Winter farmers markets are a hot new trend in local food. According to the US Department of Agriculture, there are 898 winter farmers markets in the US, a 17 percent increase over the past two years. In Massachusetts, the number of winter markets doubled from 8 to 16 in just one year.
At a “Winter Marketing in New England” presentation in a packed room at the recent Harvest New England Agricultural Marketing Conference, Winter Caplanson, one of the organizers of the Coventry [Connecticut] Regional Farmers Market, stated that their Winter Market attracts about 500 people on a good day, about one-tenth of the turnout at their incredibly popular summer market. Unlike the summer market, however, where people may just come to hang out and enjoy the live entertainment and atmosphere, people at the Winter Market are “there to buy,” Caplanson said.
Selling consumers on the concept of buying local food in winter requires some education. When organizers were deciding whether to start a Winter Market two years ago, they surveyed the 2500 people on their summer eNewsletter list. According to Caplanson, consumers commented, “Too bad there are no local foods available in the winter time.” In response, market organizers developed posters that say, “Yes, we grow ALL this…in the winter” to educate consumers that local foods are available year round.
The Wayland Winter Market at Russell’s Garden Center in Wayland, Mass., has also done a great job educating and attracting consumers. Their web site states:
“The conditions in New England are not optimal for growing vegetables in the winter, but local farmers can grow root crops like carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips and more, during the summer, and these can be stored and sold during the winter months. Greenhouses make it possible for farmers to provide a large variety of greens and herbs year round.”
Last week, I made the 45-minute drive from my home in Jamaica Plain to visit the Wayland Market on its final day of the season. As I strolled through the sunny greenhouse, I was serenaded by folk musicians playing oldies. The 30+ vendors were selling cheeses, bread, jam, fish, baked goods, pasta, pickles, pork, cheeses, honey, bagels, cookies, salsa, eggs, coffee, chocolate, cheeses, lamb, maple syrup, Middle Eastern food, and grass-fed Black Angus Beef and more, but just a handful were selling vegetables.
Although I knew what type of produce to expect at a winter market in the northeast United States, I confess I was a little disappointed by what I saw when I started shopping shortly before closing. While I purchased some delicious parsnips, rutabaga, and turnips, I missed out on any greens or tomatoes that might have been available earlier. However, I enjoyed being able to sit at a table and lunch on a freshly-cooked cod cake sandwich with cole slaw tucked into a soft bun from Dave’s Cape Cod Smokehouse, accompanied by a tasty Fair Trade Ethiopian Sidamo decaf from Karma Coffee Roasters.
Markets, of course, are not just about shopping and eating. They are also places where people gather, learn and share. Like the marketing in Coventry, the Wayland market also features a small number of crafts and non-food items, and holds special events, such as a Wool Day. On the day I was there, Deborah Taylor, from Deborah’s Kitchen, ran a cooking demo where she showed us how to make our own low-sugar fruit spreads and shared how she creates her award-winning flavor combinations.
Winter markets are relatively new for most farmers as well as consumers. Farmers who are geared up for selling in warm weather months have to create a new planting calendar to supply the winter markets. Consumers may have to travel a little further to find a winter market and may need to learn how to cook new foods. I’m sure that, over time, supply and demand will be aligned.
Patrick Smith, from Red Fire Farm in Granby, Mass., told me that Red Fire participates in other winter markets, and Wayland Winter Market is one of the better ones. “It’s bright, colorful and cheery. We come from Springfield, so it’s got to be worth it.” He concluded, “This market’s been a blessing. It’s paid back everything we expected to recover and then some.”
A winter market is a blessing I hope to have in my own neighborhood, Jamaica Plain, someday soon.