that pairs local chefs and local farmers, who together create delicious recipes for attendees to taste. The event, to be held on September 17th, raises money for the Mach of Dimes and spreads the idea that local ingredients make for better food. Several beach-area restaurants and local Sussex County farms are expected to participate in this year’s event, following the popularity of last year’s initial “Farmer & Chef” event.

“Last year we had 700 people in attendance and raised $55,000, with 15 farmers and 22 restaurants,” noted Steele. “The premise is to pair the local farmer with the local chef with the goal to promote sustainable relationships between the two, so they can continue those relationships long-term.”

While farmers and chefs build relationships, for some the relationship is with the soil on their own property. In a return to years gone by, “local” for some means their own backyard garden.

Back in the World War I and World War II eras, the federal government asked people to plant their own gardens as a support mechanism for the war efforts. By 1943, citizens accounted for over 20 million Victory Gardens, and that particular harvest from those gardens represented almost 1/3 of all vegetables consumed in the United States.

Now, faced with the growing concerns of economic recession and a number of food recalls, a movement has risen to revive and recreate the Victory Garden.

“What I see today is a lot of home gardeners buying $2 tomato plants that’ll produce 30 pounds of tomatoes,” says Sue Ryan. “Every day, people come into the store asking about how to do it. People who you’d never think would grow their own garden are doing it. It’s a hot thing this year. They get into it and become more enlightened every day. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, because everyone has a natural connection to the earth.”

On March 20th of this year, First Lady Michelle Obama broke ground on an organic vegetable garden on the grounds of the White House. She has since involved local schoolchildren in the planting and care of the garden. Sue Ryan sees the impact with kids as well.

“We have a great demo garden out in back of our store. Once kids see things growing, they are just blown away. When they see a strawberry on the vine, they just squeal with delight.”

Whether it’s your favorite restaurant, your local organic food store or even your back yard, a movement is growing – simple, sustainable, organic and delicious. And every time someone bites into a leaf of deer tongue lettuce or a local radish and hears that ‘pop,’ another locavore is born.

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