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Are Farmer’s Markets Worth It in the Winter?

January 21, 2010

From May to early November my local Farmers’ Market holds forth every Saturday morning just three blocks from my house in New Hampshire. Husband Lew and I head out early, before all the good stuff is gone, and wander among the two dozen vendors, glorying in the bright colors of the vegetables, the delight of the children feeding greens to Farmer Charlie’s chickens, and the sweet tunes of the fiddler who busks for change on the edge of the crowd.

In winter, our Saturday mornings seem empty and aimless without this anchor of community and good food. So we were delighted to learn that Seacoast Eat Local was holding a Winter Farmer’s Market this week. My joy, however, was tempered with skepticism. How many farmers would be there? What could they possible sell in January besides potatoes and onions left over from last year’s harvest?

“Let’s go anyway,” said Lew. “We should show our support. We might be about the only ones there.”

Not so. We could barely elbow our way into the Exeter (NH) High School cafeteria, where the market was being held, so thick were the crowds. It was a perfect location, evocative of the arched market halls of Europe, and central to an area that supports six different  farmers’ markets a week in summer.

We found plenty to buy, too, once we let go of our summer-market visions of red tomatoes, corn, and buckets of green beans. The same farmers who feature their vegetarian side all summer now showed a distinctly carnivorous bent, selling homemade sausage, stew meat, chops, and roasts.  We also found goat cheese and soap, preserves, locally ground and blended coffee, and houseplants.

The first vendor near the door was our favorite egg lady, from White Gate Farm. Over the years we’ve learned that she teaches sixth grade during the week, but keeps the family farm going the rest of the time. A dozen of her best varicolored eggs went into our tote bag.

We skipped the fishmonger selling fresh oysters, and stopped to listen to the guy from Yellow House Farm tell another shopper how to cook one of his heritage ducks. A heavy covered casserole or clay pot works best, he advised, with a quick blast of high heat, uncovered, at the end to crisp the skin. As he talked, he tossed the frozen duck back and forth in his hands.

Across the way was Jeff Cantara, from New Roots Farm. Renée and Jeff managed another local farm when our son Sam was a summer intern there, but two or three years ago they were finally able to buy their own farm. They started off slowly with vegetables, and are now diversifying to include animals. “I am sooo antsy,” sighed Jeff. “It always feels so good when the season ends and you can stop working so hard. But along about January, I can’t wait to get back in the dirt.” We added a package of frozen chorizo sausage to our bag, and asked Jeff to give our best to Renée.

Next stop, Brookford Farm for their wonderful thick fresh yogurt. Two of our local stores carry this wonderful product, so we were not in full withdrawal on this one. Still, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy this week’s jar directly from the farm, so they could pocket the full amount. Luke and Caterina Mahoney met on a farm in Russia, farmed for a few years in Caterina’s native Germany, then bought Brookford Farm in Rollinsford in 2007. Like the Cantaras, the Mahoneys represent a new generation of young farmers raising kids and good food in our neck of the woods, giving us the promise of more local delicacies all the time.

“There’s lettuce,” a passing friend informed us, in a tone normally reserved for insider stock tips. Really? Actual live greens? We back-tracked in the indicated direction and picked up both lettuce and a bag of fresh spring mix from one of the few farmers with a greenhouse. Buying local doesn’t always come with a small carbon footprint if you want greens in January in New England. But we did. Here’s a photo of everything we bought (except the chorizo):

Last stop was Kellie Brook Farm, for a small package of meat for today’s beef stew. We aren’t heavy meat eaters, but just a bit of meat will add flavor to the beans, carrots, potatoes, onions and rutabagas already planned for the pot simmering on the stove today. Tim Rocha used to be a maintenance engineer at a manufacturing plant before he decided to raise chickens, pigs and cows fulltime. Our small purchase helps keep his dream alive – and gives us some high-quality, humanely-raised meat for the pot.

Lew tasted the craft-roasted coffee, with enthusiasm. I nibbled a sample of goat cheese, we met the folks doing custom granola online, and we listened to Jeff Warner, a local musician who specializes in traditional historic songs and instruments. While the smell of wet wool coats had replaced the scent of basil we’re used to at the summer markets, our Winter Farmers’ Market showed that the local food scene is alive and well throughout the coldest days of the year.

– Cindy

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One Comment leave one →
  1. February 3, 2010 10:38 pm

    Thank-you for your enthusiastic post! We’re constantly amazed at what our area farmers continue to bring to market, especially after such a difficult growing season last year. Do come and visit our other Winter Farmers’ Market at the Wentworth Greenhouses in Rollinsford — another gorgeous setting for our wonderful farmers and vendors!

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