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January 17, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Winter farmers markets on the rise

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Bring on the frost-kissed carrots and the sweet cellared apples! The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that winter farmers markets are on the rise, with 1,225 nationwide this year, up 38 percent over 2010.

Washington state’s self-reported figures put us around the same percentage increase, counting 22 winter markets this year, up from 16, according to the USDA. But that still only ranks us as 15th in the nation. Given that we’ve had thriving year-round markets for years here (most notably in the University District and Ballard,) and given that our climate is more forgiving than places like New York (#1 on the USDA list, followed by California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio), I thought we’d be closer to the top, especially as we’re larger geographically than some of the winners. How is it that even freezy Virginia (#9) and Michigan (#10) leapfrogged us on the list?

One handicap is our super-early winter sunsets. I remember asking Julie Whitehorn, then-head of the Queen Anne Farmers Market, why they couldn’t stretch out their season past October. She mentioned the impracticality of a market running 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. when you can’t tell your turnips from your parsnips after 4. It’s not great for farmers to load their trucks and drive home in the pitch black either.

Inclement weather itself can drive away customers, of course, noted Joel Wachs of the Washington State Farmers Market Association. But our very commitment to fresh local produce may hamstring us too. The Seattle-area markets lean towards fruits and vegetables more than crafts and vendors. Endless weeks of potatoes and acorn squash are less alluring to customers than our summer memories of dripping peaches and ripe berries.

I’m actually a fan of potatoes and squash and Brussels sprouts and dino kale and Bosc pears, but I’m also always glad to remember that our winter markets offer lots more – cheese, meat, eggs, salmon and spot prawns, pickles and preserves, wine, grains, pasta, and prepared foods. (Everett even has an indoor year-round market coming). But, clearly, they face hurdles.

Chris Curtis of the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance said that farmers starting requesting longer seasons and more market days about 6 years ago, with the University District the first to go year-round in their organization and West Seattle later joining in. (Ballard went year-round in 2000).

“As nice as a winter market sounds, it’s often not easy to keep these off-season markets afloat if you don’t have very strong summer seasons that can help subsidize what has been (for us anyway) winter sales that typically decrease (on average) between 30 – 50% from the height of the summer season,” she said in an email. “We cut back on market day staffing and advertise less in the winter – and we charge farmers less to participate. But even so we are short of breaking even on each individual market day (at West Seattle and Broadway) starting in December and this continues into late March. The University District is self sustaining (and them some) so it ends up subsidizing the other winter operations.”

The peaks and valleys of sales don’t seem as significant to the Seattle Farmers Market Association, which runs the Ballard market. Month-to-month profitability isn’t as crucial as being in the black overall, which the market is each year, said the market’s Zachary Lyons – think of retail businesses who count on Christmas sales for a profitable annual balance sheet. When the farmer count is down, more artists and food artisans (e.g., those making prepared tomato sauce or kimchi) are added to the mix, said Lyons, but that works well for the Ballard community too, especially as the food processors are required to use local ingredients. “That said, we still have plenty of produce, meat, seafood, poultry, cheese, milk, baked goods, confections, sauces, krauts, and on and on, through the winter.” Just check out his “snow, schmoe!” post from Sunday, from pears to collards to cod to butter to bacon.

So, want more winter markets? The answer may be to shop at more winter markets. Until spring, I’ll see you Seattleites in the U District, Ballard, and West Seattle.

Photo: A fine Savoy cabbage scored from the Ballard farmers market, by Rebekah Denn

This post was corrected at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 18. An

earlier version referred to Ballard Market food artisans as “prepared

food vendors.” The market managers do not allow additional prepared food vendors, who make ready-to-eat food on site. They do allow more food processors, who make products like tomato sauce.

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