All photos by Sherry Maher.
Martha Miller of Dwight Miller Orchards assists shoppers at the POS Winter Farmers’ Market. In background, Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Market during the holiday season.

In Troy, N.Y., a city of almost 50,000 residents in the Capital District of New York State, the outdoor farmers’ market folds up for business at the time when most Northeast markets are closing, right around the middle of October.

Instead of saying goodbye to its customers for the winter—close to 2,500 every Saturday morning during the growing season—the Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Market (www.troymarket.org) moves down the block into a two-story municipal building. It is open every Saturday, November until April, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Uncle Sam Atrium in Troy’s business district.

While the number of winter customers is less than the outdoor market—right around 1,000 for a Saturday—it is still worth it for the 50-plus vendors that sell their eggs, cheese, meats and other products, including produce grown in high tunnels and greenhouses.

Troy’s market is part of a growing trend of winter markets across the northern parts of the country. While little information is available about the recent growth of winter markets, anecdotal evidence is clear: many farmers’ markets are experimenting with the idea—and for growers who may have other value-added products to sell or grow through the winter in high tunnels or greenhouses, it can be a viable and profitable market.

“Winter markets seem to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days,” said Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition (www.farmersmarketcoalition.org), a nationwide organization with a mission to strengthen farmers’ markets for the benefit of farmers, consumers and communities. Miller wrote an article about the success of several northern winter markets in the organization’s newsletter, and has heard a lot of buzz from growers on several online farming listserv groups.

“For many communities, the local food scene, as vibrant as it may be in the summer, goes into hibernation in the winter,” said Miller. Winter markets make it possible for farmers and growers to make a living through the colder months. “There are a variety of models that these winter markets operate under, each fitting the unique needs of a community,” said Miller. Some operate like a seasonal market—one weekend day every Saturday or Sunday—while others are biweekly, monthly or just a couple of times each season (such as the holiday season).

Gary Wiltbank, owner of Wiltbank Farm in Saugerties, N.Y., vendor and president of the Troy Waterfront Farmers’ Market, is grateful for the winter market since the growing season for his oyster and shiitake mushrooms is from September through June. “Some growers don’t want to participate because, frankly, they need a break from the busyness of the growing season, but many farmers don’t want to be dependent on the seasons and need a year-round market,” said Wiltbank, who also sells his mushrooms to local restaurants, health food stores and other regional farmers’ markets.

While many northern winter markets seem to have sprung up in the past couple of years, one indoor farmers’ and public market has been open for over 30 years. James Farr, assistant director of recreation for Rochester, N.Y., oversees the Rochester Public Market, www.cityofrochester.gov/PRHS/PublicMarket/index.cfm, a 102-year-old farmers’ and public market that has had a winter market since 1976. The market features growers who sell a variety of storage crops including potatoes, hard squash, cabbage, onions, apples, celeriac and greenhouse-grown peppers, tomatoes and micro-greens, as well as cider, meats, poultry (live and dressed), honey, wine, cheese, eggs, wreaths and trees during the holiday season, dried herbs and spices.

Bruce Wooster of Picadilly Farm surrounded by an array of veggies from his farm in Winchester, N.H.

“We are fortunate to be located in an area that still has many small to medium fruit and vegetable farmers, as well as wineries and dairies,” said Farr. There actually was an increase in small farms in the 2000 agricultural survey in Monroe County, where the market is located, said Farr, which he said can be attributed to the healthy number of retail opportunities for farmers in the area. Farr noted that it is not unusual to have 15,000 shoppers at the market on a Saturday in January or February. He noted the market is not entirely indoor, and has a combination of tents and heaters outside as well.

Several other winter markets, such as Seacoast Eat Local in Dover, N.H., just finished its first year sponsoring two holiday markets scheduled on the Saturdays before Thanksgiving and Christmas. More examples abound of other recent forays into holiday and winter markets throughout the North and Northeast regions. In Vermont alone there are more than half a dozen that have opened for business in the past couple of years, including the Dorset Farmers’ Market (www.dorsetfarmersmarket.com), Brattleboro Winter Farmers’ Market (www.postoilsolutions.org), Montpelier’s Capital City Farmers’ Market, along with markets in towns such as Newport, Rutland and Norwich. Whatley, Mass., and New London, Conn., have also opened winter markets.

