It’s no secret that the number of farmers markets has been growing exponentially in the U.S. From 1994 until 2004, the number of markets doubled, and over the next decade, from 2004 to 2014, that number doubled again, and then some. According to the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), the number of farmers markets operating in the U.S. today hovers around 8,200.
Winter farmers markets are now the emerging trend, as cold-weather areas rush to develop markets that don’t shut down when the growing season ends. The trick, of course, is to offer authentic farm-grown foods from the local farmer when produce production has been nipped in the bud by freezing temperatures. The AMS stated that winter markets increased 52 percent from 2011 to 2012, much faster than the rate of seasonal markets.
Developing a winter market comes with challenges inherent in running any market. Product availability, finding an appropriate location, attracting customers, coping with the weather and finding vendors are issues faced by every market, but these tend to be more challenging for winter market managers.
Supply and demand
Keeping the integrity of offering locally grown products during the cold months and satisfying customer demand for fresh vegetables is one of the biggest hurdles for winter markets. Who is going to grow produce – in heated greenhouses, high tunnels, or using other techniques to extend the season – or has the facilities (and enough fall production) to store crops long term? Will local farmers be willing to expand and invest in order to meet the challenges of winter growing? Unless the demand has already been proven, and it exists at a price point that’s profitable for the grower, it’s a risky proposition.
“From the grower perspective, there are a number of different challenges for having product for a winter market,” said Becca Jablonski, food systems planner and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at Colorado State University. “They really want to think about their costs.”
Infrastructure costs for high tunnels, as well as the time and labor costs of constantly maintaining such facilities, add up quickly, she said. Additionally, growers seeking to store crops throughout the winter for market sales will need proper long-term storage facilities.
Other vendors may also need to rethink production for winter sales. Do local meat producers raise the animals and regularly slaughter year-round, or do they have a frozen supply of retail cuts of meat available for winter sales? Are farmers or small food processors already making value-added products from their produce, and do they have enough supply to bring to market during the winter? Are there artisan food producers using local products that have preserved the harvest for use over the winter months, or are market rules going to allow food products made with long-distance ingredients when local is otherwise out of season?
Another concern is the market’s frequency. Many winter markets are held once or twice per month. Is it worth the effort to keep perishable product healthy for a monthly market? Will there be enough customers and sales volume at a weekly winter market to justify attending?
“It’s difficult when you do things once a month,” Jablonski stated. “Customers like consistency.”
Decreased visibility, since most cold-weather markets are held indoors, can also be a challenge for winter markets. Unlike outdoor, community-centered warm-season markets, winter markets tend to be tucked away in school cafeterias, in underutilized retail or warehouse spaces, in church or community group halls, and other less visible spaces.
“You want a community space. Be a destination,” Jablonski advised.
Enough space for vendor and customer comfort as well as accessible space for vendors to load and unload product are important considerations. Customers may need to make more of an effort to attend a winter market, and may be battling inclement weather, so having an attractive space as well as a consistent and well-rounded product mix will entice them to attend. Vendors, too, are battling the elements, and without enough sales the effort becomes counterproductive. Keeping market sales thriving requires a bit more juggling than during the summer months, when the call of fresh berries, vine-ripened tomatoes and just-picked sweet corn can make even a stormy day outdoors beckon market customers.
On the positive side, Jablonski noted, “A lot of time in the winter people are looking for something to get out of the house and are cooking more.”
A winter market, particularly one with the right mix of products located in an accessible, pleasing environment, can use cabin fever to its advantage. Incorporating some fun, educational activities around the topic of seasonal eating can be one way to promote the diversity of products available. Help customers understand the intricacies of winter production and offer them cooking tips or recipes. Promoting value-added products for gift giving, or highlighting innovative businesses, such as those freezing locally grown produce for winter sales, can attract customers seeking a good reason to leave the comforts of home on a cold winter’s day.
Jablonski urges growers to balance their risk, and not rely solely on winter farmers market sales. The uncertainty of a winter market can be offset by establishing more predictable sales venues, such as a winter CSA, where shareholders commit to season-long purchases up front. The capital investment and the cost of production for winter growing and storage of products need to be weighed against the price point your market will accept, as well as the market demand for your crop.
“Diversify your risk. Don’t be entirely dependent on one market,” Jablonski added.
Successful winter markets combine the right ingredients – product mix, accessibility and social experience – and offer a viable means of promoting local growers and food entrepreneurs year-round, no matter the weather.