Winter farmers markets are heating up

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Bad Seed winter farmers market in Kansas City, Mo. (Photo by Eric Durban)
About the author
Reporter, Kansas Public Radio
Eric Durban was Harvest Public Media's Kansas reporter in 2011.

Snow piled here and there along the street made parking difficult for customers of the Bad Seed Market in Kansas City, Mo. But still, a steady stream of people came to the winter market to shop, talk and share some homemade Kombucha.

It’ll take more than freezing temperatures and inches of snow to close the market on this January evening.

Bad Seed, which is open every Friday from May through February, is one of a handful of Kansas City winter markets — and part of a nationwide trend.

The number of winter farmers markets has increased 17 percent in the last two years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As more small farmers find ways to grow produce in the winter, they’re finding a home at winter markets.

“I think this is a pivotal time in Kansas City. I think that we’re about to reach critical mass that so many people are interested in farmers markets, interested in organic food, interested in local food, interested in the community supported agriculture idea that it’s really up to the farmers to capture this moment to educate and to fill the need,” Alicia Ellingsworth said.

Winter market growth reflects overall increase

Alicia Ellingsworth, the farm manager at the Gibbs Road Community Farm, weeds the winter spinach crop. (Photo by Eric Durban / Harvest Public Media)
The number of farmers markets nationwide
Source: USDA
Credit: Eric Durban / Harvest Public Media

Ellingsworth is the farm manager at the Gibbs Road Community Farm in Kansas City, Kan. The 2-acre plot is part of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture and often sells at Bad Seed Market in the winter.

Ellingsworth uses several high tunnels on the farm to grow winter produce such as spinach and carrots. She said people ask her almost every day if she’ll have fresh vegetables available. But lately, the farm is bringing less to the market.

“This time of year, mid-January, the farmers are starting to think about spring and summer, so thinking more in the future rather than supplying the food daily,” Ellingsworth said. “But I think it’s important that we take care of these customers who take care of us all year long.”

Nearly 900 winter farmers markets are operating nationwide, according to the USDA, which counts any market open between November and March, even if it’s open for just one day.  They account for 14 percent of the more than 6,100 farmers markets nationwide.

Winter markets have a stronger base in the Northeast than the Midwest, said Stacy Miller, executive director of the Maryland-based Farmers Market Coalition.

She noted that larger population centers and a history of smaller, more diversified farms drive popularity in the Northeast. But in any cold-weather region, market obstacles include marketing and finding a suitable location that removes customers from the weather elements.

Miller said it also can be difficult to keep customers excited when they can’t have access to strawberries and many other things that people crave and have historically associated with farmers markets.

The challenge is “transferring that enthusiasm to things like beets and carrots and cabbage,” Miller said.

She said it’s not just the extra money that makes winter farmers markets worthwhile for farmers. The chance to talk and share amongst themselves and consumers reaps further rewards.

 “It’s an incredible opportunity for them to experiment with new crops, to keep in contact with their customer base and to get that real time customer feedback,” Miller said. “And to continue to network and be with other farmers while they’re at market, which I think is an under-rated benefit.”