Susan Dunning with her pottery and honey from Mile Hill Farm in Springfield, Vt.

Sweetwater Local Foods (www.sweetwaterlocalfoodsmarket.org) in Michigan first opened in July 2005, and went year-round in 2006 based on customer demand. “On February 3, 2007, we had the Sweetwater Saturday Market in the middle of a blizzard,” said Chris Bedford, president and co-founder of the Sweetwater Local Foods Market. He said it was snowing so hard that they couldn’t see the lampposts 100 feet from the entrance to the lobby where they had their market set up. Yet, 250 people braved the storm to purchase produce and other products.

Not surprisingly, the trend of year-round markets has also extended southward to the longer growing seasons of the Mid-Atlantic states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia. “We are definitely seeing more winter markets in the area,” said Bernadine Prince, founder and codirector of FreshFarm Markets in Washington, D.C. (www.freshfarmmarkets.org), which started out seasonal in 1997, and by 2003 was open year-round.

What has been important about winter markets is the opportunity for added revenue for farmers and sense of community for customers, says Farmers Market Coalition’s Miller. “When I was a market manager, the sense of loss on the last day of the market in November was visceral,” she said. What is also important is the chance for farmers to make their occupation year-round. “What is truly beautiful is watching a vendor who has used their miserable real job to capitalize their farm business finally be able to make farming their full-time occupation and raise a family. The myth that there needs to be an off-season is being demystified, even in areas where a well-heated greenhouse is the only hope for fresh produce for four or five months a year.”

Marcia Passos Duffy is a freelance writer based in Keene, N.H.

Tips for Creating Winter Markets in Your Region

Make sure you have a market and plenty of product
Do you have enough customers to support a winter market? You may want to conduct a survey during the summer season to see if seasonal farmers’ market visitors will support a winter market. You may also want to consult with the region’s current seasonal farmers’ market for advice and to gauge interest of the current seasonal vendors for a winter market. You also need to know if there will be enough product to sustain a winter market in your area in order to have a successful market. It is a good idea to get vendors to commit a year ahead of time so that they can prepare for the winter season accordingly and have enough to sell.

Find a location
Many winter market organizers have found that they had to be flexible in finding a location. Some operate out of church basements, others in abandoned buildings or warehouses (with permission, of course) or municipal buildings. Some winter markets have also formed partnerships with local organizations and businesses (such as hospitals, manufacturing plants, etc.) to host the weekend market in an unused portion of a building.

Decide on products and rules
Will you sell just agricultural products, or will you sell crafts and other products (like locally made soap, baked goods, candles and pottery) as well? You also need to decide when you will be open for business and stick with it—there is nothing more discouraging than customers coming in during a snowstorm and finding that the winter market is closed. Because winter markets tend to rely more heavily on processed products, it’s important to become familiar with state and local regulations before signing on vendors, particularly those vendors that sell certain baked goods and wine. Be aware that municipal regulations tend to be stricter than state.

Be flexible
Since the costs are typically higher to rent an indoor facility, booth space is priced accordingly. To make it attractive to vendors, some winter markets allow vendors to double up (or triple up) on booth space and share the costs. This is often prohibited during seasonal markets.

Get a good market manager
An experienced and dedicated market manager is crucial to the success of a winter market. It is important that managers set the times and dates of the winter market and stick with them—rain, shine or snow—in order to establish consistency for customers. A good market manager will also oversee product mix to make sure there is enough variety and quantity for customers.

Get the word out
It takes time to get the word out about a winter market, and the best time to start is when you have a captive audience in the summer at the seasonal market. You will need a lot of signage (and flyers), as well as advertising and word-of-mouth to attract enough customers.