Small farms begin to grow in all seasons
John Primmer has a healthy respect for spinach. In fact, he would go so far as to call the leafy green vegetable "amazing." Spinach is resilient, and because it is resilient, it helps him survive the winter.
"No matter how cold it gets, it always bounces back," he said.
Primmer, co-owner of Wildstone Farm in Pownal, has not always been concerned with whether his crops would last through the colder months. A little more than five years ago, he simply didn't grow in the winter, and his funds from the spring, summer and fall had to carry him through the cold months. But now, the wintertime is an essential part to his growing season.
"Farmers markets are key to Primmer's success. Typically a sign of warmer months, farmers markets have been increasigly present year-round.
The Williamstown Berkshire Grown Holiday Farmers Market is part of a community of food growers and consumers in the Berkshires, Berkshire Grown. Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin, like Primmer, has noticed a surge in enthusiasm for locally harvested food.
Take, for example, the last Williamstown Holiday Farmers Market. It was held Sunday, Dec. 15, with 10 inches of snow on the ground. Zheutlin was amazed. Despite the weather, 40 vendors and more than 800 visitors came.
"It's always so exciting to see fresh vegetables with 10 inches of snow on the ground," Zheutlin said. She estimates that on a good day, there are close to 1,500 visitors. In winter 2013-2014, the vendors at the four Berkshire Grown Holiday Farmers' Markets made $125,000 collectively.
In parallel with growing demand, Berkshire Grown has announced plans to expand its Holiday Farmers Markets in 2015. This winter, there were two days of markets in Williamstown and two in Great Barrington. Next winter, there will be two in Williamstown and four in Great Barrington.
"The reason we do these farmers markets is to extend the season for farmers," Zheutlin said.
They also, she added, strengthen the food economy of the area.
Even food producers that do not rely as directly on the weather benefit from the extended market season. Jen Leahey, co-owner of Leahey Farm in Lee, said because the farm's cycle does not correlate directly with the seasons, the winter markets are especially welcome. By cutting out the middleman, the markets foster direct relationships between farmer and consumer. It's good for Leahey because she gets a larger profit, and it's good for the customer because they have a better idea of where their food comes from.
She views the increased attention toward farmers' markets as a product of concern about food. When the farm came into the Leahey family in 1889, small self-sufficient family farms were typical. A mid-20th-century movement toward inexpensive food, she said, led to agri-business with pesticide use and poor treatment of both animals and people.
Now, she's welcoming a resurgence of the small family farm; she, her husband, Philip Leahey, and her father-in-law, James Leahey, are the only people who work at the 300-acre farm. They have no hired help.
"We try really hard to keep our products as affordable as possible," she said. "We don't want this to be elitist."
Leahey Farm has been involved in local farmers markets for the past eight years. They sell to restaurants and markets as well. In the winter, 80 percent of products are sold wholesale. In the summer, 50 percent of products are sold to farmers markets.
But even though the summer markets are more lucrative, Jen Leahey values the winter market for letting her see customers year-round.
"[The winter markets] are great for us because we're not locked into a particular season for selling," she said. "There are times when we're stocked and times when we're not, but it's not necessarily seasonal."
The abundance of cold weather markets help farmers have a more consistent cycle, and they give customers access to local food more consistently as well. It's not isolated to the Berkshires and Southern Vermont area, either.
"These holiday farmers markets are part of a national and state movement of recognizing the importance of farmers and the importance of strengthening our food economies," Zheutlin said. "I'm so excited it's happening in the Berkshires."
As the weather gets warmer, more and more farmers markets will open.
"It seems like, in the last 15 years, we've noticed local demand has really been on the rise. People are wanting to buy local food and wanting to know where the food comes from," Primmer said. "So that's been exciting for us as a business."
Even though summertime may feel far away, freshly farmed food is here.
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