Produce vendor Nancy Polzin of Polzin Farms.
Photos by Gail March Yerke

by Gail March Yerke

With growing interest in the farm to table movement, more traditional summer farmers markets are extending their season by adding winter markets. The USDA reports more than 8,600 farmers markets across the country today, and more of these communities are looking to offer fresh produce and agriculture products year-round. While a winter market is an easier undertaking in warmer parts of the country, even markets in the Midwest are getting into the act.

Winter markets on the West Coast are fortunate to offer fresh produce most of the year with some product fluctuations that follow the harvest season. It’s business as usual in these parts of the country, like Berkeley, CA, with a strong customer base that attends their markets throughout the year. Since 1987, the Ecology Center of Berkley has led the effort to offer fresh produce to three very different neighborhoods throughout their city. Sponsoring their Saturday morning Downtown Market, Tuesday South Berkeley Market and Thursday North Berkeley All Organic Market, the three thriving markets constitute the heart of the community’s sustainable food system.

“We have a high number of sustainable growers and find a growing sense of trust from our customers as we are part of the Certified Farmers Market program,” said market manager Nina Scoville. “Our winter market offers various citrus crops, avocados and some tropical fruits as the winter season progresses. Vendors brought the last of our strawberries and tomatoes as late as early December this past year.” In the Certified Farmers Market (CFM) program, each county provides certification opportunity to markets as well as producers. The market itself complies with its County Department of Agriculture Weights and Measures (AWM) and other local agencies where produce is sold directly to the public. A Certified Producer is a farmer who has been certified by AWM to sell at the CFM. This means that inspectors have visited their farm to verify their agricultural production and a Certified Producer Certificate lists the products they grow and may sell at such a market. Counties encourage the direct marketing of locally grown produce and other agricultural products at CFMs.

The Berkeley Ecology Center promotes all of their markets with a website, social media and an annual advertising budget used for signage and print advertising. “The Real Deal” promo is offered at all three locations, with a featured vendor offering a free item with the purchase of a specific product that week. “We are fortunate that even on our rainy and windy days our core customers come out to support our vendors at market,” said Scoville. The markets provide agricultural products from over 100 vendors each week and live music at each location.

But what about the markets in “snow country”? Resourceful market managers have found indoor venues, offering an additional income stream for vendors later in the year into early spring. Farmers in the Midwest, for example, are producing more root crops to provide product into autumn and later for these winter markets. Some are adding leafy greens and microgreens produced under grow lights to their winter market offerings.

David Milaeger selling at the Great Lakes Winter Farmers Market.

Besides the challenge of attracting the right mix of vendors, what else are these markets doing differently to survive during what would be the typical off-season? Just like any other market, it’s the basic “getting people in the door.”

The Great Lakes Farmers Market at Milaeger’s in Racine, WI, located between Milwaukee and Chicago, added their winter market five years ago. While their traditional summer market is outdoors, the winter market moves indoors to their 20,000-square-foot Expo Greenhouse from late autumn through April. The family business has been there since 1961 and third generation Kara Kading and David Milaeger, grandchildren of founders Joan and Dan Milaeger, help run the markets throughout the year. David runs the company’s “Fresh Campaign,” growing and selling fresh herbs, lettuce and microgreens at both markets. Vendors offer root crop vegetables, fresh greens, honey, eggs, syrup, meat products, home-baked items, mushrooms, preserves and more.

“Attendance is between 1,200 and 1,500 each week for our winter market,” said Kading. “People enjoy a place to escape the winter cold. There’s a positive vibe here and you can feel the welcoming energy when you walk in.” The paved lot offers parking for 250 cars during the 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Sunday markets. With over 40 vendors each week, the market also offers live music and a gathering place with seating around patio fire pits. The greenhouse has its own liquor license from the city of Racine and offers both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages along with breakfast food items.

Special events boost attendance each week with many focused on helping the community. An “Empty Bowls Painting Party” class invited participants to design and paint pottery bowls and was held in conjunction with a food drive. Attendees paid $8 – $12 per bowl and donated non-perishable food items to the local food pantry. The market also sponsors a winter accessory event that collects knit hats, scarves and mittens for those in need.

Most marketing is done through social media, especially Facebook. Kading posts live videos each Sunday of the market and interviews vendors along the way. Milaeger’s greenhouse promotes the market on their website and also has flyers promoting the schedule of live music and special events. Just one of two Milaeger retail locations, the property is home to over 50 greenhouses – all open to the public. Winter market customers are welcome to walk through the greenhouses to catch a hint of spring.

If your local market is interested in adding a winter event, it doesn’t matter where you are in the country. If you are in colder regions, consider indoor public spaces. Similar markets have successfully operated in schools, public library community rooms and even greenhouses such as Milaeger’s. Social media, along with special events and entertainment, are great additions to help bring in customers. You don’t always need sunshine and 70º weather for a successful farmers market.