This is one of my favorite times of the year. New and old traditions bring friends and family together to celebrate, cheer for their favorite football teams or just to share a hearty meal and some spirited conversations. As the weather gets cooler, my family gravitates toward comfort foods and traditional family favorites, picking up fresh ingredients from our local winter farmers market. And, based on the growth in winter market listings this year, we’re not the only ones who have made this a part of our fall and winter traditions.
USDA’s National Farmers Market Directory now lists 1,864 winter markets. That’s up 52 percent from last year. That means winter markets—markets that operate at least once between November and March—now account for nearly 24 percent of the directory’s 7,865 farmers markets.
In the past, winter—especially in climates with shorter growing seasons—often meant lower revenue income for farmers. But with wider use of cost-effective options like hoop houses and more affordable eco-friendly greenhouse heating options, small and mid-sized farmers are now able to extend their growing seasons, making year-round markets more viable. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) support these types of local food efforts through initiatives like the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, and the seasonal high tunnel pilot.
For example, in 2009 the Alcona Local Foods Association in Harrisville, Michigan, received an FMPP grant to establish a cooperative hoop house, also called seasonal high tunnels. The hoop house has helped local farmers lengthen the short Michigan growing season by two full months, using natural sunlight to keep soil and crops warm into the fall. When the produce is harvested, it is sold at a local winter market.
In Skipperville, Alabama, landowners Earl and Clarisse Snell, participated in a seasonal high tunnel pilot in 2011 sponsored by NRCS. The program helped the Snells implement eco-friendly initiatives while extending their growing season and helping them diversify their crop offering. The pilot was offered under USDA’s Know your Farmer, Know your Food initiative, which aims to increase the use of sustainable agricultural practices and promote consumption of fresh, local food.
Local farmers markets have also used USDA grants to develop targeted marketing campaigns help draw new and old customers to their winter markets. An extended growing and selling season allows more farmers to connect with consumers throughout the year, also helping them increase revenue. Consumers gain access to more fresh foods, while their purchases support and strengthen the local economy and local farms.
For me, my local winter market has also been a great place to meet my neighbors, catch up with friends and spend time with family while we get all the fixings for our favorite winter comfort foods. Find out if one of our new winter market listings is in your area and start some of your own new traditions.