By Nancy Cohen
BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — The sky is spitting snow in Brattleboro, Vermont. But people are staying warm indoors at the weekly winter farmer’s market, where local growers are selling food they've grown specially for sale in the coldest months of the year.
Anthony Girard of Higley Hill Farm is hawking an emerald-green salad mix. “Spinach, claytonia, beet greens and endive in it. We have two different types of mustard greens,” Girard said.
|Fresh spinach sold by Dwight Miller Orchards at the Brattleboro, Vermont Winter Farmer's Market. (Photo by Nancy Eve Cohen)|
Girard has flipped the traditional growing season upside down by planting in September inside a greenhouse. “We’re just keeping our fingers crossed that things stay alive as they are,” Girard said.
Farmer Emily Amana is at a nearby booth. “It’s year-round income for farmers, which is a pretty rare thing," Amana said.
Amana is selling pastured pork, grass-fed lamb and a colorful array of winter squash.
“I’m changing what I’m planting in the spring knowing that I’m going to have more of a marketing opportunity in the winter, a little more of storage winter crops,” Amana said.
The farmers say they’re responding to customer demand. About 800 people come here every week, including Cathy Wilkens, who wants local food.
“Got to have fresh spinach! Not trucked in from California,” Wilkens said.
John Levin just bought some potatoes and carrots. He likes knowing exactly where his food comes from. “I know all these people. A lot of them I’m buying food from past couple of years. It’s nice to have a personal connection,” Levin said.
Sherry Maher operates this market. She says four years ago it ran only until December.
“This year the decision is every week. People want it and they’re coming. So we’re here every week through March 26th,” Maher said.
|Desmond Peeples from Dwight Miler Orchards bags spinach at the Brattleboro, VT Winter Farmer's market (Nancy Cohen/Environmnetal Hub)|
In New Hampshire, the number of winter markets more than doubled since last year. There are 13 now. Vermont has 20 and New York has about 40. In Maine, the number has practically quadrupled.
The push for winter sales is also coming from the federal government. “Usually you think of Thanksgiving as a time to celebrate the harvest. I want it to be much later than that,” said Kathleen Merrigan, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The agency is pushing the harvest ahead by funding the construction of special greenhouses, known as “hoop” houses, that rely on sunlight and insulation to keep crops warm.
“This allows farmers to extend their growing season particularly up in the northeast, people can grow year round in a hoop house. You can certainly keep crops in the soil for a very long time,” Merrigan explained.
The USDA has invested more than $3 million so far in the Northeast, building these greenhouses on nearly 400 farms, including some in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut.
In Hartford, the winter market also gives a boost to farmers who sell cheese, fresh eggs and meat.
“Hot, sweet, chorizo, smoked, smoked hot, smoked sweet. We do a Bratwurst,” said David Finn, of Eaglewood Farm. He's selling sausage and, as he puts it, anything that comes from a pig or a cow at three winter markets.
|Fresh carrots grown in a greenhouse at Higley Hill Farm in Wilmington, Vermont. (Nancy Cohen/Environmental Hub)|
“It keeps me alive. I’ve got to feed the animals year round. Try doing that with no income!” Finn said.
Besides keeping Finn’s farm going, winter markets also keep his farm workers employed. “In years past they all got laid off in the winter time. There was no work. Now they work year round,” Finn said.
But selling at a winter farmer’s market is not for everyone. Jon Cohen runs Deep Meadow Farm in Westminster Vermont.
He is also Executive Director of the Vermont Farmer’s Market Association. He sells at markets through the end of December, but that’s it.
“We need to have down time. We need to stop,” Cohen said. “To turn around and have to do this again for a winters market... now things are freezing in the barn. We really got to keep on top of the product, make sure it’s kept well. So by the end of December, when its really getting cold it’s enough! But God bless those people who keep going!”
Farmers from long ago might have also found these winter markets a little over-the-top. But now, maybe the markets are just an example of Yankee ingenuity and the ability to adapt.
Subscribe to WGBH Food & Wine Emails