by Marnie Record, workforce specialist, LLCC Value Added Local Food program
When the days are their shortest and the bitter winds blow, before the trees begin to bud and the red-wing blackbirds return from their southern home, some farmers bundle up and head out to unheated (occasionally heated) greenhouses to tend their crops. They traipse across frozen fields to care for animals taking refuge in the barn. They pull preserved fruits from the freezer to make jam. And they go into their cellars for roots such as carrots, potatoes and beets.
The Springfield Winter Farmers Market returns in January and will run monthly through April on the fourth Saturday of each month from 9 a.m.-noon at Third Presbyterian Church in Enos Park. This market started last winter to fill the previous gap between the summer markets starting mid-May and the last Springfield Holiday Farmers Markets the Saturday before Christmas.
Growing interest from eaters wanting to know how their food is grown emerged alongside new technologies and funding opportunities for winter food production. Now winter markets in some cold climate communities mirror the abundance and diversity of summer markets.
In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, the top 10 states for winter farmers markets include northern locations such as New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In Vermont, a state boasting the title of most farmers markets per capita, a small town of 12,000 people features nearly 30 vendors at their weekly winter market from November through April.
Eliot Coleman, co-owner of Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine, considered a pioneer and leader of year-round farming, authored a book called “The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses.” In this book he explains that their winter harvest has included 30 different cold-hardy vegetables, all in a village with average low temperatures of 11 degrees in January and 13 degrees in February.
During the first year of operations, the Springfield Winter Market featured nine vendors selling all of the same categories of foods that were available at the summer market including 10-15 varieties of vegetables, meats, cheeses, preserved vegetables, jams, dog treats and prepared foods.
We asked farmers what would make the winter market better. They said more shoppers. We asked consumers what stops them from spending more money at the farmers market. They said availability of products and price. In these two perspectives I see a gap, and believe we all have the opportunity to contribute to the solution. Every small act adds up to big changes. We can all play a role in building an accessible community food system where everything that can be grown or produced in our region fills winter menus, shelves, online ordering and farmers markets; where all residents have daily access to quality, nutritious foods freshly harvested by people sustainably managing our local resources.
Five ways we can help bridge the gap
Storage crops last all winter if properly stored. At Lincoln Land Community College, I harvested carrots mid-December and used the last of them at an event in mid-April, and they were equally as crisp and flavorful after storage as when they were harvested. The Springfield Holiday Farmers Market at the Orr building on Dec. 16 will have some items that might not be available in January. Buy them in bulk while you can and store them to last.
Preserve and Ferment
Do you want fresh-tasting sweet corn in December? Or flavorful tomatoes to make a delicious winter chili? Freeze produce in August when it’s most abundant and most affordable. Turn fall cabbage into sauerkraut for an inexpensive way to eat healthy all year. Most fruits, herbs and vegetables can be preserved at their peak for use throughout the winter.
Learn to cook
Think you don’t like Swiss chard? Try stuffing it in a calzone or adding it to other vegetables you like. Never tried sunchokes? Find a recipe and see what you think. Figure out how to cook sweet potatoes all week without tiring of sweet potatoes. The more comfortable you are in the kitchen, the more likely you will find ways to eat the foods grown locally and the better they will taste. Better yet, just tell yourself you like Swiss chard and sunchokes. Research shows that taste perceptions are biased by our imagination.
Buy what’s available locally
If you are planning to make mushroom quiche, but it’s not at the market a particular week, switch to spinach. Or you have 10 things on your list, but only four are available at the market, buy the four at the market and purchase the additional items elsewhere rather than skipping the market to get all of your list in one place.
Talk to farmers
When buying food directly from the person who grew it, you have the opportunity to learn, but you also have the influence to encourage the farmer to make changes and learn more themselves. If you’re not sure what to do with sweet potato vines, ask. If you want something that the farmer isn’t growing, tell them how much you want and when you want it. They might grow something new if enough people ask or they might already be growing it and not bringing it to the market.
Lincoln Land Community College offers credit programs in Value-Added Local Food, Culinary Arts, Hospitality Management, and Baking/Pastry, and non-credit cooking and food classes through our Community Learning Culinary Institute. For more information, visit our website at www.llcc.edu.