While the weather outside might be frightful, it only makes a winter farmers’ market all the more delightful. Farmers’ markets, traditionally held in more temperate months, are known for their fresh, delicious produce, baked goods and crafts. The festivity and camaraderie between farmers, crafters, artisans and their customers actually may draw more people to a farmers’ market than the fresh food does. But cold months tend to put the kibosh on such markets in areas where the thermometer dips below freezing.
There is hope though. Winter farmers’ markets are sprouting up all around the country. While summer markets are packed with fresh tomatoes, squash, melons and more, many people might wonder what offerings are brought to a winter market. Most people don’t realize that a winter market can feature more than root vegetables and an odd bunch of winter greens. These markets are stocked with fresh baked goods, canned jams and pickled vegetables, handmade craft and artisan items, fresh cheeses, organic meats, and hot, ready-made foods.
John Hendrickson works as the senior outreach specialist in the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hendrickson, who is an organic farmer in addition to his work at the university, believes that the increase in winter farmers’ markets is twofold.
“One is on the customer side,” says Hendrickson about the increasing popularity of winter markets. “A lot of people are committed to buying locally, eating locally and supporting farmers. They don’t want the market to end … the other side is the producers who have additional product to sell.”
In winter, Hendrickson says, farmers often suffer from lowered incomes. Winter markets help with positive cash flow during a time of year that is financially challenging.
“Winter markets, I would guess, won’t bring in as many sales as the growing season,” Hendrickson says. “But it will help to bridge that gap and bring in some cash flow.” In Madison, Hendrickson says the farmers’ market has been a year-round event for the past seven years. The market draws approximately 50 vendors and many more shoppers.
“I think farmers’ markets on a whole have become a lot more popular,” says Elizabeth Henderson, of Peacework Organic Farm in Newark, New York. “Many more consumers are excited about eating locally grown food, and they are flocking to farmers’ markets and CSAs.”
Peacework Organic Farm offers a summer Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Henderson also sits on the board of the New York Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). She says that while winter markets may be growing in popularity, they are also a lot of work for farmers. It requires a substantial investment, Henderson says, to do a good job of growing and preserving foods during warmer months for winter sales.
“(When) storing root crops on a large scale, you need to have proper storage with good ventilation and a good temperature,” Henderson says. Otherwise a farmer risks losing a lot of time and money on spoiled crops. “Personally, I prefer to work harder in the warm months and use the winter months to relax,” she says.
For many farmers and artisans, winter markets provide a great way to stay connected with their summer customers. They also help fill up what can be long and dreary days of winter.
Vermont, a state known for its long winters, has seen a recent influx of winter farmers’ markets. Currently, 18 markets throughout the state are open in the winter months. Sellers at the newly formed Burlington winter farmers’ market were pleasantly surprised with the popularity of the new venue. The city’s summer market includes everything from potted plants to fresh produce, to artwork and handbags, and it has 162 vendors participating weekly. Hundreds of people come to browse and buy in the farmers’ market, which is held in a city park. The popularity of Burlington’s summer market, according to Market Manager Chris Wagner, was part of the impetus to start a winter market. The cold-weather market, which began in 2008, runs from November through April and is held one Saturday each month for four hours. The indoor market is located in downtown Burlington, and, on a Saturday in February, it is packed with smiling faces in winter garb. Customers troll the aisles for the best winter vegetables, frozen meats, fresh eggs and potted plants. Local musicians playing acoustic music provide a festive vibe to the marketplace.
Wagner says the winter and summer markets must maintain a balance of at least 55 percent agricultural products, which helps maintain the integrity of the markets. In addition to fresh or frozen food products, vendors of both markets sell ready-made foods. Leaving the cold, snowy street and entering the February market, visitors are embraced by the scent of hot spices and warm sugar. Vendors at various booths prepare a diverse selection of hot and cold foods. Raw and vegan foods, along with Himalayan, Mexican and maple baked goods are just a sampling of the ready-to-eat foods that grace tables at the winter market. There are also handmade craft and artisan items for sale including dried flower arrangements, honey, purses, candles, aprons and more.
Pedro Salas, owner of Bee Happy Vermont, sells his Vermont honey and beeswax candles at the winter market. Salas, who lives in Starksboro, has been a beekeeper for the past 10 years.
“This is my main job,” he says as he surveys the crowd from his booth. “I’m surviving just because of the winter markets.” Salas participates in other local winter markets as well and says his most popular items are beeswax taper candles and fresh honeycomb.
“It’s wonderful,” Salas says of the winter market, “nothing better.”
Joanne James, Lakes End Cheeses owner and operator, also was pleasantly surprised by the overall popularity of the market. Joanne, along with her husband, Alton, owns a goat farm in Alburgh and creates artisan goat cheese as well as handmade chocolates. The farm also has chickens that produce free-range eggs.
“It’s better than expected for a first-time market,” Joanne says as she straightens her wares between customers. She participates in a number of summer farmers’ markets in the area where she lives, but this is her first experience with a winter farmers’ market. Her free-range eggs were hugely popular. “They’ve been going like crazy,” she says.
The size of the crowd is impressive. Emma, a 20-something from Burlington, says this is her first winter farmers’ market.
“I love the summer market,” she says, “so I thought I’d just show up.” She has purchased mostly food items, fresh produce and some jars of pickles.
Sue, who is from the neighboring town of Shelburne, also has purchased produce, along with some fresh baked bread.
“It just keeps the momentum going,” she says of the winter market. “Especially on a day like today.”
Geneil Fife, along with her husband and daughter, staff the “Geni’s Raw Vegan Foods” table. Lynn Fife, Geneil’s husband, says they were surprised by the large turnout at the cold-weather market.
“For us, it (business) has increased dramatically each week,” he says. The Fifes began their journey into raw foods in the late 1990s. In addition to raw foods such as ginger pumpkin seeds and flaxseed crackers that they sell at the market, Geneil also teaches classes on raw food preparation. Many people surround the raw food table, tasting samples of the foods and asking questions about a raw food diet.
Meanwhile, Christa Alexander, one of the owners of Jericho Settlers’ Farm in Jericho, answers one customer’s question while simultaneously bagging up produce for another.
“It’s been great,” she says of the market. “We were really impressed with the turnout.”
Jericho Settlers’ Farm produces pasture-raised chicken and pork as well as grass-fed beef and lamb. They also produce eggs, vegetables and flowers in the summer months and participate in Burlington’s summer market. According to Alexander, 75 percent of the farm’s sales are “off the farm” sales, meaning sales that occur directly from the farm and through its CSA. The farm sells some eggs and pork wholesale, but, for the most part, the farmer-to-customer connection is an invaluable part of its business.
It’s that connection, between the farmer or artisan and the customer, that is at the heart of farmers’ markets. While customers feel good knowing their food was grown by someone they know, in a manner they feel comfortable with, farmers come to depend on local customers for their income. A relationship builds over time, and the cycle produces beautiful results.
“I think there’s probably some truth to the saying that local produce does taste better,” Hendrickson says. He also believes there is a psychological element to buying local foods from people you know.
“… I think that there is some emotional, psychological effect on your taste buds,” he says. “It really can make our life more fulfilling if we have a connection to our food.”
An environmental freelance journalist and green copywriter, Joy Perrino Choquette lives with her family in Vermont.