In praise of winter vegetables and winter farmers markets
Kim Bayer | Contributor
So we know that Michigan hit the Top 10 nationally in winter farm markets at the end of 2011. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development counted 33 winter farmers markets in the state in 2011, a 58 poercent percent increase over the 19 in 2010. But we still have a long way to go to catch New York, which has 180 winter farmers markets.
What's fueling the increase in our area? The venerable Ann Arbor Farmers' Market has never been so crowded — with both vendors and shoppers. And it's been joined this winter by the Saline Winter Farmers' Market (Saturdays from 9 a.m.-noon) and the St. Joe Farmers' Market, at St. Joe Hospital (Wednesdays from 11 a.m.-1 p.m.).
According to Nancy Crisp, market manager of the Saline Farmers' Market, this year's winter market held on Saturdays at Liberty School is "better than I had even planned on. I had over 30 vendors before Christmas, and now still have over 20 vendors. Between 350-450 people come each week. One thing that is so great is that we do have winter vegetables. Like greens, radishes and potatoes. Because people have hoop houses now."
Observing the continued demand for fresh produce, farmers are deciding to grow crops through the winter using hoop house technology, passive solar structures that keep the produce coming even in the coldest months.
Jeremy Moghtader, farm manager at the MSU Student Organic Farm, says, "For farmers, (hoop house growing) helps stabilize farm income and makes farm operation much more viable. The revenue that you can generate through a hoop house is pretty substantial — because you can get a lot more food out of that space."
According to Dan Bair, farm program manager at the Farm at St. Joe, the number of winter markets has increased because "Michigan is just a very agriculturally diverse state." He says, "The Organic Farm Training program at MSU has played a role with outreach and awareness around the state, educating because of that program and its use of hoop houses."
MSU has had a full-time hoop house outreach coordinator for the past six years, says Jeremy Moghtader. And using hoop houses, the MSU Student Organic Farm, which graduates 16 new farmers each year, started the first 48-week year-round CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program in the state in 2003.
Shannon Brines at Brines Farm in Dexter is one of the four-season growing pioneers in our area. He built his first hoop house and started growing winter greens in 2005. Now he has four hoop houses in production, and 40 winter CSA members. He's planning on 80 CSA members next year.
Jennifer Kangas of Capella Farm was able to start a winter CSA program last year thanks to the hoop houses she built, and now she's taking her winter produce to the Saline Winter Farmers' Market. She still has garlic, chard, choi, arugula, carrots, collards, kale, mustard greens, salad mix (which goes really fast according to Nancy Crisp), spinach and three kinds of potatoes.
Efforts like Selma Cafe's "20 Hoops in 20 Days" have organized volunteer labor and low-interest loans to increase the available square footage of winter growing capacity in our area by 60,000 feet last year alone, according to Selma Cafe co-founder, Jeff McCabe. McCabe has since started a hoop house building company, called Nifty Hoops, and says he hopes to put another 120,000 square feet under 50 structures this year.
Nearby, places like Capella Farm, the Farm at St. Joe, Seeley Farm, Green Things Farm, Sunseed Farm, Prochaska and Tantre Farm are all growing year-round with hoop houses. Several, like Capella Farm and Sunseed Farm, now have winter CSA programs. And a new year-round, Tilian Center Residency Farm CSA is just starting up this spring.
According to Dan Bair, winter markets "keep people connected to the freshest, most local food, during the cold months. And in the wintertime, the food coming out of the hoop house is of superior quality because of the sweetness that all the root crops and greens get in the winter."
That sweetness is among the secret amazing payoffs of suiting up with earflaps and parkas for the winter morning market. Michigan's winter vegetables are the sweetest of the entire year because of a survival strategy that cold season plants use.
Jeremy Moghtader say,s "For hardy greens (and roots) that are tolerant of freezing and thawing, it's a physiological adaptation to cold. Plants are preventing water in their cells from freezing by increasing sugar in their cells. If the cells freeze, then they burst. That's why kale and brussels sprouts are sweeter in fall after a frost. In the hoop house, they get repeated exposure to those (freezing and thawing) conditions. It's very noticeable in collards, spinach, parsley, cilantro, kale. Carrots are just very, very sugary. I dug carrots out of the hoop house, and I've never eaten a carrot so sweet. It was almost sinfully sweet. Enough that I wondered — is this still good for me if it's this sweet?"
St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor Farmers' Market
Location: Held in the main hospital lobby.
Address: 5301 McAuley Drive, Ypsilanti, MI 48197
Time: Wednesdays, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
What's available: Dan Bair, Farm Program Manager at the Farm at St. Joe says he's got "salad mix, spinach, arugula, collard greens, kale, chard, scallions - purple ones, carrots, beets, and some garlic."
Saline Winter Farmers' Market
Location: Held indoors at Liberty School in Saline
Address: 7265 Saline Ann Arbor Road, Saline, MI
Time: Saturdays 9 - noon, through the end of April
What's available: Market manager Nancy Crisp says "winter items include: garlic, chard, choi, arugula, carrots, collards, kale, mustard greens, salad mix (which goes really fast), spinach, and three kinds of potatoes — and that's just what was available last week from Capella Farm. Although they're beginning to run out a bit. Prochaska Farm has spinach, radishes, red cabbage, a Japanese heirloom popcorn, and Czech sauerkraut, along with the several cheeses made by Four Corners Creamery in Tecumseh. Kapnick's still have lots of apples and cider."
Ann Arbor Farmers Market
Address: 315 Detroit St., Ann Arbor
Time: Saturdays 8 a.m. - 3 p.m., January through April
Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.