Between 8 a.m. and noon on a summer Saturday, most early birds flock to Lewes to secure a spot on the beach. But some 2,000 people have another destination in mind. They’re heading to the Historic Lewes Farmers Market (HLFM) in George H.P. Smith Park to find the freshest local food.
Under mature trees, shoppers hunt for the plumpest red tomatoes, tender lettuces, freshly cut flowers, locally made jam and glistening oysters. They often speak directly with the person who planted the cauliflower they’re buying. That’s because the producer-only market doesn’t allow third-party vendors.
The HLFM is Delaware’s most successful market and has the numbers to prove it. In 2022, the HLFM garnered more than 30% of all farmers market sales in Delaware, and its farmer/vendor sales have topped $10.5 million between 2006 and 2022.
While it takes a village of volunteers to run the Saturday market and the newer Wednesday market at Crooked Hammock Brewery, HLFM is the realized vision of one woman, Helaine Harris, the determined Texan with a passion for food and the people who grow it.
“Helaine has been the visionary and glue for the Historic Lewes Farmers Market since its inception in 2005,” maintains Sharon Dardine, a HLFM board member.
FAMILIAR WITH THE SOURCE
Harris grew up in Houston, Texas watching her father break down meat in the butcher shop started by his father. The retail/wholesale operation was an offshoot of the family ranch and her relatives also had farms.
As a child, Harris wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, but when large meatpacking companies descended on Houston, the store closed, and her father became a truck salesman.
Harris, the oldest of three children, left home at 16 for “various reasons,” she says in a voice that deters further interrogation. “I wanted to see the world, I guess.” Where did she go? “Everywhere,” she responds.
She ended up in Washington, D.C., for “different reasons,” she says. But when you talk to Harris, you soon realize that she’s someone with a plan. For instance, she put herself through college in night school, and she was 21 when she started a business distributing small press and women’s books. Her love of literature led her to a 38-year career with Daedalus Books, which sold new and classic books — much of it overstock — at a discount. Customers included individuals and independent and chain bookshops. Harris and Robin Moody started the business in 1980 and sold it in 2018.
MEETING A NEED
Meanwhile, Harris frequently shopped at DuPont Circle Farmers Market near her home in the heart of D.C. Founded in 1997, it is part of FreshFarm Markets, which has nearly 30 operations in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
While vacationing in Rehoboth Beach, Harris noted that the number of farmstands selling local items was diminishing. After purchasing a home in Lewes, she took matters into her own hands. Harris and like-minded volunteers researched farm markets nationwide and elected to form a nonprofit “really based in community,” says Harris, who spent months crafting a business plan.
She had the perfect location in mind — her second home is near the Lewes Historical Society (LHS) complex, whose collection of old structures and leafy trees resembles a movie set. The LHS board agreed to lease the space if the city council approved. While there were naysayers, the community supported the initiative, and the market debuted in 2006 with about 15 vendors.
The HLFM’s success led to the Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market, launched in 2007 in Grove Park. Today, there are eight coastal farmers markets, including the HLFM’s Crooked Hammock offshoot.
ON THE MOVE
When the LHS commenced ground renovations, the HLFM temporarily moved to George H.P. Smith Park. However, there wasn’t enough space for 30-plus vendors once the society’s project was complete.
The HLFM opted to stay put in the park despite the challenges. Even some Lewes residents weren’t familiar with the park, Harris notes. And habit was hard to shake. She heard people tell friends that the market was still on the LHS grounds. “It’s just what they remembered,” Harris explains.
Indeed, the relationship with the LHS has made the HLFM a tourist attraction. Trip Advisor lists the LHS as one of the city’s top 10 activities. As a must-do activity, the HLFM still ranks high. After all, agriculture is the under-the-radar star of Sussex County’s local economy, says Tina Coleman, communications manager of Visit Southern Delaware. She says that local farms provide the ingredients for the local chefs’ award-winning creations. Nearly every Saturday market features a chef’s demo. Coleman adds that the fresh factor appeals to tourists who want home-cooked meals in their rentals.
In time, the HLFM regained visitor numbers at the park, but Harris realized that the count included more area residents than in the past, perhaps because the site is closer to Route 1. The proximity to public transportation has fueled the Wednesday market’s growth.
ON A MISSION
The locals do more than shop. Harris says many of the 150 volunteers come from the new communities in the greater Lewes area. Recruitment is constant. On market days, at least 30 people work two-and-a-half-hour shifts starting at 6:30 a.m.
“Many people don’t understand the work it takes to put it all together,” Harris says. “They don’t see everything happening in the background.”
HLFM has a full-time operations manager, Eleanor Shue, and Dardine is part time. Nevertheless, Harris puts in up to 30 hours a week. Tasks include writing grants and ensuring the organization is meeting the requirements of the grants it receives.
THE STATS ARE IMPRESSIVE
To date, HLFM has awarded more than $38,000 in scholarships to small farmers attending conferences on sustainable practices.
The HLFM is the only market in Sussex County in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and it also participates in the federal Women, Infants and Children Nutrition Program and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. From 2013 to 2022, the market processed $60,585 through these programs, serving about 300 families each year.
The HLFM and its vendors have given more than $79,000 in donated produce to Casa San Francisco in Milton. In 2022, the HLFM and its customers spent a combined $38,000 to purchase food from small farms for distribution in Delaware food pantries.
Currently, the two HLFM markets attract up to 52,000 annual shopper visits. But, again, Harris is proudest of the activity behind the picturesque Saturday scene.
“It enriches me and makes me feel grateful every day that we are getting fresh food to people who don’t have access to it,” she says.
HELAINE’S LOCAL FAVS
- Beach Herring Point, Cape Henlopen State Park
- Coffee Gaia Coffee Co.
- Shop Aquamarine
- Sunset spot Roosevelt Inlet Beach
The Historic Lewes Farmers Market will have a fall market at the Lewes Elementary School parking lot from Oct. 7 to Nov. 18.