There has been an increase in year-round farmers markets in King County over the past decade that provide shoppers with access to local food and new varieties of fruits and vegetables throughout the year. There are also challenges that come with the choice to farm year-round.
The Local Food Initiative team recently spoke with Jennifer Antos, Executive Director of the Neighborhood Farmers Markets (NFM) to learn more about why farmers choose to sell year-round; the challenges and opportunities of year-round markets; and what’s next for year-round markets in King County.
Currently, NFM operates seven markets in King County, and three of them are year-round: University District, West Seattle, and Capitol Hill.
Before the University District market first went year-round in 2007, farmers had fewer options to sell farm products in the winter months. Farmers could start winter Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs to generate income or try and survive those months without a steady source of income.
Through careful planning and gathering consistent data about shopper counts, farmer sales, and demand for entry into the markets, NFM noticed that demand for local food in King County was rising and consumers were interested in year-round fresh farm products. High attendance rates at farmers markets during the summer showed consumers cared about what they ate, where their food came from, and about the farmers behind the products.
“The farmers markets in Seattle and King County have a very positive reputation in the community and in the country,” said Antos. “They are habit-forming. Once people show up and see the variety and quality, they continue to rely on farmers markets until they close for the winter. We want to do everything we can to extend the season of markets for our farmers who are doing the same, and this relies heavily on consistent demand from shoppers.”
Consumer support and farmer participation makes year-round markets successful in King County and allows markets to continue to change and expand to meet demand.
Why do farmers choose to sell year-round at farmers markets? Why do some farmers choose not to?
“Year-round markets give farmers the opportunity to obtain income for 12 months instead of six to nine months in a year,” said Antos. “This additional income helps farmers invest in their farms and who they hire to ultimately improve their operations.”
“Farmers also greatly appreciate customer loyalty and work hard to offer farm products that their customers desire,” she said. “Consistency is the key for creating an environment in which customers are loyal.”
However, there is a risk for those who farm in winter because they could lose their entire season’s income to a freeze, flood, or windstorm.
“Many farmers also do not have time or money to extend their season,” said Antos. “Season extension techniques, such as storage space for harvested crops, can be difficult but are very successful for those who are willing and able to make these infrastructure investments on their farms.”
What are the biggest challenges of year-round farmers markets, both from the farmer perspective and the market organization perspective?
“A relatively obvious reason is the cold and rainy weather, which deters some consumers from attending year-round markets. We also lose customers because the market shrinks and the variety of produce during short, cold days is less than in summer,” said Antos. “NFM has to work harder to keep the market vibrant when there are fewer products for sale.”
NFM Market Managers and staff work in the windy, rainy, and cold weather to manage and run the farmers markets. Antos believes these work conditions are challenging yet can also be rewarding and gratifying.
“We are working outdoors just like farmers,” she said. “It is obviously much different than the work farmers do but certainly builds an appreciation for what our farmers experience on a day-to-day basis.”
What are the opportunities year-round farmers markets bring to farmers and consumers?
Consumers, producers, distributors, and processors have great opportunities to continue collaborating and make new connections when the growing season is extended and markets are available to provide space for connections.
“Connections that are made at farmers markets are extraordinary,” said Antos. “Winter offers more time for farmers to talk about their products with consumers. I see shoppers sharing tips with each other and farmers talking about their experiences with other farmers – it’s a great space for community conversation and collaboration.”
How is the variety of produce and vendors available in the winter time different from summer/fall?
The variety of products decreases in the winter time; however, farmers have come up with many creative ways to bring additional value to winter markets.
“Farmers invest in creating value-added products to keep their tables full and interesting,” said Antos. Glendale Shepherd, a local cheesemaker from Whidbey Island, offers soaps and wool dryer balls during the winter, taking advantage of sheep shearing time in January and times of lower milk production. Many of these new and increasingly valuable products are great for the holidays and keeping customers interested. “Look for flower vendors selling creative winter alternatives,” says Antos, “including wreaths and dried flower arrangements, which is a way for them to extend their season in the market and stay connected with consumers for as long as possible.”
Some farmers will also intentionally grow certain crops during the winter months, such leeks, sun chokes, tulips or cabbage.
“Shelley Pasco of Whistling Train has certain crops that are happier under covers, so she saves them for winter months to make them more special and get customers excited for their arrival,” said Antos.
How have farmers had to alter their operation in order to offer produce outside of the traditional growing season?
“When a farmer invests in a greenhouse it really does allow them to grow crops that wouldn’t be able to grow otherwise,” Antos said. “In addition to investments like greenhouses, farmers need space to devote to winter crops, time to plan and to plant, and time to care for winter crops during the fall days that are often devoted to harvesting and making the most of the selling season before it comes to a close.”
Additionally, seed companies are producing more and more cold tolerant varieties since farmer demand has increased over the past decade.
“I’d like to see a continued investment in farmers and organizations working to extend the growing season in King County,” she said. “The NFM offers support through the Good Farmer Fund, which provides emergency relief for farmers who experience damage or loss due to weather, as well as no or low-interest loans for investments on the farm.” The Seattle Tilth Alliance partners with the Human Links Foundation to offer grants and low interest loans to farmers to support similar projects.
NMF works to keep customers connected to CSA farmers who stop selling in markets during the winter, including sharing their stories.
“We try to re-create connections between consumers and farmers who are not present at winter markets by highlighting their products so customers can still purchase from them,” said Antos.
Do you have any new ideas for increasing market and sales opportunities for farmers during the winter months? What is next for winter markets in Seattle?
“We hope to bring year-round markets to places where demand exists; educate neighborhoods about who their farmers are and the hard work that goes into feeding the community; and continue to keep the connections strong between consumers and farmers so we can generate more awareness and respect for the food we eat,” Antos said. “It would also be amazing to have a secure and covered space for a winter market – our staff, shoppers and farmers would love it!”
NFM began offering harvest and holiday markets for their seasonal markets that do not operate in the winter and plans to continue them in the upcoming years. These pop-up markets allow farmers who do not participate in year-round markets the opportunity to come back and sell their products.
Another NFM project aims to improve and expand the Capitol Hill Farmers Market by moving the market to the plaza adjacent to the new light rail, which will provide better access for vendors and shoppers and more visibility to the public. This project will take a few years to implement but the plans to move are in place. “We believe this move will not only improve the visibility of the Capitol Hill market and sales for our farmers, but also access for the community and shoppers.” said Antos.
To learn more about NFM, please visit their website.