Pull Your Farmers Close This Winter; Help to Keep Them Warm

Don't let the end of the growing season mark the beginning of farmers' winter of discontent.

dying farms

A snow-covered farm in Lancaster, Pa. (Photo: Kevin Cummings/Getty Images)

Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

Farming is, to say the least, a volatile line of work—especially in regions that feel the unique brunt of all four seasons. Too much rain in the spring can diminish a crop from the moment seeds are planted. Too little rain in the summer and fall can devastate an entire season's worth of agriculture, as we sadly witnessed in the drought of 2012. A natural disaster like a hurricane or a tornado can pop up out of nowhere and wreak havoc.

And then there’s winter.

The end of growing season, also the prime selling season, can hit farmers hard. But as the Chinese proverb says, “A snowy winter preludes a bumper harvest.”

In most parts of the country, winter means no growing, and thus no selling, for farmers. Period. You won’t hear most farmers complaining about this fact, because it’s been true since the beginning of farms and winter. And the temperate months of the year give plenty for farmers to complain about throughout the winter.

That doesn’t mean farmers’ needs aren’t great in the off-season.

“Most farmers’ financial needs are to maintain cash flow for family expenses so that they have adequate start-up capital—seeds, plants, fertilizer, fuel, etc., in the late winter and spring,” says longtime Massachusetts farmer Jeff Cole, who is also the executive director of Massachusetts Farmers’ Markets. “Seed buying starts now for many farmers, and to be sure that we get what we want—often seeds run out for the best varieties—we have to order and pay by Christmas or sooner.” 

What if we all made a little extra effort to support a farmer this winter? Here are five great ways to do just that.

Shop Late-Season and Winter Farmers Markets

Weekly trips to the farmers market are obviously a highlight of the warm summer months, but don’t stop going just because there’s a little bite in the air. Many farmers markets extend through the late fall, depending on the climate of the region where they operate, and the number of winter farmers markets is increasing nationwide. The USDA reported last December that the number of winter markets increased 52 percent between 2011 and 2012, bringing the total to 1,864 nationwide.

Make Your 2014 CSA Plans Now

The wisdom of community supported agriculture, of course, is that consumers help farmers sidestep some of the uncertainties in farming around yields and profits by pre-paying for a season's worth of shares. Many local farms are already taking orders for shares in next year's summer and fall CSAs, and there may not be a better way to support a farmer this winter than to pay for next year's food now.

Buy Local Meat and Dairy

We sometimes forget that production of milk, cheese, and meat does not stop when the temperature drops. Many health food stores, farmers markets, and even some supermarket chains carry local animal products. Another option is to join a meat CSA, which would get you beautiful cuts of grass-fed beef, pastured chickens, and more on a weekly basis throughout the winter. Check LocalHarvest.org to see if there are any meat CSAs near you.

Join a Winter CSA

Community-supported agriculture continues to be a winning formula for both the financial security of local farmers and the needs of locavores. Numerous farms across the country extend the growing season with greenhouses and hoop houses, offering those vegetables and cellared crops (often the cold-weather root veggies, but not always) throughout the winter. While the deadline to sign up and pay may have passed in some cases, call around to local farms and see what they can do. At any rate, they’ll appreciate the thoughtful effort.

Support Farmers’ Off-Season Businesses        

Most small farmers supplement their income during the winter by plowing snow, selling firewood, and pursuing other such farmwork-related (and sometimes non-farm-related) endeavors. Identifying farmers in your area with second or third jobs, using their services, and promoting their businesses within your personal networks are great ways to support local agriculture in the off-season. 

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