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WOOSTER, Ohio — As the demand for farmers markets has grown over the past decade, so has the interest in making some of those same markets available year-round.
Farmers have invested in new technology like high tunnels, community kitchens and new seed varieties — all in an effort to extend their growing seasons. And consumers have been adamant about wanting fresh, local foods even in the dead of winter.
The result is a growing number of winter farmers markets and more farmers and consumers who are getting involved.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Farmers Market Directory has shown a 38 percent increase in winter markets since 2010, and we now have 1,225 winter markets nationwide.
Pennsylvania is third for winter markets at 78, and Ohio is fifth with 50. New York leads all states with 180 markets, up from 152 winter markets in 2010.
Consumers are looking for more ways to buy locally grown food throughout the year,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, in a statement to media upon release of the new data. “Through winter markets, American farmers are able to meet this need and bring in additional income to support their families and businesses.”
Managers of farmers markets in Ohio appear just as happy about the trend as Merrigan — but they also say that operating a successful winter market is still a challenge.
For one, a winter market usually requires a facility that’s a little more elaborate than the tents and pavilions used during the summer. Depending on the climate and the year — a winter market can see snow, ice and subfreezing temperatures.
Beth Knorr of the Countryside Conservancy near Akron manages a winter farmers market held at Old Trail School — a private school located within the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
The facility is just a mile or two from where the summer market is held — at Howe Meadow — and it offers most of the advantages of an indoor grocery store.
Knorr said the school charges a basic fee for use of the space and utilities, and the extra cost gets passed on to the vendors at a reasonable rate.
Shooting for regular hours. Jaime Moore, of Wayward Seed Farm in Marysville, Ohio, is in her first year managing the farmers market in Worthington. She also manages the Dublin Farmers Market, the market at 15th Street and High Street, and Bexley.
The Worthington Farmers Market has been year-round for about two years and operates inside the Griswold Center. In previous years, the Worthington winter market has been spotty — with large breaks in-between — but this year she’s hoping to have it every week — except for holidays.
If too many days elapse between markets — customers forget it’s even held, said Kelly Ferry, who manages a beginning winter market at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent.
“If it’s not every week, then they forget,” she said, adding that a schedule “lets people know that we’re there.”
David McMaken of Rose Ridge Farm in Waynesburg is a regular at the Akron area markets with his organically raised Hereford beef. He said his sales have been strong at the winter market — especially with customers who buy a quarter or half of beef.
But at the same time, the winter market can affect the summer market, he said, because people buy year-round, and so the first outdoor market of the year isn’t quite as exciting.
Knorr said this past winter — one of the mildest on record — worked in the favor of winter markets. But, recent winters as a whole have been trending warmer as a result of climate change, which makes for more growing days and longer seasons.
The biggest improvement, however, has been the education and use of “high tunnels” or “hoop houses.” These greenhouse-like plastic roof structures allow growers to plant earlier and harvest later — and sometimes grow year-round.
Knorr has seen an “overwhelming interest” in the tunnels, which have been a popular topic among growers and university researchers for the past half-dozen years.
“That’s the part of the business I’m expanding the most,” said Floyd Davis, who owns Red Basket Farm in Kinsman and sells at the Cuyahoga Valley market.
He participates in the Old Trail School winter market, as a vendor, and said he’s seeing more buyers come through the market each year.
He’s in his fifth year using high tunnels and said they’re paying off, along with new varieties of plants that can handle cooler temperatures and light freezing.
Adam Schroeder, president of the Ohio Farmers Market Management Network, said farmers are seeing good results from high tunnels and hydroponics (growing plants in water) but both of those technologies require education and take time before a farmer truly sees the benefits.
“You definitely aren’t going to see an immediate benefit from it,” he said. “Much like any farm that you start, it (the new technology) takes time to establish.”
Although year-round markets are growing in number and popularity, Moore said the growth also needs to include new equipment on the farms — like high tunnels — but also investments like produce kitchens and a place to store the food once it’s harvested and processed.
“I think it also goes hand in hand with building the infrastructure of the farming community,” she said. “We need to have the farmers with the infrastructure to even grow or process or maybe package (their goods).”
That type of equipment takes investment money from the farmers, who sometimes secure grants to help, but often spend a large portion of their own money. In some cases, farmers and community leaders have secured funds for the building of community kitchens — which can be used by multiple growers as part of a cooperative effort, but the idea is still new and only a few such kitchens exist.
Schroeder said community kitchens are one more way “for growers to extend their season,” and he sees them catching on.
“I think it’s (winter markets) really a growing trend that I think you’re going to see more and more of,” he said.