While it would be nice for us all to live Barbara Kingsolver-like, and gather the makings of a meal by reaching into our pantry stocked full of vegetables lovingly grown and then canned by our own two hands, or gleefully measure the distance from farm to table in the number of steps down to our own personal root cellar, few of us have the space or foresight to provide for ourselves year round. So, what's an aspiring locavore to do? Head out to a nearby farmer's market and take a little look around for a lot of dinnertime inspiration. You'll be in good company.
A quick glance at the New York City Greenmarket seasonal produce list (available at http://cenyc.org/greenmarket/whatsavailable) does seem a little bare at this time of year in comparison with the abundance of goods during the summer and fall harvests. But farmers and vendors still continue to brave even the coldest Northeast weather throughout the winter, and new faces (and products) are showing up on a regular basis.
Michael Hurwitz, New York's Greenmarket Director reports, "We have focused on recruiting more livestock producers, dairies, fishmongers, and cheesemakers: vendors who can sell year-round at the market. We've also encouraged farmers to think about season extension."
Hurwitz notes that the two warmer New York winters that preceded this colder one naturally amended themselves to lengthening the growing season and also provided an incentive for urbanites to take advantage of the unexpected warmth by strolling through and shopping at the greenmarkets. But regardless of what the weather brings, some farmers are tapping their resources in new ways.
Says Hurwitz, "There has been an increase in innovation on the part of farmers selling value-added products. They're making sauces. They are also selling canned vegetables, pickles, candied fruits, soups, and stocks. The farmers are becoming more sophisticated." Hurwitz observes that while many of these same farmers had been canning their products for years for personal use, the marketing and selling of such products to customers has grown greatly in the past few years.
Farmers' markets, in addition to diversifying available food sources, are also changing the way shoppers view what's available during the winter and are helping people understand the true meaning of eating seasonally. The London Farmers' Markets clearly believe in making the best out of what is being produced according to the natural course of the seasons. Arthur Betts of London's Farmers' Markets explains, "We are currently undertaking promotions of raw winter vegetables, to try and boost sales of unusual vegetables or vegetable varieties, and promote different ways of eating familiar produce."
Betts notes that while the number of vendors may decrease slightly during the winter, sales during these months typically retain their strength. It appears that despite the fact that there may be fewer wares out at the markets, fresh and local food devotees still rely heavily on them, regardless of season.
According to Betts, "Empirically speaking, it would seem that all our regular customers turn up rain or shine. We do see a noticeable drop in passing trade at this time of year, but our markets are not particularly reliant upon passing trade."
It's a sentiment Michael Hurwitz also agrees with: "The greenmarkets are not a fad. Conversations between the shoppers and the vendors about the produce, the growing methods- they've been taking place for thirty-five years. The people who are just now speaking with farmers, asking questions-they are the ones catching up, not the market."
For those of us who live outside of cities and don't have such organized and supported network farmers' markets, eating locally throughout the winter becomes a bit more complicated. Where I live, in a small city in Virginia, the bustling pace of the summer and fall farmer's markets slows to a near halt in February, with the breadmaker being the busiest vendor, and the few remaining farmers selling apples and potatoes from cold-storage along with other produce from the Carolinas or even further south. It's not an ideal situation, but I'd rather support local farmers who are trying to make ends meet outside their natural growing season than patronize supermarkets selling produce from overseas.
Perhaps the best approach is one of balance. Hurwitz reasons, "It helps to be realistic about what you can get during the winter. Eating locally and seasonally is not all or nothing. It's important to know what your food dollar means."