How can I find food from local farmers during the cold winter months?

January 2011

Dear Farm Aid,

I live in Minnesota and love supporting farmers in my area throughout the summertime. But, it gets darn cold here in the winter! How can I find food from local farmers during the cold months?

Thanks,
Matt H.
Apple Valley, Minne
snowta

A much-circulated statistic is that the average food item you consume travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate.[1] That kind of distance can take a heavy toll on the environment and generally means the farmer at the other end of your meal gets a smaller share of your dollar, as the cost of transportation, fuel, processing, refrigeration, storage and other expenses take up larger slices of the “food dollar” you spend at the checkout. Those shrinking shares are one reason that many family farmers are being forced off their land each year.

As more of us consider the consequences of a food system structured this way, it’s no wonder consumers like you, Matt, are looking for ways to support farmers close to home. Doing so provides family farmers with significantly higher shares of the food dollar, can lower the environmental impact of food distribution, offers you some of the freshest, tastiest foods available and supports our communities by circulating money within the local economy, instead of sending it thousands of miles away.

Luckily, it’s getting much easier to buy food from local family farmers. Farmers markets are sprouting up in communities across the country, tripling in number since 1994 and reaching well over 6,000 markets nationwide.[2]  Likewise, growing numbers of consumers are participating in Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs that ask eaters to share in the financial risk with farmers before the growing season, in turn receiving shares of produce throughout harvest. Meanwhile, more and more eaters—some call them locavores—are clamoring for food items and brands that originate in their region. All of these trends point to the growing desire among Americans to know their farmers and bolster their local communities and economies through their food purchases.  

But when the cold sets in and the snows fall, successful locavorism is a more elusive activity. During this year’s especially snowy winter, supporting farmers in your area may seem near impossible. Lucky for you, it is possible to secure local food in the wintertime, thanks in no small part to the ingenuity of American family farmers.

Local, 365 Days a Year
To score local foods in the winter months, first consider the several season-less foods that can be sourced from local farmers all year long. Dairy products and meats, for example, are not limited to growing seasons the way most fruits, vegetables and grains are. Several consumers participate in meat CSAs—much like produce CSAs—year-round (read about a Farm Aid staffer's experience with a meat CSA here). Meat and dairy products from farmers in your area may also be featured at your grocery store or food cooperative—take a look and ask your store manager what products they carry from local farmers. You may be surprised by their answer. And, if they don’t currently carry any products, ask them to do so. Making your voice heard is one of the best ways to get supermarkets and grocery stores to change their practices. The customer is always right!

Of course, it’s important to get in your fruits and veggies too. To that end, you might be amazed by the variety of fruits and vegetables you can score through a winter CSA program or at a winter farmers market, like the one featured in this month’s Putting It Into Practice. Farmers are now able to grow and store many vegetables varieties late into the year (as we’ll talk about in more detail below).

Such outlets might already exist in your area. To find local food in the cold months, check out the Eat Well Guide or LocalHarvest.org, both of which provide lists of resources like winter farmers markets and CSA programs in your area. Or visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Farmers Market Directory to find farmers markets registered near you.

Crops in the Cold: The Art of Season Extension
How, you may ask, are farmers able to grow food during the winter months?

Ever an ingenious crop of people, family farmers (like this month’s Farmer Heroes, Carol Ford and Chuck Waibel) utilize various techniques to accomplish season extension, a way of growing produce beyond the normal growing season. Perhaps the most familiar technology is the greenhouse, an enclosed building made of glass or plastic, which utilizes solar radiation for heat. Greenhouses can also be artificially lit and heated (increasingly, by using green energy sources like compost or “passive solar” processes that store heat for use later), allowing farmers to grow crops year-round!

Cold frames, hoop houses and high tunnels are similar to greenhouses in concept, but can be less costly or complicated to build and maintain. Cold frames, for example, are transparent-roofed enclosures that sit close to the ground. They are frequently used for seedlings that are later transplanted into the ground, helping to enable earlier planting in the spring. Hoop houses and high tunnels are simply a series of large hoops or bows, made up of metal, plastic or even wood, that are covered with plastic or another material to keep plants warm and allow farmers to work with plants in all kinds of weather, much like a greenhouse does.

Other cold weather solutions come in the form of row covers—light fabric or plastic covers placed over plants to retain heat and protect against frost. Mulches of various kinds are also used regularly by farmers to keep crops and soil warm.  Finally, raised beds, which build up soil a few inches or even a foot above the surrounding ground, offer additional tools for season extension. The soil in raised beds will heat up more quickly and can allow earlier spring planting.

Finally, farmers have found innovative ways to store crops for use in winter, such as more sophisticated root cellars, climate-controlled storage rooms, or even preserving and freezing summer crops.

All of these techniques are particularly effective when combined with cold-hardy crop varieties. In this way, more and more family farmers are bringing good food to eaters in their area, every month of the year.

You’ve got the power
Don’t forget that you can do a bit of season extension yourself, by canning your summer veggies, freezing your fruit or buying preserved items from farmers in your area. Check out some of the skilled do-it-yourselfers who are perfecting the art of food preservation at HOMEGROWN.org, Farm Aid’s online community that connects people to the land and to each other.

These choices can make a huge difference—don’t underestimate them! As Farm Aid co-founder Neil Young has said, “Attention shoppers! Buy with a conscience and save the family farm.” Funneling even a small portion of your money to local farmers can go a long way in keeping our family farmers on their land and thriving. And supporting farmers in the winter months is a huge win-win to keep farmers in strong financial shape in the slow season while bringing you the freshest, healthiest produce available.

Sources

1. Pirog, Rich. 2001. “Food, Fuel, and Freeways: An Iowa perspective on how far food travels, fuel usage, and greenhouse gas emissions.” Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University. Available online at: http://www.leopold.iastate.edu/pubs/staff/ppp/index.htm.

2. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. August 2010. “Farmers Markets.” Available online at: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/FARMERSMARKETS


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