by Erin Kauffman, Durham Farmers’ Market Manager

Eating local doesn’t have to end in September! More and more farmers’ markets offer farm fresh produce and meats year-round.

For a long time here in the Carolinas, farmers’ markets have tended to be open during the months of April through November – the traditional growing season.  This practice is beginning to change.  In the last few years, an increasing number of markets in North and South Carolina have started offering winter markets.

This trend is not unique to the Carolinas.  Winter markets are popping up all around the country.  A recent USDA press release reported that there are 898 winter markets operating in the U.S.  A winter market is defined as any market that is open during the months of November through March.  From 2009 to 2010, there was a 16% increase in the number of winter markets.  North Carolina ranks third in its number of winter markets, behind New York and California.

This year, the Western Wake Farmers’ Market in Morrisville, NC made the change to a year-round market. “We wanted to provide access to local food year-round” says Market Manager, Kim Hunter.  “Though the selection is more limited in the winter, there’s still a great amount of local food available,” says Hunter.  “We think it is important to continue to provide access and information to connect local farmers with customers even during the winter.”

For farmers’ market customers, winter markets make it possible to eat fresh, locally grown food all year.   Avid farmers’ market customer, Mary Turner, says she is always pleasantly surprised with the variety of produce available in the winter time.  “It is amazing what these farmers can do”, says Turner.  “It is important to support local farmers and food producers as much as possible.”

“This is a fantastic trend” says Stacy Miller.  Miller is the Executive Director of the Farmers‘ Market Coalition, a non-profit that promotes farmers‘ markets throughout the country.  She has noticed that a growing number of markets are extending their season.  “It means more income opportunities for farmers as they meet the rising demands of their customer base.  It also keeps markets in public consciousness throughout the year making the job of promoting the markets much easier for market operators.”

When markets are open in the winter, farmers, food producers and crafters have an opportunity to make some income during the months that can be their leanest and most economically challenging.  Stuart and Alice White, owners of Bluebird Meadows Farm in Hurdle Mills, NC, sell produce and flowers at the Durham Farmers’ Market.  In the winter, they grow their crops in 2 hoop-houses and a greenhouse.   “We knew when we got into farming that we wanted to be a part of a winter market because it seemed like such a great opportunity” says Alice.   “Any produce we bring to the winter market is going to sell because, at this point, demand exceeds production.”

Selling at winter markets is a good way to create customer loyalty.  Alice says, “We noticed increased sales during the main season market that followed our first winter market season.”

As more markets offer winter hours, the Whites and other farmers have altered their production methods in order to offer produce outside of the traditional growing season.  Other farmers’ and market vendors, however, have products that they can sell all winter long, because their season doesn’t end when the traditional growing season is over.  Meat, egg and cheese producers are able to provide fresh products to customers all year.  Vendors who offer baked goods, value-added products, or crafts can sell their products no matter the weather.

Emile DeFelice, founder of the All Local Farmers’ Market in Columbia, SC adds, “South Carolina produces food all year round; it is the only sensible thing to do,” says DeFelice.  The All Local Farmers‘ Market has been a year-round market since it opened five years ago.  They sell produce, meat, fish, floral, coffee, baked goods and crafts during the winter.  “We love it!” says DeFelice.  “The winter market is cozier and a heck of a lot cooler – as in temperature!”

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