|How can I find food from local farmers during the cold winter months?|
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?
A much-circulated statistic is that the average food item you consume travels 1,500 miles to get to your plate. 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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