On a recent Saturday morning, visitors to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Haverhill were warmly greeted by two vivacious redheads peddling eggs by the dozen, fresh from their chicken coop.
“You can make omelets with them, or scramble them,’’ the senior sales clerk, 10-year-old Atkinson Academy student Maya Levine, told each potential customer. “You can use them to make bread, and then of course there’s all the things you can bake with them - cake and cupcakes, and bread pudding.’’
By day’s end, Maya and her brother, Ilan, 8, had perfected their sales pitch and sold 19 cartons of “Red’s eggs.’’ For the enterprising siblings, this is no mere child’s play. The duo are proud to be part of the growing buy local movement.
As the days grow shorter and temperatures plummet, winter farmers markets, like the one held each month at the Haverhill church, are contributing to what Scott J. Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, describes as an “agricultural renaissance.’’
“When shoppers buy local from our vendors, the vendors, in turn, usually spend local with the money they make,’’ said Jeff Grassie, cochairman of the Haverhill Winter Farmers Market, now in its inaugural year. “It’s a win-win situation for any community.’’
From Somerville to Newmarket, N.H., the winter farmers markets attract thousands of shoppers each week. Some come seeking the bounty of flavors that only locally grown produce can deliver. Others are drawn to the markets by a desire to do their part to curb the energy consumption that shipping food requires or to support regional growers.
“It’s nice to know that the animals I’m eating had a life - before they didn’t,’’ said Bob Seiler, who spends as much as $50 at the Somerville Winter Farmers Market each week. “This is where I buy most of my food, at least the stuff that doesn’t come in a package.’’
As shoppers shun the produce aisles in their supermarkets in favor of farm-fresh products, winter farmers markets are cropping up across the state, according to David Webber, farmers market program coordinator at the state Department of Agricultural Resources. There are 33 winter markets operating in Massachusetts this season, he said, up from 16 last year. In the Bay State communities covered by Globe North, at least seven winter farmers markets are now operating out of church halls and art and garden centers.
“People want access to their local growers year-round, and farmers are responding to the increase in demand,’’ Webber said. “They’re extending their growing season with greenhouses and high tunnels,’’ or protective hoop houses. Growers also are preserving produce through canning, freezing, and cold storage.
Still, Mother Nature dictates that the region’s winter markets include more supplemental vendors than do their spring and summer counterparts to round out the produce selection, which is heavy on all manner of root vegetables, from taproots (carrots and turnips) and storage roots (sweet potatoes) to tubers (yams and potatoes), rhizomes (ginger), and bulbs (garlic and onions).
“People have to be willing to adjust their habits for what’s in season,’’ said Jennifer Bell, manager of Salem Main Streets, the nonprofit that runs the Salem farmers market and this year extended its operations into December in response to overwhelming demand for a winter market. “They have to think about how to use the local produce and adjust what they’re cooking to what’s produced in the area.’’
At the winter markets, shoppers are likely to find apples, greenhouse-grown salad and cooking greens, and a selection of farmstead cheese, eggs, grass-fed beef, seafood, and honey and maple products. Typically, a wide array of specialty foods is also available, including fresh pasta, baked goods, homemade jams and sauces, and even gourmet dog treats. Many winter markets also offer wines produced by Massachusetts wineries, including Turtle Creek, Willow Spring Vineyards, and Still River.
“Our wines are in 40 stores and 15 restaurants, but the farmers markets offer a higher-quality sale,’’ said winemaker Kipton Kumler, owner of the Turtle Creek Winery in Lincoln, while helping a patron at the Somerville market. “We interact directly with the consumer. If they like the wine, it creates a brand recognition that we wouldn’t get otherwise. We’re a small winery without a tasting room, and outside of a touristy area.’’
Keeping the farmers markets open in winter also helps to boost sales year-round. A nationwide study conducted by the US Department of Agriculture found that markets operating more than seven months in a year garner three times the amount of sales revenue per month than do those that operate only during the prime summer months.
Local market managers said it would be difficult to assess the economic impact of the region’s winter markets, because they are so new to the local landscape. However, area growers said the markets have been a boon to business during a season that is typically slow for them. On a recent Saturday, Anthony Levick, operator of Hill Orchard in Westford, took advantage of the opportunity to sell his storage crops at Eric’s Garden Center, the new home of the town’s winter market, now in its second year of operation.
Peter Maitland of Maitland Mountain Farm in Salem said his involvement with his hometown market led to a contract with a local green grocer who now sells the farm’s eggs, horseradish, and spiced pickles. The Salem market has also helped boost sales at First Light Farm in Hamilton, where produce is sold through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program; people buy shares in the farm’s harvest at the onset of each growing season and then receive a portion of each crop that is cultivated.
“The biggest thing I need is marketing,’’ said Mike Raymond, 42, who runs First Light Farm and is offering a winter CSA that now attracts 85 subscribers, up from a few dozen customers last year. “No one comes to the farm; it’s just a private piece of land that I rent. The market allows me to meet other farmers and show people what I’m doing.’’
For farmer Michael Docter of Winter Moon Farm in Hadley, a featured vendor at the Somerville Winter Farmers Market, the winter markets provide a secondary revenue stream. About 10 to 15 percent of the 140,000 pounds of root crops he sells each year are sold at the indoor markets. Docter, once a traditional farmer, now harvests crops solely during the winter months, from December through March.
“We can grow a higher-quality root, with more flavor, sugar, and taste, in the winter than anywhere near what’s possible in summertime,’’ Docter said, noting that business has been growing between 5 and 10 percent each year as winter markets have become more popular. “We’re famous for our plain old orange carrots, but we also grow Chioggia, Forono, and gold beets, parsnips, turnips, and radishes. Everything is certified organic.’’
The indoor markets strive to make buying local convenient for shoppers of all income levels, including Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients. The markets are now able to process state food assistance cards and in many urban communities the markets are held in densely populated neighborhoods, making farm-fresh produce accessible to people who might not have a car.
“It used to be that the old Salem farmers market was like Haymarket in Boston, but that ended in the mid-1970s with urban renewal,’’ said Bill Clark Jr. of Clark Farm, whose family has been farming 11 acres of tillable land in Danvers since 1728.
“Local growers have been hurt by imports from Florida, California, and even Chile and Argentina,’’ said Clark, a member of the steering committee for Northeast Harvest, a program that promotes local agriculture in Middlesex and Essex Counties. “So to see the reawakening of farmers markets - it’s phenomenal.’’Brenda J. Buote may be reached at email@example.com.