A Winter’s Eden

Massachusetts Farmers Markets
Are Braving the Cold
By Rebecca Hansen

The farmers market: summer’s fresh-faced alternative to fluorescent lights and creaky metal carts. Week after week there are tables piled high with earthy beets, savory tomatoes and lettuces in shades from red to green, all just picked by local farmers. Shoppers can munch on fresh-baked scones while they peruse the produce, with a cup of fair-trade coffee for sipping. Farmers, bakers, chefs and neighbors all mingle under the warm summer sun.

It is a lovely and satisfying way to shop. And, in recent years, the rising number of farmers markets have made fresh, local, healthy food more accessible to communities across the state. From fresh-picked produce to organic meats, even wine. It’s all here. At least, that is, until the end of October.

In New England, the long, cold winter has typically meant that farmers markets close up shop with the arrival of autumn, not to be seen again until late spring or even early summer. Even with the ever-increasing number of local food products, it is the farms, farmers and produce that form the heart of these markets. It is a farmers market, after all. And, given the limitations of the short New England growing season, a winter farmers market has historically been all but impossible.

Now, though, market lovers have reason to take heart. Thanks to a growing demand for local fare, an increasing number of farms with the capacity to grow year-round and some inspired market managers, winter markets are cropping up across the state. They’ll be offering a remarkable array of local produce, and serving their communities in ways that are just as varied.

The trend toward winter markets began three years ago with a few brave pioneers. In Wayland, market manager Peg Mallett led the expansion of the summer market, which had been running for four years. With local farms like Red Fire and Winter Moon on board along with other food vendors, the result was an immediate success. Customers came from around the region, and this year the anticipation began building before the summer season had even finished.

“There are people coming into the store already, saying, ‘When’s that starting?’” says Mallett.

This excitement has a lot to do with the quality and quantity of local produce available throughout the winter months.

“What Red Fire brings is pretty extensive in terms of root vegetables in addition to the greens,” says Mallett. And Winter Moon Farm, which specializes in cold-season vegetables, brings heaps of greens along with “a mountain of carrots and root vegetables, so it’s really lush.”

Lush, of course, is not a word most people would typically associate with a Massachusetts winter. Given that the season can be long and often harsh, it’s easy to understand why people are so excited at the prospect of filling their pantries with hearty roots and fresh-picked greens. It can be a powerful antidote to subzero temperatures and another six inches of snow.

Deb Sayre, manager of the winter market in Natick, has seen an equally enthusiastic response from market goers since its first season three years ago. Demand for local produce and products is high, she says, but also important is the sense of community that a farmers market can create. Sayre takes as much pride in the relationships fostered by her market as in the fare it has to offer. “People watch the yoga class, they may talk to an author, they sample the wine, they run into people they went to high school with. The sense of community is as important as the fact that people are doing business.”

Indeed, community is a key aspect of summer markets, one that has traditionally depended on a warm outdoor setting. But winter market managers have found that an indoor venue can hold the same appeal.

After a successful first year in Wayland, Peg Mallett realized that the unique setting at Russell’s Garden Center provided the perfect place for a leisurely farmers market outing in spite of winter’s slush and ice.

“There’s a big greenhouse with lots of houseplants, so we went from having just pastries and coffee in the first year to having a food court in the greenhouse.” There, visitors can get cozy with a hot cup of chowder from Cape Cod Original along with other local fare. “Recalling last winter’s severe weather, it was nice to create an atmosphere so that they didn’t have to dash in and dash out. The actual market area is pretty intense because so many people come. Then you walk into this oasis and have some seafood chowder and relax.”

In Somerville last year, the winter market at the Armory also provided shoppers the opportunity for a relaxed winter outing. On any given Saturday it was abuzz with a happy mix of hipsters, couples and families. Some sat at tables enjoying a fresh-baked breakfast and coffee. Others shopped and sampled. And some enjoyed the live music performances that are a unique feature of the market and will be back this winter.

