UPDATE: Riverfront Farmers Market will transition to a walk-through market beginning Saturday, May 9.
The Riverfront Farmers Market is back—sort of. The seasonal market, which usually opens near the Cape Fear River in late March, has been closed this spring out of concerns for public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, that hasn’t stopped event organizers from finding a safer way to proceed.
Starting Saturday a slimmed-down version of the popular farmers market will operate at Waterline Brewing Co. as a drive-thru service. While the market is not open to walk-up traffic or bicycles, it’s a significant step toward bringing some semblance of normality back to the downtown community.
“I fully expect the energy to still be there,” says James Christopher of event management and production company Cool Wilmington, which runs the market. “It’s going to be wonderful for our farmers to see regular customers return and say hello (from a safe social distance, of course), and it’s going to be an opportunity for new customers to get out on a Saturday morning and experience the farmers market. We are really excited to see this in action.”
Twenty-seven vendors will participate in Saturday’s market—down from the 35 or so that frequently line the market’s usual location on Dock Street. The reduction in numbers was intended to allow for proper spacing between vendors: There will be a minimum of 6 feet between each stall. Cool Wilmington also has limited vendors to only those selling “essential” goods (vegetables, meat and fish, baked goods, personal hygiene wares, etc.), leaving artisans who usually participate on the outside looking in. However, that may change as restrictions are loosened locally and statewide.
“We are considering ways to have them represented in some form at the market,” Christopher says. “We just need to find a way to do it safely.”
Among the vendors set up in the fenced lot next to Waterline are Alchemy Ranch, Davis Seafood, Ruth’s Elderberry Syrup, Noni Bacca Winery, Castle Hayne Farms, Longboard Coffee Roaster, Kritter Couture and others (full list: Facebook). All vendors are required to wear masks and gloves, and to sanitize their hands and work stations after each transaction.
Says Christopher, “This is a very safe way to shop, probably the safest way you can shop. The items you purchase will have literally been touched by one person. Compare that with shopping at a local grocery chain.”
Jennifer Demary, who runs Kritter Couture & More, says she’s “cautiously relieved” things seem to be opening back up, and is happy to see Cool Wilmington is taking the appropriate steps to keep both shoppers and vendors safe. As a maker of customizable pet accessories, Demary relies on weekend markets for much of her business. She recently shifted production to begin making handmade face masks, which gives her “essential” designation while providing a sense of purpose and allowing her to stay afloat. Demary’s face masks are available at the market for $10 each and come in roughly 30 to 50 different patterns, though she has over 400 fabric prints in her workshop at home.
“I have medical prints, sports prints, beach, pet, movies … you name it, I have it,” she says.
Other vendors have kept their businesses afloat through sheer hustle. Gayle Straight (née Jackson) runs Alchemy Ranch with her husband David. Though the Straights were forced to move their ranching business from Pender County to Mount Airy after Hurricane Florence, Gayle still makes the 4-hour drive to Wilmington on a regular basis to sell their meats.
Farmers markets are especially vital to the Straights right now, as other forms of income have dried up. Alchemy Ranch regularly sells its soy-free, non-GMO products to downtown restaurants PinPoint and Tarantelli’s. Without their business, markets make up almost 80% of overall sales.
“My philosophy is: How do I keep my business open? What do I have to do?” says Gayle.
As a former restaurant-industry professional and health-department liaison (she was one of the original owners of Jackson’s Big Oak Barbecue), Gayle is no stranger to safe food handling. She got a jumpstart on social distancing while working the Wilmington Farmers Market at Tidal Creek, which has temporarily been relocated to Wrightsville Beach Brewery as a drive-thru market. Her process for helping customers includes wearing a mask, keeping ample amounts of hand sanitizer and a hand-washing station, and sanitizing credit cards both before and after use.
“People can either drive up or park near me, and then I put their product in the back seat or in the back of their vehicle, and they Venmo me or have the exact amount cash ready in a baggie or a paper bag for me to take,” she says.
She’s even gone so far as to wash all of her cash when she gets home. “There’s a new connotation to laundering money now,” she says.
Jokes aside, the attitude is one that should be familiar to most farmers: Do whatever is necessary.
“There’s that old saying, ‘Thank a farmer three times a day,’” Christopher says. “It’s very true. Our members are your neighbors. . . . Family farming is a tough business and local farmers are amongst the most dedicated people I have ever met. It is truly a labor of love for them. I think you can literally taste that dedication in the products.”