A Post Labor Day School Start

Are task forces pointless? I’m starting to think so. I wish someone would do analysis on how many task forces have been established by our General Assembly and if their recommendations have been implemented into state law. Are they just a way to appease stakeholders, by allowing them to work on a policy issue for months, while legislators just hope the issue dies and go away? Take, for example, a 2014 task force which voted IN FAVOR of starting each school year after Labor Day. Several attempts to push through a bill for post Labor Day start have failed since, even though the new economic benefits are clear for Delaware’s #3 Tourism industry.

In my last blog, I mention an issue regarding labor at our retail produce stand. All of our seasonal help typically returns to school about two weeks before the Labor Day holiday. This includes adults and teenagers. Labor Day is our biggest holiday and August beach traffic has increased the past couple years. Retaining even just a few seasonal employees for an additional week or two would help us tremendously as our family has pick to up the slack over the remaining months of September and October. I assume many other produce operations, especially those with fall agritourism events, encounter the same labor issue in addition to seasonal beach businesses.

Over a month ago, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan took the matter into his own hands and signed an executive order mandating an after Labor Day school start and an end date by June 15 next school year (2017-2018). He cited family, economic, environmental, health benefits from a later start:

  • 75% of Marylander’s support a later start
  • August is the 2nd hottest month in Maryland
  • Baltimore County city has 37 schools with no air conditioning and must close when temperature is over 90 degrees
  • Other schools with air conditioning can reduce energy bill costs in hottest summer months
  • August is the most popular month for family vacations
  • Many students and teachers work at the beach
  • 2013 economic study showed $74 million dollar increase in new economic activity for the tourism industry with later start date
  • Maryland Farm Bureau vocally supported Governor Hogan’s efforts for 2 reasons: seasonal summer labor and MD State Fair youth participation.
  • Peter Franchot, Maryland’s Comptroller started a campaign called, “Let Summer Be Summer

I love Gov. Hogan’s recent remarks about his decision to move forward on this issue. He called out the media, the commission that studied it, and MD legislators for not getting it done. Impressive. You have to watch this video.

Without a Republican Governor, I’m pretty certain Delaware won’t mandate this through an executive order any time soon. So, we’ll keep twiddling our thumbs and wait for legislators to do the right thing for 2 of our biggest industries in Delaware: tourism and agriculture. You can access the final report from the task force below and I’ll point out the letters at the end from constituents as well as the note from the Indian River Superintendent and Board, who decided to respect their business partners and community by starting after Labor Day without being mandated. The task force had legislator, school district, tourism and small business representation; however, no one from the ag industry or our state farm bureau was involved.

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Fun on the Farm? No, thank you!

Yesterday’s News Journal article “Fun on the farm is serious business for Delaware Farmers” highlights 3 Delaware agritourism sites and their successes. However, the article states “some farmers have been slow to adapt. First state farmers are even further behind the agritourism trend. The USDA found only 43 of Delaware’s 2,450 farms offer agritourism, producing $453,000 in annual income.”

The missing link to the story is an interview with a farmer who decided not to expand into this market and the reasons why. A simple Google search of “agritourism barriers” will do the trick. But since we’ve looked into it ourselves, I can tell you first hand why the end search result for us has always been a resounding “No, thank you! It’s not worth the risk”!

In Little Wagon’s case, we do our best to get to know our customers and have found over the years that most seem in a hurry to get to their beach destination. We just haven’t had the requests. Beyond the demand issue, what else has kept us from diversifying into this “fun on the farm” business?

  1. Capital-for a small business, how much do we need to invest to make it successful? How soon will it pay off? How do we structure pricing?
  2. Labor-this could be #1. Let’s face it, we struggle terribly by the end of August because our seasonal help goes back to school. September and October are very long months for the family with no help on the schedule. How can we add more fall activities without good help?
  3. Insurance Liability/Safety– on farm activities such as hay mazes, games, petting zoos with live animals only increase concerns around safety. How much will our already high insurance plans increase? Check out the research link on agritourism safety below.
  4. Promotion & Advertising-small businesses just do not have the budget for this. Yes, we can take advantage of free social media all day but additional advertising such as radio spots, local paper ads, and even Facebook advertising can be expensive.
  5. Regulation Compliance-what if we add a gift shop or bathrooms on site? What about the need for hand sanitizing with petting zoos? This will add public health inspections to our regulations list. What about signage along Rt. 404? What about entrances on Rt. 404? How easy do you think obtaining these permits from DOT will be? We’ve kept it simple for all these years and avoided these headaches.

