Opinion: Winter Farmers’ Markets Provide Respite

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, January 31, 2016, by Claire Morenon

Photo by Elizabeth Solaka

Perhaps you’ve read one of the recent articles and books exploring the Danish concept of “hygge,” which roughly translates to a sense of coziness, familiarity, and conviviality in everyday experiences and objects: flickering candles on a long night, hot tea with friends, slippers and fuzzy sweaters. As we slog through the longest, coldest part of winter, our sense of well-being depends on making note of and taking part in the pleasures that are unique to the season.

If you haven’t visited one of the farmers markets that persevere all winter long, snow or shine, add it to your hygge list! You can find your closest market here. Winter farmers markets provide respite from the cold and dark: a friendly place to mingle with friends and neighbors, a comfy spot for a cup of hot soup, and the perfect weekend destination for stir-crazy kids (and adults). And, of course, there’s the market itself — booths piled high with a truly stunning array of leafy greens, winter veggies, mushrooms, fruit, meat, cheese, eggs, honey, maple syrup, dried herbs, jam, pickles, baked goods, and more beautiful handmade goods and crafts than we can mention. There’s no better place to pick up ingredients for rich stews and roasts and whatever other nourishment you crave during this time of year.

Of course, winter farmers markets aren’t just a gift for shoppers. Reliable winter markets can significantly increase a farm’s income, and stretching that income through the winter eases the crunch of steep expenses in the spring.This also gives a boost to farms that don’t see a significant seasonal shift in product availability, like honey or meat producers, but which share seasonal markets with produce growers. And year-round sales translate into year-round employment, offering better jobs to skilled staff and a reliable workforce for local farms.

For all the benefits that winter sales bring to farmers, the transition to a year-round operation is a costly one, requiring specific on-farm infrastructure such as storage facilities for vegetables, greenhouses for hardy winter greens, appropriate space for washing and packing produce in freezing weather, and insulated vehicles for transporting cold-sensitive produce.

Growing the produce for year-round sales requires additional inputs, including land, seeds, equipment, and staff time during the busiest seasons on the farm. While growing food is always a risky and weather-dependent endeavor, winter brings additional challenges, such as extremely narrow harvest windows for winter greens and the constant vigilance required during storms to keep greenhouses from collapsing under the weight of the snow. Winter markets are clustered on Saturdays, so bad weather that one day translates to poor sales and weak returns on that entire week’s work.

Local farmers started making these investments in the hope that growing consumer interest in local food and farms would extend into the winter months, and the earliest winter farmers markets demonstrated a robust year-round appetite for seasonal fare. The first weekly winter market in the state opened in Northampton in the winter of 2009-2010, coming on the heels of several years of very successful one-day Winter Fare markets in Greenfield. Today, there are farmers markets that run all winter long in Amherst, Greenfield, Northampton, Springfield, and Wilbraham, and local food is available at more retailers and restaurants during the winter months, too.

The growth of the winter farmers markets and related sales outlets over the past eight years has been truly amazing. But we can’t forget that they are still young and vulnerable to changing tastes and a changing retail environment. The costs of running a winter market are much higher than those of their summer counterparts; renting suitable indoor spaces costs up to several hundred dollars per week, including janitorial services to clean up after every use. Markets function on razor-thin margins, so managers have to fill all available vendor spaces to cover the overhead costs, and simultaneously ensure that customers’ dollars aren’t being spread among too many vendors — it has to be lucrative enough for participating farmers to justify the costs of attending.

So, consider swapping out the tomatoes from Florida for carrots from Hadley a little more often. Make space in your schedule to visit a winter market, if you haven’t before. And if you stop in a couple times a year, see if you can make it a couple of times a month. Winter markets have created a space for us to convene on cold winter mornings and fill our shopping bags with the bounty of the Valley, even when the ground is frozen solid. Let’s meet them there.

Claire Morenon is communications manager at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield.