Monday, January 10, 2011

A Farmers Market Blooms In Winter!

MatthewIt finally happened! My hometown (Somerville, Massachusetts) has a winter farmer’s market. As a former farmer, I find acquiring food to be a daunting task. Nothing in my local grocery store’s produce section looks or tastes as fresh or vibrant as produce from a local farm. So, I tend not to eat enough vegetables in the winter. I have no idea where the other products in the grocery store come from, so I end up stocking up on meat and fish when I am out in farm country or on the coast.

But this winter is different. My town jut started its own indoor winter market. I live close to the Farm Aid office, so the whole office is abuzz with excitement as well. This is the only winter market within a half hour’s drive. So those of us who don’t have winter CSA shares now have a place to buy our farm-fresh food.



The first market was this past Saturday and boy, was it a hit! The market opened at 10 a.m. and when I arrived at the building at 11a.m., there were scores of families coming and going for blocks. Moms and dads were lugging their canvas totes with baguettes and daikon radishes reaching out, begging to be snacked on. Kids in strollers were coveting their gingerly nibbled carrots like Charlie with his golden ticket. It was clear, even before entering the market, that this was a much anticipated day.

When I got inside, I was impressed by how many people were fit into the space and how friendly the atmosphere was considering the crowds. Some vendors had lines that wrapped around the market area and most people were waiting patiently and optimistically. Marketgoers knew that, as much as they were here to get food for themselves, they were also there to support local farmers. Most people had polite smiles on their faces and were talking to neighbors in line. It seemed that either everyone knew each other, or the neighborly atmosphere was too powerful to resist reaching out to one another.

After speaking to some of the vendors, I found that they hoped the crowds were going to be as big as they were, but they did not expect it. Some vendors felt that they could have brought more help, but their poise and composure was steadfast. The farmers diligently weighed mounds of storage crops for each shopper then smiled widely as they got the occasional praise from a thankful eater. Meat producers offered friendly tips for cooking cuts of meat from their bison or goat while attempting to bag and tally their order. The beekeeper explained with enthusiasm, the benefits of raw, local honey as concisely as possible to accommodate those who were waiting patiently to get their hands on the apiary gold. The fishmonger, repeatedly explained how the small fleets of New England are responsible with their catch limits with patience and passion while trying to warm her near-frozen fingertips (which were a result from constantly sorting through the frosty cooler for fillets).

The winter market model is another way for New England farmers to earn supplemental income. Currently, farmers are using season extension and community supported agriculture shares to mitigate the wide swing in income due to our nearly 6-month hiatus on outdoor vegetable production when almost no income is coming in. Farmers now have an opportunity to stockpile storage vegetables that had a reduced value in its peak season, but now have a higher value in the winter when the availability is limited. It’s as if farmers have put the crops in the bank then withdrew them in the winter to earn a slight return on savings.

The organizers of the market (The city’s Shape-Up Somerville program) had a great vision for this market. They were very successful in bringing all kinds of local producers so the market would have widespread interest. There were local vineyards offering tastings, fish sellers from local ports, in-town bakers, in-state meat producers of all kinds, and there was even one farmer who had some organic citrus from Florida. The organizers set dogma aside to offer a more complete shopping experience. This seemed to appeal to more customers, resulting in better sales for farmers. I hope that this market illustrates demand for locally available winter products and results in some more permanent market shifts.

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