Special rates, other incentives attract farmers in need of retail outlet
By STEVE BROWN
TACOMA, Wash. -- Farmers and customers may be dressed in more layers, but the beat goes on at winter farmers' markets.
The Proctor Farmers' Market in Tacoma is one of nearly 2,000 markets across the U.S. that operate at least once between November and March, which is how the USDA defines winter markets. Proctor is open every Saturday from March 31 through Dec. 22 and the second Saturday of the month through March.
"We operate solely to support farmers and local agriculture," market manager Lisa Lawrence said. "The number of vendors dwindles, but farmers who have anything are here."
Because not all farmers have lengthy growing seasons, the market has week-to-week rates plus incentives for seasonal fees.
The Proctor market is built on what Lawrence called its formula for success: "We've discovered that people like to eat all year round."
Not only do they like to eat, but customers enjoy the sense of community that markets generate, she said. "They like to know the farmers."
In the Pacific Northwest and across the map, many small and mid-size farmers have taken advantage of hoop houses and greenhouses to expand their growing season while keeping overhead costs down.
Many local markets also have launched targeted marketing campaigns to raise community awareness of the extended farmers' market season and product offerings. According to USDA's most recent National Farmers' Market Manager Survey, markets operating seven months or more each year often see a sizable boost in revenue.
In 2012, the number of winter markets increased 52 percent, and they now account for about 24 percent of the 7,865 farmers' markets listed in the USDA directory.
"Farmers have more stability, and consumers have a reliable supply of local food, regardless of the season," Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the USDA, said.
"As you celebrate the holiday season and bring in the New Year, more farmers' markets are there to provide fresh ingredients for your favorite holiday dishes and offer unique gift options for family and friends."
The offerings at the Proctor Farmers' Market are typical of other markets this time of year: root vegetables and salad greens, onions and gourds, Brussels sprouts and apples, beef and lamb and value-added products like pickles, cheese and sauerkraut.
Vendors said about the only down side to a winter market is the weather, which discourages customers and complicates harvest of field crops.
On the plus side, "You don't have to spend 14 hours harvesting the day before," Carrie Little said. Little is co-owner of Little Eorthe Farm in nearby Orting. "And it's nice to be out and to be with friends."
Mackenzie Brown of Left Foot Organics near Olympia said, "There are a lot of crops you can still grow, even out in the field." A winter community supported agriculture program and the market in Tacoma help provide a year-round income, she said.