Winter Markets: Extending a Season of Warmth
By Wendy Wasserman
Chicago has a robust farmers market scene. Even in January.
Indeed, between the coldest months of January and March, Chicago boastsover 30 farmers markets. Among these is the Green City Market, which just this month launched its twice-monthly indoor market at a local nature museum. Many other Chicago winter markets are sponsored by the Churches’ Center for Landed People (CCLP), and are primarily held in the basements, rec. rooms and social halls of local churches. CCLP was founded in Wisconsin the 80’s to offer farmers and rural churches mutual support during the height of the farm crisis. The farmers market program started about five
years ago, and organizes winter markets in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The model is the same in each state: participating churches offer space to the market, and convenient shopping opportunities for their parishioners. At the end of the day, the farmers make donations back to CCLP’s Harvest of Hope fund which grants emergency funds to farmers and producers in crisis.
“I think of these markets as a win-win-win-win-win situation,” says Robin Schirmer, Chicago area coordinator for CCLP. “They are a win for vendors, a win for congregations, a win for the environment and a win for CCLP since farmers can donate money to the crisis fund. The biggest winners by far are the consumers.”
An average CCLP winter market boasts between 8-14 vendors and happens 2-3 times each weekend at different church locations. The markets usually run for about 3-4 hours during the middle of the day, and attendance usually ranges between 150-300 shoppers at each market. Beef, poultry, pork, cheese, eggs, honey, cider, preserves, vinegar and dried herb blends are some of the items usually available. Schirmer also makes an effort to have some produce at each market, like root vegetables, lettuce, chard or kale.Sometimes there are even berries. All product comes from local farmers. The produce is mostly grown in hoophouses or other creative greenhouse systems, and is often the most popular items at market.
“No matter how supportive people are, they expect farmers markets to have lettuce, kale, carrots, potatoes and other produce. A little bit of [consumer] education is needed about what is availably locally and seasonally” says Schirmer. Managing consumer expectations about what is realistically available is one of the biggest challenges for any off season or winter market.
“I always tell people to come early if you want something green.” Says Bernie Prince of Washington, DC’s FreshFarm market. “One of our biggest challenges is convincing people there’s enough stuff to come for. We have to do a lot of explaining to customers what farmers are bringing and also how they are storing their product to keep it fresh.”
FreshFarm market manages 8 farmers markets in the greater DC area during prime season. They started extending one of their most popular markets in downtown Washington into a winter market about seven years ago and have plans to add another winter market next year.
“We’ve seen phenomenal growth,” reports Prince. “Last year we had about 12-17 vendors per winter market. This year, we are seeing 30-32.”
Like CCLP markets, Prince is noticing that farmers and vendors are becoming more eager to participate in winter markets because more of them are discovering creative ways to extend their season, and consequently, their cash flow. “We’re seeing more people doing seasonal adaptations with value added products, like taking the ripe tomatoes from the summer and making them into something jarred to be sold over the winter,” notes Price. “There are also more producers experimenting with hoop houses and high tunnels.”
But Prince believes the real incentive for vendors to participate in winter markets is shorter market hours and more reliable and consistent annual income. “The benefit [for winter markets] to farmers is cash flow. They get the money now to pay bills instead of waiting for prime season.”
Prince recognizes that winter markets are only as successful as the organization and thought put into them. In DC, signage goes up for nearly three months before the winter market season begins announcing the off season market. Farmers and producers who are staying on through the winter season hand out fliers to all their customers. FreshFarm does a regular newsletter and email blasts announcing the extended season. The vendors also alter their table displays with fuller tents, auxiliary lights, portable heaters and extra blankets to keep themselves and their produce warm.
Sales seem to indicate the efforts pay off. According to Prince, the first two years of the winter market in DC saw a consistent growth of about 15-19% per year.Last year, the market exploded with a 65% growth in sales. She also estimates about 1500 people come through the 3 hour market each week.
“We see regulars from our other [high season] markets as well as hard core customers.On bad weather days, sales are even stronger because shoppers are feeling bad for the farmers and so appreciative they’ve come out.” Prince says.
Although smaller in scope, size and sales than FreshFarm in DC or CCLP in Chicago, the Dubuque winter market in
northeast Iowa is an equally successful model of an off season market.Held in a Bingo Hall, the Dubuque winter market attracts an average of 32 vendors and 200 shoppers each week. But the challenges are the same: confirming that vendors and customers show up, making sure that customers know what to expect at market, and being wary of extreme winter weather.
“The farmers market is really important to us,” says Amy Weber, the Dubuque winter market master. “We don’t have an organic food store, but we have a large resource [and demand] for local food.”
According to the USDA, 16% of farmers markets have operating days between November and March, with the number poised to grow due to rising demand and improved season extension methods. And it’s that demand and innovation which makes even the darkest and coldest days at any winter market feel warm.