By Zach Anderson
Summer is a haven for local food lovers with long periods of sunshine helping farmers provide customers with their favorite fruits, fresh vegetables, naturally grown meat and unprocessed dairy.
Eating locally grown and produced foods does become more of a challenge in the “off-season,” but thanks to advancements in technology and a growing demand for local foods year-round, there are numerous ways to enjoy some of the same foods in the winter that are available during the summer, spring and fall seasons.
It all starts with the farms.
Visser Farms in Zeeland produces a handful of hearty vegetables in the winter thanks to its ability to grow produce indoors.
“We grow lettuce in the greenhouse in the winter, and then we have a lot of root vegetables in storage,” said Phil Visser, co-owner of Visser Farms.
“We force some belgian endive as well,” he said.”(It) is a root that you grow during the year. You harvest the root and bring it into a cooler, and every week we put a bunch of roots in different trays, and then we force to grow out of that root.”
Visser Farms distributes its produce to local farmers markets, but it also offers a community supported program for sharing produce with customers. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one way for consumers to receive fresh produce from a farm. People buy shares from the farm before the season starts, and in return, they receive a box of fresh produce every week.
“You buy for seven weeks, and you pay ahead of time. You can get a full share for $20 and half share for $12, and we put 8 to 12 products in a week of whatever we happen to have—carrots, potatoes, beets, lettuce. We try to make it different every week,” Visser said.
In addition to winter CSA shares, an alternative way to buy local foods during the winter is from several winter farmers markets.
The Kalamazoo Indoor Flea and Farmers Market was one the first markets to operate solely in the winter in Kalamazoo. It is open from October to April on Tuesday and Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Kalamazoo County Expo Center and Fairground. It is a small market, but it helped to start the trend of winter markets in Kalamazoo.
“When we first started, there weren’t really any other winter markets in town, but in the last couple years, there have been two or three additional winter markets that have popped up that are solely just for farmers. So, now there are a number of winter markets available for them to work with,” said Mandy Eldred, manager of the market.
The Bronson Winter Farmers Market, which opened in 2008, is another winter market in Kalamazoo. This market is open every other Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. starting in December at the Skycourt Café located in the Bronson Methodist Hospital.
Grant Fletcher, director of Food and Nutrition and Retail Services at Bronson Methodist Hospital, said primarily one of the main goals for the market was to provide the hospital’s employees and staff with locally grown foods.
“Many of our staff come to work from outlying areas so they’re not necessarily able to visit the Kalamazoo City farmers markets on Saturdays. So we wanted (the market) to be during the work week,” Fletcher said.
“It’s open during our lunch hour when they have a chance to step away from their work and access the local food and produce that’s available at the market,” he said.
Fletcher said they were one of the first winter markets in town, so they attracted a lot of members from the community.
“There was limited access to local foods during the winter month for all of Kalamazoo, so we were able to fill that niche,” he said.
Although certain produce is scarce and unavailable during the winter, Fletcher said a vast number of foods are still available at the market.
Some of the farmers that work with the Bronson Farmers Market are Visser Family Farms and Avalon Farms, who provide a large quantity of root vegetables, Young Ridge Farms, who provides hormone and nitrate free naturally raised beef and pork products, and Otto’s, who provides chicken. They also welcome in a couple of baked good vendors who provide locally made breads and dessert pastries and one or two vendors who offer canned items like jams, honey and preserves.
Another place to find local foods during the winter months are at organic grocery stores, like the People’s Food Co-op of Kalamazoo. The Co-op offers people in the community another rich and easily accessible source for locally grown foods. Located at 507 Harrison St. in downtown, it is a consumer-owned grocery store that aims to provide locally and naturally grown organic foods to the community at reasonable prices.
Chris Dilley, general manager of the People’s Food Co-Op, said he wishes to “create access to good food for people through daily operations and working with local farms and supporting agriculture that is moving in the right direction.”
Dilley said they are community-based and actively work with other organizations that promote local foods like Fair Food Matters and the Kalamazoo Farmer’s Market.
The grocery store is full year-round with all sorts of locally grown organic foods.
“We work with produce distributors all over the country and we attain local foods from places to get our cheese, meat and dairy, fruit and vegetables and other various organic products,” Dilley said.
Because there are now several ways to consume local foods, Dilley said more people should consider buying locally year-round.
“Obviously, when you eat locally grown foods, they are more nutritionally packed and it’s less of a carbon footprint. The foods are not traveling as far and it is easier on the planet,” he said.
“There’s also a freshness benefit to it,” Fletcher said. “The food is picked at its peaked point of ripeness so often times there is increased flavor and quality. And the longevity of the product really works to our advantage. We can use them over the course of several days rather than using them immediately.”
Eating locally also benefits the local economy and the farms.
“It’s all in the interest of the greater good,” Fletcher said. “We keep these food dollars closer to home and we encourage staff and community members to spend their dollars in the local community rather than the far reaches or outside of the country.”
As director of the Michigan Farmers Market Association, Dru Montri said eating locally and supporting farmers benefits everyone involved, and creates a stronger, more connected community.
“We feel that local and regional food systems are a win-win-win,” Montri said, meaning they benefit farmers, consumers and communities. “Spending locally often is going to build the economic viability of a community, and there are also social benefits, where community residents get to meet farmers or business owners across the table and ask questions to farmers and learn how things are grown and why they are produced a certain way. So in a larger sense, farmers markets provide an active public space and a community gathering place.”