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By Forrest Pritchard on November 27, 2012
I get the question all the time, even from close friends: “Now that the farmers markets are closed, what will you do this winter?” “But our markets stay open year-round,” I reply. Without fail, their expression becomes skeptical. “Really? What do you sell? Do any customers come?” “The chickens keep laying eggs, and the pigs keep growing. People don’t stop eating just because it’s winter. ” “Huh. I never really thought of it that way. But what else is at market in the winter?” Besides the free-range meat and eggs that our farm brings, dairies provide milk and cheese, bakers trundle fresh bread from their bakeries, and intrepid vegetable and fruit farmers offer cold-storage produce, or fresh greenhouse veggies. You certainly won’t find strawberries or tomatoes at our producer-only winter markets, but the spectrum of food that you will find is really quite amazing. I’m forever grateful that my ancestors settled in the Mid-Atlantic. The winters here are usually quite forgiving, with average January highs in the upper 30s. But even in Washington D.C., the year-round markets we attend are fully outdoors. There’s no off-loading to an indoor location, or parking beneath a permanent structure. We Beltway Farmers might not be renown for our toughness, but those who stick it out all winter are a pretty rugged bunch by the time late February rolls around! The idea of a year-round farmers market is a compelling story. For our small livestock farm, which employs 7 people, having year-round sales is vital; it’s the difference between laying several people off during the winter, or keeping them gainfully employed. Although our farm does little better than break-even during the winter months, winter markets are valuable because they provide the consistent cash flow we need to pay our bills. Plus, because our customers know they can count on us 12 months out of the year, there’s no longer a ‘slow time’ when the market starts back up in the spring. With a year-round market, shoppers gradually build a genuine connection to the seasonality of their local foodshed. Can your own local farmers market run year-round? Here are 3 tips that might help answer the question. 1) Talk to your farmers and producers NOW. Why right now? Because for many farmers markets around the country, producers are officially packing it in, and calling it a season. What better time to ask them about possibly extending their offerings for 2013? Canvas your local market, and gauge interest from the producers themselves about a year round market. They’ll need at least a year to ramp up production, build the necessary infrastructure, etc. 2) Help identify a sensible (read: cozy) location. Farmers don’t want to stand outside in 20 degree weather any more than the customers do. A few weeks ago, when I spoke at the 2012 Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, I learned that when winter rolls around, farmers in Maine sell their food inside a heated building in Brunswick. Even in Morgantown, West Virginia, where the winter conditions are typically more favorable than in Maine, the market is nestled under a large roof, protecting shoppers and farmers from freezing rain and snow. 3) Next winter, SHOW UP. You already know how hard it is to make a living at farming. Now, imagine some old farmer who has been persuaded (perhaps against her better judgement) to load a few bushels of potatoes and apples onto her truck, and drive 2 hours through the frigid early morning dark to market. She’s probably already wondering to herself if she’s crazy. But if the customers don’t come out and buy, then she’ll leave convinced that she is crazy. Moreover, she probably won't come back. If you believe in eating seasonally, and eating locally, then please come out and support your farmers year round! Even a modest $5 purchase, if enough people turn out, can make a big difference to a small farmer, and help them get a good start headed into next spring.
New York Times bestselling author Forrest has been farming professionally since 1996. His new book Growing Tomorrow, Behind the Scenes with 18 Extraordinary Sustainable Farmers Who Are Changing the Way We Eat debuted October 2015 by the award-winning press The Experiment.