Maybe we need to have more of the “build it and they will come” mentality. The end of the article mentions personality of a farmer and how it can allow a farm business to diversify. I believe this is true but it also depends on risk and how much a farmer (and his family) wants to take on. My research also tells me that more established businesses are less likely to expand. We are closing on our 27th year and Farmer Dan is very conservative. I respect him for not wanting our family to take on more risk. Besides, with low grain prices and drought this summer, where will farmers get the income to diversify? They’re too busy investing, fixing, and babysitting irrigation systems….oh wait, that’s a different kind of “fun on the farm”.

Agritourism Research found and read:

 

 

Farmers, Minimum Wage Hike, and Voting Straight “R”

In case you haven’t heard, an upstate legislator, Sen., Robert Marshall (D-Wilmington West) recently sponsored SB 39 to raise Delaware’s minimum wage over several years. When discussing this topic, many seem uneducated because they don’t own a business or they do not work a minimum wage paying job. Therefore, I think it’s important to start by laying out the current facts:

  • The current federal minimum wage rate is: $7.25, effective July 24, 2009, for non-exempt employees
  • However, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) states if an employee is subject to both the state and federal minimum wage laws, the employee is entitled to the higher minimum wage rate.
  • Delaware’s minimum wage rate is: $8.25, effective July 1, 2015.
  • Surrounding states (according to NCSL):
    • Virginia remains $7.25
    • Maryland is $8.25 but raises to $8.75 in July 2016, $9.25 in July 2017 and $10.10 in July 2018
    • Pennsylvania remains $7.25
  • As of Jan. 1, 2016 the highest rate is D.C. at $10.50. This is the first rate to cross the $10.00 threshold. If you don’t count D.C. as a state then next up is California and Massachusetts at $10.00.

In Delaware, the bill passed the Senate on Jan. 27, 2016. The bill originally proposed incrementally increasing the wage to $15.05 by over eight years (eff. June 1, 2023)! However, after a fierce debate, the bill was amended to increase to $10.25 over four years:

  • $8.75 eff. June 1, 2016
  • $9.25 eff. June 1, 2017
  • $9.75 eff. June 1, 2018
  • $10.25 eff. June 1, 2019
  • There is no change to minimum wage with tips (i.e. restaurant server)
  • There is no cost of living adjustment (COLA)
  • There is a fiscal note attached which outlines increases to casual/seasonal state workers

Business owners came out in full force to testify against the bill, which included many farmers, such as Fifer Farms in Kent and Vincent Farms in Sussex. Both testified and opposed the increase as seen on WBOC: Some Local Farmers Oppose Higher Minimum Wage

Apparently the response from legislators to the farmers was: “But Ag is exempt!”. Not once did they say “Ag is our #1 Industry”! Employees in agriculture are exempt but anyone who owns a business knows that it’s hard to find to good help these days. Agricultural employers MUST stay competitive in order to attract skilled workers. Therefore, ag is truly not exempt. The same goes for young workers (under the age of 20), who are also exempt. For example, Little Wagon Produce hires many seasonal employees who are usually high school students. How will we attract these students to work in the heat, pick produce, and get dirty for $7.25/hour when they can work in the air conditioner at McDonald’s for $10.25/hr? The same goes for foreign laborers who can work for larger landscaping companies instead of local farming operations. I believe the response to our local farmers shows just how uneducated our legislators really are today. Many have NO ties to local farming or own any type of small business.

Our local Chamber’s of Commerce have spoken out against the bill as well. Judy Diogo, President of the Central Chamber of Commerce, recently wrote an excellent opinion in the Delaware State News, noting many other increases to small businesses such as health care insurance, unemployment insurance, taxes, regulations, licensing fees, and operating costs. She noted 70% of the 1,000 businesses she represents were against a hike increase. This fact should have perked every Kent legislator’s ears; however, many voted YES including Sen. Bruce Ennis (D-Smyrna) who chairs the Senate Ag Committee! So disappointing! Especially after hearing so many farmers testify. Again, this is a negative outcome from the lack of agricultural ties in our legislature.

Last but not least, I must mention another local opinion from a young observant, Stephen Baione,  who just happened to be visiting the Senate chamber on the day of the minimum wage debate. His article was well-written and his observations speak volumes. He, too, realizes many do not own a business. But the common disrespect towards those testifying and minority party legislators makes me want to change my party status ASAP. It also makes me want to vote straight “R” in the upcoming election. If you don’t read anything else in this blog, please click on this link.