Somerville also had a remarkable number of farms on hand, all of which will be returning this year. All told there will be eight farms each week, giving shoppers a wide variety of items to choose from. There will be meats from Stillman’s and Austin Brothers Valley Farms, apples from Apex Orchard and plenty of veggies from farms such as Winter Moon and Enterprise.

Indeed, Enterprise Farm will have an even wider variety of produce, including things like tomatoes and zucchini, treats usually reserved for the summer months. How do they do it? Through their unique East Coast foodshed approach they supplement the items grown on their Whately farm with produce from organic regional farms along the coast. As the winter deepens they reach farther south for warmer climates, bringing up items like broccoli and grapefruit on a weekly basis. While some might not view this approach as truly local, it’s certainly an improvement from watery tomatoes shipped in from Mexico, both in terms of taste and the environmental impact.

For the new farmers market at the Cambridge Community Center, where Enterprise will also be a vendor this winter, this wider variety is particularly important. The idea for a winter market at the CCC arose last spring when they were looking for additional ways to serve nearby neighborhoods. The center, which primarily runs an afterschool program, saw an opportunity to use its large space to bring fresh, healthy food to underserved residents.

“As a community center, we wanted to try to serve our low-income population and create access to farmers markets even in the winter,” says Jose Mendez, director of marketing and outreach and market manager.

With this mission in mind, the CCC wanted to ensure that everyone could find items that were both familiar and appealing. “We needed to create access and diversity,” says Mendez. “We’re still supporting small, regional farms.” Mendez also says the market plans to have clear signage so that customers know exactly where all products have been grown.

Taking it one step further, the market also aims to make it easier for customers to cook what they take home each week by providing nutritional information and cooking demonstrations. This educational component will also feature a variety of area nonprofits, food-related and otherwise. Both the Museum of Science and the New England Aquarium will be a part of the rotation. “We wanted to give other nonprofits a chance to be exposed to different audiences,” says Mendez. “We’re looking for a town square feeling.”

On the other side of the river, plans are underway to serve another diverse urban community through a winter market at Dorchester’s Codman Square Health Center. The idea for the market came out of a larger project to start a Dorchester food co-op, says Jenny Silverman, project manager. “We decided it would be great to start a winter market as a first step to continue the conversation about connections between fresh food and health in our community,” says Silverman.

Creating year-round access to high-quality food and produce is particularly critical for the Dorchester community, where produce can be hard to find and often is of poor quality, says Silverman. And, although it can be a challenge to make sure that farmers market food is affordable for low-income residents, the price difference is not always as big as people often believe.

“There have been studies done by The Food Project that show that purchasing fresh produce at the market is not much more expensive than purchasing at neighborhood stores. And you’re purchasing much fresher food that’s going to last a while.” And, as in Cambridge, the winter market will continue the EBT and Bounty Bucks programs that are offered through the summer season to help make fresh food accessible to all of Dorchester’s residents.

Silverman also hopes that the market will serve as a space to celebrate Dorchester’s remarkable diversity. “We need more options to create community space for people to come together,” she says, “people across the income, racial and ethnic divides of the smaller neighborhoods.”

With that in mind, a diverse mix of produce from local farms will be supplemented with products that reflect the cultural needs of the neighborhood. There will be products for Jamaican tastes and plenty of goat, a popular meat among the Caribbean community. The market will also host a weekly rotation of Dorchester health centers with information on the many ways that food impacts health. All in all, Silverman says, the demand for fresh, high-quality produce is high across all of Dorchester’s communities, as is the enthusiasm for the creation of a farmers market that will provide a valuable resource during the winter months.

In Boston’s Back Bay, David Gilson, owner of the Herb Lyceum and Potager Farm, is working to improve access to yet another urban community: the thousands of people who spend their weekdays working at the Prudential Center and in nearby office buildings. Gilson will be moving the summer market, normally held outside of the Prudential Center, into the mall’s Belvedere arcade. For busy employees who may not be able to take time to shop during the workday, he plans to offer the option of ordering online. “People can order products from their computer, pay with PayPal and have it delivered to their floor before they leave work,” says Gilson. “That way they don’t have to leave their desk. It accommodates a whole different demographic.”

