Giving thanks for the winter market

Winter farmers' market in Troy, New York. Photo by Bennet V.

By Renee Ciulla

Every September I ask myself the same thing: “Where did summer go?”  There is never enough time to fully enjoy the bounty of vegetables and the income stream they provide to the small farmer. The winter farmers’ markets sprouting up in dozens of frosty, northern-latitude towns is cause for celebration both for eaters and growers. Impressively resourceful venues have been discovered including school gymnasiums, churches, Grange buildings, community art centers, and greenhouse businesses (which are thrilled to have a sudden stream of customers in the heart of winter). These markets are often managed by a dedicated crew of volunteers, although some have also created non-profits based around their valuable work.

On the seacoast of New Hampshire the non-profit organization Seacoast Eat Local (SEL) is entering its fifth winter market season. The Exeter high school gymnasium or Wentworth greenhouses host the SEL winter market from mid-November through the end of April. Consumer demand has risen every year and, according to Sara Zoe Patterson, the coordinator for Seacoast Eat Local, one thing that has helped has been cooking demonstrations and recipes. Consumer education about winter foods has positively influenced sales.

The spread from Brookford Farm at the Seacoast Eat Local
winter market. Photo copyright Seacoast Eat Local.

Heron Pond Farm located in South Hampton, New Hampshire has grown for the SEL winter markets the last four years. Co-owners Andre Cantelmo and Greg Balog sell a variety of vegetables including stored greens like cabbage, kohlrabi and brussel sprouts; fresh greens; stored root crops and apples. “Winter markets are more than important, they are vital to the longevity of the farm,” says Cantelmo. “We can’t survive without the winter markets.” Between their 200-family winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and participation in the winter farmers’ market scene, Cantelmo says the farm makes more money in the winter than in the summer. And the financial ripple effect of the winter market not only allows Cantelmo and Balog to continue to collect an income, but also allows them to employ three of their seven summer workers over the winter months.

Cantelmo (who simultaneously provided entertaining farm commentary while calculating seeding rates for winter greens in greenhouse beds during our interview) warns that New Hampshire winter markets might be at risk of failing from their own success. More and more small New Hampshire towns want their own farmers’ market, running the risk of hurting overall sales for farmers since the number of consumers is not increasing at the same rate. But Cantelmo is undeterred. This winter Heron Pond Farm will sell at several New Hampshire markets including Raymond, Rye, Rollinsford and Exeter, and driving to a market in Somerville, Massachusetts.

In Bozeman, Montana, where Jack Frost can drop over 80 inches of snow from October through May, farmers banded together to form a winter market cooperative four years ago. The market, which is held every other weekend from October until April, is supplied by 11 farmers and ranchers and is conveniently located downtown in the Emerson Art Center. Vendors offer storage crops, fresh greens, meats, cheese, soaps, fibers and value-added products made from local ingredients, but market manager Mary Schaad says people still have a hard time believing local foods are available in the depths of winter. “Many hear ‘winter farmers market’ and think ‘craft market,’” says Schaad. “We have to remind people that locally grown and raised products are available year round.”

Storage pears from White Gate Farm at the Seacoast Eat Local winter market in New
Hampshire are a reminder that local winter foods are not only available, but delicious.
Photo copyright Seacoast Eat Local.

The true challenge for the Montana state food system, according farmer Dean Williamson, is to make local food available all year. Williamson sells produce from Three Hearts Farm at the Bozeman winter markets. For him, the winter markets are just one revenue stream among many, and not always a particularly robust one. Although the markets themselves are larger now in terms of vendors, consumers seem to be buying less produce. However, Williamson has noticed a definite increase in the numbers of consumers over the years at the winter markets. And because the market was created by farmers, there are strict rules that all food be grown by the vendor within the state and only farm products can be sold there. “We need more education about seasonality and to reconnect people with the land,” says Williamson, pointing to preserving and processing techniques as vital education for winter market goers.

While the markets are not the end solution for how to increase local food within the economy, they are one way to increase consumer education which can pave the way for longer lasting infrastructure change and paradigm shifts. “What's nice and a bit cynical is that farmers can lead the change and no one is going to disparage a hard working, not-making-any-money farmer,” says Williamson. “We can revolutionize with impunity. And damned if I'm not trying to take advantage.”

Upstate New York is home to another winter market success story. The first time I visited the Troy Winter Market I was surprised at both the number of vendors (63!) and the continual stream of happy shoppers. The market is held in the heart of the downtown business district in the Uncle Sam Atrium where walls of windows let in abundant light and two open-concept floors encourage bustling activity. There is live music, vendors serving lunch and dozens of farmers every Saturday from November until April.

Holiday shopping at the winter farmers' market in Troy, New York.
Photo by Bennet V./Flickr.

Managed solely by one market manager (Monica Kurzejeski), this display of New York producers and artisans is a long-running testament to the stamina of consumer demand for organic, local products. “The Troy farmers market has such a wide selection of food and crafts, I can do all my holiday shopping at once,” says market regular Laura McCarthy. Although many winter markets emphasize “farmer & food only”, McCarthy says the presence of the second floor craft, jewelry and soap vendors was an added bonus for holiday shopping. From colorful root vegetables to locally brewed beer to handmade marshmallows and raspberry spun honey, buying local turns into a weekend event, complete with food and live music.

Winter farmers’ markets are a fantastically fun, lively and in most cases, an economically viable way to increase local food sales and extend the joy and flavors of the fleeting summer bounty. They are not only making it easier, but downright pleasurable, to eat more locally all year round, and are creating a renaissance for some vegetables that have gotten short shrift with the industrialization and globalization of our food system. And direct-to-consumer farmers are benefiting from the year-round income. If you are fortunate to have a winter market in your locale, enjoy! For those who don’t, a local food project challenge awaits you...

Renee Ciulla is a vegetable grower, teacher and writer based on the New Hampshire Seacoast. Besides growing and eating local food, she loves being in the mountains and finding mountain goats.

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