The bill is now Assigned to Economic Development/Banking/Insurance/Commerce Committee in the House. The DE General Assembly goes back into session in March 8th. I encourage you to speak out and contact your local legislator or local Chamber of Commerce today. 

The Holiday Spirit

Tired of seeing of the news on Syrian refugees and Paris terrorist attacks? Me, too. Tired of Presidential debates in a non-election year? Me, too.  Already seeing Christmas TV ads and wondering how you’re going to get everything done? Me, too. Take a deep breath, slow down, and consider these 2 suggestions:

  1. Visit a local Christmas tree farm.
  2. Take a stroll at a holiday farmer’s market.

There’s no better way to get in the Christmas spirit than to visit a local tree farm. We visited Schreppler’s Fir Tree Acres in Magnolia, DE recently and I’m so glad we did. The smell of pine and intense green color surrounded us. Chance loved playing hide-and-go-seek in between the trees and all of sudden we were singing Jingle Bells. Many have Christmas shops with decorations, greenery, holly, and wreaths. But you don’t have to buy a thing-getting in the spirit is free! Find a tree farm near you in this guide from Delaware Dept. of Agriculture.

How about a stroll at a holiday farmer’s market this season? Little Wagon Produce will be a vendor at 2 upcoming local markets:

  • Friday, Nov. 20 – Milton “Harvest Market”, Noon-4pm, on the grounds of Dogfish Brewery. Check out this article in the Cape Gazette for more info. Dogs welcome!
  • Saturday, Nov. 21 – Milford Riverwalk 2nd Annual Fall Market, 10am2pm, downtown Milford. Check out this article in Delmarva Life.

You can “buy local” for Christmas gifts, local produce, seasonal decorations, jewelry, baked goods and more while enjoying Christmas music in the background. See my previous post for what Little Wagon Produce will be offering. Downtown Milford is especially a great place to mingle where local residents drink coffee, hug, smile, and fellowship. There’s no entry fee. Just come enjoy the friendly atmosphere and get in the holiday spirit at the same time!

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2015 Local Holiday Markets

This past year, Mom and I revamped the Little Wagon Produce website. After 6 years, it became outdated. It’s no small task for a small business. It took several meetings with Tim Smith’s team from Delmarva Digital, new pictures, and updated text. A few new features include a scrolling picture banner and a “We Sell” tab. Over the years, we’ve collected a database of customer email addresses to send seasonal updates. We feel it’s a nice benefit to quickly tell customers, “Sweet corn’s ready!”. This winter, I plan to increase our collection of customer recipes online. To check out our website or join the email newsletter, just go to our homepage.
Here’s our last email update for 2015 regarding upcoming holiday markets:
Greetings Patrons & Friends,
Thank you for a wonderful 2015 season! Little Wagon Produce is closed for the season. On a daily basis, we may have a few produce items available on our wagon for “self-service”. For those of you who stopped in the beginning, you know what this means!  However, we do have 2 upcoming holiday market dates to share with you. Please mark your calendars:
  1. Friday, Nov. 20 – Milton “Harvest Market”, Noon-4pm, on the grounds of Dogfish Brewery (featuring punkin ale), come enjoy the live music!
  2. Saturday, Nov. 21 – Milford Riverwalk 2nd Annual Fall Market, 10am2pm, downtown Milford, come get your Dolce coffee and take a stroll!
We plan to offer the following at these holiday markets:
  • Jams, jellies, honey, canned pickles
  • Spaghetti and acorn squash
  • Butternut and Hubbard squash (good for pie making)
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips
  • Holiday slates with wrought iron (pictured below)
  • Holiday flags with wrought iron (these make great holiday gifts!)
  • Possibly a few fresh greenery pieces (wreaths, garland, etc.)
  • Possibly a few fruit baskets and/or jam & jelly gift baskets
We hope the weather stays mild and would love to see you there! You can also check out our Fall/Winter Recipes on our website. We will be adding more throughout the winter.

If you have any specific needs over the winter, please give us a call at the house (not the stand): 302-349-5206. Thank you again for your business and we look forward to serving you in 2016. Have a blessed holiday season!

