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.
Great blog post Forrest!! In the Des Moines metro/central Iowa area, I only know of the Des Moines Farmers Market for having two ‘winter market weekends’. The others, much smaller and often on weekday evenings, fizzle out pretty early in the fall–earlier than my own garden was done for the season! Those special ‘winter market weekends’–one just before Thanksgiving and one just before Christmas–great weekends to have markets for those holiday dinners, undoubtedly hint that winter markets are possible if the demand is there. Most people eat special holiday dinners, so pre-holiday markets make sense. BUT, most people also continue to eat regular dinners throughout the winter, so how about giving year-round markets a try? I often wish the markets continued throughout the whole year–especially with the nice weather we’ve had lately! However, traveling nearly an hour just to get to the Des Moines market myself, I am not what you would call a loyal customer by any means, so thank you for pointing out that the CONSUMER plays a huge role in fueling that transition–a true challenge to make a stronger effort to support local farmers more regularly! Thanks and good luck this winter!
Thanks Lynsi. It’s great to hear that Des Moines has at least a few winter offerings… being a Mid-Atlantic farmer, I can only imagine the production and marketing challenges that my Midwestern peers must face. Still, it seems like a situation where intention infrastructure could help combat some of the weather challenges, but like I’ve seen other ‘wintry’ parts of the country. From my own experience, if the markets can simply tap into the momentum of the regular season, and educate the ‘regular season’ customers that the market is going year-round, the response is incredibly positive. Couple that with a warmer or protected location, and the possibilities for a market with no closing date becomes a compelling opportunity.
With the advent of high tunnels, vegetable farmers in Virginia and elsewhere can now grow through the winter – producing crops like lettuce, kale, chard, carrots, beets, and scallions. Yields are lower through the winter months though, so you should be prepared to pay a higher price for off-season produce – and farmers should be asking for that higher price!
I’m constantly amazed at the innovation and perseverance of vegetable farmers… the capabilities for year-round production is not only inspiring, but it seems to be increasingly sustainable and practical as well. It’s remarkable to think that 365 days of vegetables (leafy green vegetables like the ones you listed, I mean!) is a real possibility. Keep up the inspiring work!
Excellent and timely issue, Forest. We’re working on a space for year-round market here in the panhandle, and considering offering freezer space for regular business, along the lines of Wild Ramp in Huntington WV. You’ve laid out some of the main issues involved, and I’ll be curious to hear more. Building a community dedicated to maintaining the connection to local food year round is truly getting to the heart of community building.
Thanks for the feedback, Joy, and I’d love to see a year-round space in Jefferson or Berkeley County.
I’m not familiar with what’s happening at Wild Ramp… care to elaborate?
We love the year-round market in Arlington VA. Our routine is to stop at the market first and get everything on our list we possibly can, then fill in the blanks at Whole Foods or Harris Teeter. It’s a great year round routine if your market is open and gives your local farmers the most business. It really is great to know who raises your food and how they do it.
As one of your farmers, we’re so grateful that you conscientiously shop this way.
Of course, Whole Foods is supplied by organic farmers as well, but their distribution network provides outlets to locations where there’s no year round farmers markets just down the block (as is the case with Courthouse). My point is, I’m not going to knock anyone for shopping at a supermarket in the winter -especially if there’s no year round market- but don’t forget to support your little winter market as well!
People always ask me the same question as a market go-er. What is at the market in mid-winter?! I, of course, love educating them. I also love bundling the family and seeing you and our other favorite farmers. Once it’s below freezing at the market you get a knowing nod from other marketers, and can feel the connection between us all. I’ve come to love the sparse mid- February markets most of all for that reason. Also, because we eat so locally- it’s fun to watch the anticipation rise as we push through till march when hopes of spring veggies start games among us wondering what will show up week to week.
That’s a great way to put it… there’s an undeniably human connection that takes place as the season continues through the winter. It’s something that simply can’t exist in the climate-controlled box stores, or even in the lush produce displays of a February Whole Foods. Of course, this type of connection isn’t for everyone, and that’s reflected by local & organic food still comprising way less than 5% of all food consumed. The more we can make this seasonal/human connection, the more valuable the experience will become for everyone.
Here are a couple of links on Wild Ramp…..you may enjoy checking out their piece-it-together-as-we-can story. We’re hoping to garner some insights from them as we work on a local solution here in Jefferson Co.
I love that they are working slowly and steadily towards a sustainable project, definitely done in a creative way, that works for farmers and purchasers.
And thanks for the conversation here, Forrest.
Our market in Franklin County Kentucky, has had a winter market about every 3 weeks for the past two winters. It is organized by a farmer growing lettuce, spinach and other greens in a high tunnel. This past winter, one of the beef producing farms joined her, along with a couple others with cold storage veggies and the lady who makes beer cheese. The organizing farmer sends an email mid-week to the customers about what will be available and takes orders until Friday morning. The farmers show up for about 1 1/2 hours on Saturday morning. We’ve really enjoyed getting fresh greens and local beef in the winter, and hope the winter market continues to expand.
Fantastic! Speaking from experience, I know that these winter sales ate incredibly important to local farmers. In fact, sometimes it can be the difference between throwing in the towel, or firing up the operation for another season. Glad to hear things are going year-round in Kentucky!