By Marnie Record, workforce specialist, LLCC Value Added Local Foods program
When the colorless barren landscape extends as far as the eye can see and the bitter cold temperatures creep into your core this winter, step inside one of the growing number of high tunnels dotted across the Illinois plains. High tunnels, also known as hoop houses, are sun-heated structures typically with steel beams and plastic covering that allow farmers in cold climates to extend the growing season. When covering is applied to the crop rows, the temperatures inside a high tunnel can easily be 30 degrees warmer than outside. Against the drab Midwest winter, the contrasting bright leafy greens and solar heating inside a high tunnel come as close to a Florida vacation as you can get without leaving the state.
High tunnels are one method farmers practice today that give consumers greater access to local food in the winter months. Depending on the severity of the winter, hardy greens and root crops can grow all winter under high tunnels in Central Illinois. In addition, long-time farming wisdom provides lessons in the proper storage of cold crops to eat locally year-round. Under ideal temperatures, cold crops can store for four to six months without losing their flavors and textures. We harvested carrots from the high tunnels at Lincoln Land Community College in December when snow covered the ground and they tasted just as fresh and delicious when they were eaten in April when flowers bloomed outside.
The rise of winter crop production in Illinois follows a similar trend nationally. In 2010, the USDA National Farmer’s Market Directory listed 886 winter farmer’s markets. Today the number has grown to 8,497 (an 859% increase in five years). The expanded adoption of hoop house technology, which has enabled many smaller growers to extend their production at a low cost, has been a contributing factor to the growth of winter farmers markets. Two area farmers installed high tunnels on their farms this past year to offer more locally grown produce to Springfield residents, and more farmers are expected to follow with newly available government assistance programs.
Springfield offers several opportunities to purchase the fresh flavors of locally-grown food produced by area farmers during the winter. Following is a selection of these markets:
Starting this fall, Lincoln Land Community College operates a campus farm stand on Wednesday’s through Dec. 9 in the Workforce Careers Center to sell high tunnel produce grown at the college and bring local food to the community in winter months.
The Illinois Stewardship Alliance hosts two Holiday Farmer’s Markets that feature at least 35 vendors from central Illinois selling a wide variety of products, including pasture-raised turkeys, pork, beef, poultry, eggs, cheese, honey and Illinois wine. Fresh greens, garlic, potatoes, squash, radishes, carrots, apples and many other varieties of produce will also be available. The ninth year of Holiday Farmer’s Markets will be on Saturday, Nov. 21 and Saturday, Dec. 19 from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. in the Illinois Building at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
Several area farmers offer online markets with designated places to pick up the orders. With this format, a farm employee typically sends out an email listing the current availability and shoppers fill out an order form. Customers then pick up their order at the specified location. Oak Tree Organics offers a weekly market for their pork, beef and seasonal vegetables with a pick-up location near Washington Park in Springfield. Triple S Farms offers a monthly Buying Club for their wide selection of pork, beef, and poultry products with eight Central Illinois pick-up locations. And Sugar Grove Family Farms delivers pasture raised chicken, eggs and pork and 100 percent grass and forage fed beef to the Springfield area.
Some farm stands stay open into the winter months. Suttil’s Gardens has a huge selection of cold crops such as sweet potatoes, pecans, winter squashes, a variety of greens, cabbage and more at their farm stand open daily until Thanksgiving. The Apple Barn, open until Christmas, features a selection of local value-added products that include jams and jellies, apple cider slushies, dehydrated fruits and meats.
Outside the Springfield area, PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta, Ill. offers a winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program which is sold out for 2015, but their website offers information about joining the eight week subscription program next year. Winter produce grown on the farm includes brussel sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, leeks, scallions, kohlrabi, bok choi, beets, garlic, carrots, celeriac, turnips, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter radish, cilantro, dill, salad mix, spinach, arugula and kale. Stay tuned to sign up for their Know Your Roots Box starting in January which offers pick-up every two weeks of root crops.
Increasingly, area grocery stores are stocking more local food products throughout the year, often noted with special signage. Bruce Williams, produce manager at Food Fantasies, says he buys from local farmers as much as is available during the winter which typically includes various greens such as salad mix and kale, sprouts and yams and other root vegetables. “Local produce sells as fast as we can get it. The food we get from farmers is beautiful,” he says. Bruce also notes that the ability to source local produce trails off in the deep winter months as the daily light diminishes thereby limiting plant growth for area farmers, but is hopeful that sourcing options will increase with new high tunnel growers like Small Axe Market Gardens. In addition to produce, Food Fantasies carries a wide selection of local meats, cheeses, eggs and dairy year-round.
Want to know more? Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, Baking/Pastry, and Value Added Local Food, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Education Culinary Institute.
Cooking or food questions? Email firstname.lastname@example.org