Sincerely,
Little Wagon Produce
Dan & Becky Vanderwende and Families

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Keeping It Simple-Top Questions this Season

Little Wagon Produce has been in business over 25 years. That’s a lot of time to reminisce and observe how customer preferences and questions change over the years. One transition we’ve seen is the way in which customers want their produce. For example, many non-locals want really small produce, especially when it comes to yellow and green squash.They want it little, before its even matured. This is challenging because it doesn’t keep well in the heat. Our locals usually want the exact opposite so we try to provide both options. I’m not sure why the preference for smaller. It doesn’t seem to taste as good to me and honestly, you get less for your money!

We also get a lot of questions on a daily basis. Customers want to know what’s in the field behind the stand. Mom explains the difference between soybeans, field corn, and sweet corn. At one time we even had a jar with shelled field corn and soybeans so we could show the difference. More and more customers are becoming removed from their food. They have never grown a garden or picked produce. But the questions are getting more complex. They may have read an article on GMO’s or the advantages of buying organic, but they have NO IDEA the physical effort it takes to grow, cultivate, and pick produce, especially corn, and even carry a full basket of corn. Farmer Dan even has carparl tunnel in his hands from pulling sweet corn so much. The consistent routine of twisting an ear off the stalk has given him much pain in his arm and elbow.

But just to give you some insight, here are a few customer questions from this season:

5. How many flowers are in a 6 pack? Yes, seriously, a customer really asked this.

4. Do we sell fishing poles? Uh, no. But maybe we should?

3. Is a green tomato ripe? No, a green tomato is not ripe. A red tomato is ripe. I still don’t think the customer understood.

2. Is our produce organic? No. Farmer Dan has a license to apply chemicals. He does so sparingly. Chemicals are very expensive so we do not waste them. A fellow farmer from Maryland wrote an excellent blog about how “Spraying isn’t Dousing“.

1.Is our sweet corn GMO? No. Although GMO sweet corn seed is available now, we have not tried it yet. Will we in the future? Possibly, if it yields well, has the same supersweet taste, and minimizes how many chemicals we spray topically. The customer shook his head and was not satisfied. His comment was, “It is GMO. How else do you get the bi-color (yellow and white) corn?”. Questions like this are getting harder to answer and the answer is not simple. Farmer Dan taught us that the customer is always right, but in this case, he was wrong. I’ll tell you more in my next blog…

As you can see from above, the questions vary tremendously. Some simple, some complex. There are many times where the markets are busy, the heat oppressive and questions are just too much. But Mom and Dad still go out of their way to be polite and try to educate them as much as possible. Our answers are simple. We tell the truth about our practices. We do not believe in false marketing and would never say we are organic just to attract customers. And we will never advertise that we are “GMO-free” just to attract more business.

Seeing how Mom and Dad treat customers with respect and tell them the truth taught us a lot growing up. It created a loyal, respectful business that our family is proud of. Our story never gets old. We had too much produce in our garden so we put out a wagon and an honor box. It grew from there. It’s that simple. We want to share our food and knowledge with you. So even as customer fads come and go, Little Wagon Produce will be answering your questions another 25 years from now. God willing.

Response to “Shame on Carney for GMO food vote”

In response to the Delaware State News article, “Shame on Carney for GMO food vote”on July 29, I would like to set the record straight regarding GMO food and labeling.

First of all, there are only eight crops commercially available from GMO seed in the United States. They are corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, alfalfa, sugar beets, papaya, and squash. I have seen many non-GMO labels in the grocery store already, such as on blueberries. This is unnecessary and confusing because blueberries have never been a GMO food. The same goes for canned pineapple and popcorn.

Furthermore, leading scientists and world health organization’s agree that GMO foods are safe to eat. Before GM crops can be released to the market, they are tested in ways that conventional and organic crops are not. If a study were ever to yield a result that raised any food safety concern, it is required by law that the information be presented to the FDA. Not a single case of ill health has originated from the consumption of these products for the past 20 years.

In reality, GMO labeling isn’t about a nutrition, health, or food safety issue. It’s about marketing. It’s a ploy where food companies try to capture your attention and separate their product from competitors on grocery shelves. It’s about capturing “fad” food preferences as well. For example, only 1% of the United States population suffers from celiac disease, which requires a gluten-free diet. However, gluten-free labels are everywhere. Food marketers have a history of taking advantage of consumer confusion.

Last but not least, it’s important to know for every dollar we spend on food, only about 16 cents goes to the farmer. Requiring labeling would pass a huge expense down to the farmer and even the consumer. So THANK YOU, Rep. Carney, for standing for science and Delaware’s #1 industry…….Agriculture.

For more information, please visit the links embedded in the article or go here and talk to a real farmer: http://findourcommonground.com/