Gilson, who will also manage the new SOWA winter market in Boston’s South End, has the unique perspective of being both a farmer and a market manager. And, while each market is creating its own unique approach to forge community connections, Gilson sees the increasing number of winter markets as a significant boon to regional farms.

“To have a season-extending venue is critical to our sustainability, and this is a relatively new science for area farms,” Gilson says. “I have greenhouses and right now we have tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and greens growing for these markets.”

The same is true for other farms across the state: Instead of closing down for the season, farmers can now experiment with ways to grow crops year-round and make it profitable. “It’s a whole new science and opportunity and has so much to do with making a farm viable.” Gilson acknowledges that markets like the one in Wayland have done well in paving the way. “This is an emergent economy for farms. I think Russell’s Garden Center was a great example. They did such a lovely job.”

Indeed, the trend toward winter farmers markets is lovely in many ways. As more of these markets open their doors, more and more people have access to fresh, healthy food. New communities are being created, and established communities are coming together in new ways. Lasting relationships are taking root, and for Massachusetts’s farmers a vital new economy is taking shape. So, as we enter the season of short days and cold nights, you know where to go when you need a little warmth this season. From the makings of a hot chicken soup to a little friendly conversation, it’s all available at a winter farmers market near you.

Where to find a Winter Farmers Market

Boston/Prudential Center–Belvedere Arcade (near the Post Office). Thursday 11am–5pm.

Boston/SOWA–South End Winter Market.
485 Harrison Avenue. southendopenmarket.com
Sunday 10am - 2pm. Nov 20–Apr 29
Cambridge–Cambridge Community Center,
5 Callender Street. http://centermarket.weekly.com
Saturday, 10am–2pm. Jan 7–April 28.
Carlisle–Universalist Unitarian Church, 27 School Street
Saturday, 9am–1pm. Nov 26, Dec 17, Jan 21, Feb 18, Mar 10, Apr 21.
Chelmsford–Chelmsford Agway - 24 Maple Road.
Saturday, 10am–2 pm. No markets Nov 26, Dec 24, Dec 31.
Dorchester–Great Hall at the Codman Sq. Health Center,
6 Norfolk Street, Sundays, Noon–3pm, Jan 8–Mar 25.
Fitchburg–Fitchburg Art Museum. 25 Merriam Parkway.
Thursday, 4pm–7pm. Jan 5, Feb 2, Mar 1, Apr 5, May 3, Jun 7.
Milton–Stone Soup Sundays at Thayer Nursery.
270 Hillside Street. stonesoupsundays.com
Sunday, 10:30am–3:30pm. Every other Sunday beginning January 29.
Natick–Metrowest Medial Center, 67 Union Street.
Saturday, 9am–1pm. Jan 7–Mar 31.
Newburyport–The Tannery Marketplace, 50 Water Street.
Sunday, 10am–2pm. Dec 4 & 18, Jan 8 & 22, Feb 5 & 19, Mar 4 & 18, Apr 8 & 22.
Somerville–Center for the Arts at the Armory,
191 Highland Avenue.
Sat 9:30am–2:30pm. Nov 12–May 26.
Walpole–VFW Hall, 108 Robbins Road
Sunday, 10am–2pm. Dec 4, Dec 18, Jan 8, Jan 22, Feb 12, Feb 26, Mar 11, Mar 25, Apr 15, Apr 29.
Wayland–Russell’s Garden Center, 397 Boston Post Road.
Saturday 10am–2pm. Jan 7–Mar 10.
Westford–Eric’s Garden Center, 68 Boston Road
Saturday, 9am–1pm. Nov 5–Mar 31.
Winchester–Mahoney’s Garden Center,
242 Cambridge Street. mahoneysgarden.com
Saturday, 10am–2 pm. Nov 19–Mar 18.

Rebecca Hansen is a freelance writer and editor living in Jamaica Plain. You can read more of her writing on all things local, organic, sustainable and yummy at rebeccahansen.net.

WinterEdible BostonComment