5 Tips for Shopping the Winter Farmers’ Market

Whether you’ve retired your garden for the winter or simply seek out the company of other farmers, here are some tips for getting the most out of your town’s winter market.

by John D. Ivanko

Unless you live somewhere that never sees frost, the phrase “winter farmers’ market” almost sounds like an oxymoron. The things that lure us to the market all summer long, from the fresh fruits to chats with suntanned farmers, freeze up in the winter, right? Fortunately, the answer to that is increasingly no. According to the USDA, winter farmers’ markets are increasing in number around the country, growing more than 50 percent annually. Winter markets now account for roughly 25 percent of the markets listed in the USDA national directory.

Here’s a secret we’ve found: Winter markets cultivate an even better vibe than standard summer markets. Why? A feeling of gratitude fills the air because all of us, from farmers to shoppers, realize items for sale are more limited and we appreciate any options at the market all the more. We also miss the camaraderie and social scene weekly summer markets bring. We yearn for some social time with our foodie friends so winter markets have even more of a fun party feel.

We love the winter farmers’ market vibe so much that we’re involved with organizing one here in our rural Wisconsin community. The Monroe Holiday Farmers’ Market will have a focus on stocking up for Thanksgiving and getting an early start on holiday food gifts. We’ll be bringing our fall crops, such as leeks, cabbage and potatoes, as well as some canned items like pickles and sauerkraut. (Did we mention the abundance of cabbage this season?)

Whatever winter farmers’ market you visit or vend at, here are some ideas to make the most of your experience.

1. Release the List

No, it’s not your typical summer market full of fresh abundance. That’s part of the fun and, admittedly, challenge of eating seasonally: working with what you have. Let go of your shopping list and instead draw meal-planning inspiration from what you see at market. Perhaps you’ll be drawn to a unique winter squash in a color and shape you’ve never seen before or splurge on some sun-dried tomatoes.

2. Ask Questions

Back to that unique squash: Be prepared to see some more unusual items at winter markets. Don’t shy away if something looks different; rather ask the farmer questions. Farmers are happy to share recipes and cooking tips. We’re expecting to answer questions and need to “sell” our sauerkraut a bit at the Monroe Holiday Farmers’ Market. While sauerkraut is a traditional food with long historic roots, it isn’t too mainstream anymore today. We’ll include recipes and serving tips that will hopefully turn curious shoppers into purchasers and sauerkraut fans.

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3. Start Holiday Shopping

Winter farmers’ markets can be a shopper’s dream for unique gift items of the most practical, appreciated kind: food! From colorful pickled vegetables to jams and honey, hand-crafted foods offer a good way to start your holiday shopping. Think about collecting a variety of items from different vendors to create food gift baskets with a multitude of locally made treats.

4. Shop Slow

Perhaps inspired by the dormancy of winter or that fact that we crave some foodie market company, folks seem to linger more at winter markets. We don’t have as rushed a schedule as in the summer and probably don’t have a long agenda of other activities for the rest of the day, so we can take our time and explore and chat a bit. Embrace the slowness and relax and linger to connect.

5. Give Thanks

Take a moment to give thanks to those farmer heroes who raise and craft the market’s bounty. As we enter the holiday season, take any market opportunity to not just buy something from a farmer (although please do that, too), but to connect and thank those in your area supporting local and community agriculture and enter the New Year and growing season on a good note!

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