Farmers' markets aren't just warm-weather treats
Mike Murray has friends he affectionately refers to as “Egg Man,” “Chicken Man” and “Cheese Lady.” But his friends are not Sesame Street characters or costume fanatics — they are farmers.
Murray, a 72-year-old Central West End resident, is one of a growing number of St. Louisans who venture out to farmers’ markets through the cold months of winter. Farmers and those who manage farmers’ market say that new technology and the availability of non-produce items have made locally sourced markets viable through all four seasons.
“You could easily have an 8- or 9-month market,” Maplewood Farmers’ Market manager Brian DeSmet says. “People are extending the season and have coop houses, green houses, hydro, that allow them to grow year round. They will bring in all kinds of greens, radishes, turnips, that basically go all year long.”
The Maplewood Farmers' Market is held monthly during the winter inside the Schalfly Bottleworks building near the intersection of Manchester and Southwest. Vendors often fill the space long past what DeSmet called the traditional growing season of April through October.
While the winter market draws slightly less than the summer’s average of 30 vendors, DeSmet sees upticks before the Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays. During the latter, he hosted more than 30 vendors in late November. The market also sees a steady presence of vendors in January and February. DeSmet is quick to point out that at his farmers’ market, vendors can only sell what they personally grow and prepare, making the winter success even more remarkable.
Brian DeSmet (left) looks over his truck farm with Patrick Horine, manager of the Tower Grove Farmer's Marke.
“At my market, there’s none of that [reselling]. It’s all the people who made it, there selling it to you,” DeSmet says.
Five vendors at Maplewood Farmers’ Market have been able to sell produce through the winter, including one farm in Illinois that had fresh cherry tomatoes available in January. The rest of his vendors are comprised of meat, cheese, baked goods and other prepared foods, such as “Mofu” a tofu made from Missouri grown soy.
With growing numbers — nationally, farmers’ markets grew in number by 17 percent across the country from 2010 to 2011 — Farmers’ Markets face a defining moment in St. Louis, says Molly Rockamann.
Molly Rockaman speaks last winter at The Vine Farmers Market in Ferguson, where EarthDance held an information session about its Community Supported Agriculture program.
Rockamann is the founding director of EarthDance Farms, a farm in Ferguson that serves as a training center for organic farmers through an apprenticeship program. The food grown at the farm is sold through the Ferguson Farmers’ Market.
EarthDance trains the “next generation of farmers” and encourages “farm enterprise.” While farmers’ markets are growing more popular, she said that the markets need a stronger base of regular consumers to make markets a reliable source of income for most farmers. Strong year-round markets have the potential to provide more stable revenue.
The Old North Grocery cooperative opened in 2010, providing another way for from-the-farm produce to be available.
“It’s great that folks might go to a farmers’ market one time, but we need that regularity of patronage to make it viable for farmers’ markets to be a main source of revenue,” Rockamann says.
And if vending can be a difficult enterprise in the summer, when produce is in abundant supply and warm weather attracts customers and passerbys to outdoor markets, the winter offers further challenges.
Markets that are open weekly in the summer are often only open monthly in the winter — the monthly Vine at St. Stephen’s church is a smaller, indoor version of the Ferguson Farmers’ Market, which is held weekly from April to October. With winter markets still in a developing stage, recent proposals by the St. Louis County Department of Health to change permitting structures and regulations of farmers' markets created a stir.
Under proposals that were at the foreground of a Feb. 14 public hearing, vendors would purchase a seven-month long permit for $75, valid at one location with additional charges for more locations. Among other proposals, such as barring dogs from markets and forbidding sampling of food without an additional permit, the discussion drew attention to the vague definition of farmers’ markets in county code and regulation.
“There wasn’t any specific language for farmers' markets at all prior to the proposal. Temporary food establishment is what category farmers' markets sell under, which is the same category that festivals that sell funnel cake and deep fried Twinkies,” Rockamann says.
“Those kind of things are in the same category, and you’re really dealing with different transactions, different products.”
Dr. Dolores Gunn, director of the St. Louis County Health Department, says the department was trying to “come up with legislation that is promoting farmer market venues, but at the same time keeps the basic tenants of public health.”
Rockamann believes that implementing new, specific regulation for farmers’ markets is ultimately beneficial for managers, vendors and customers at local markets. Rockamann and DeSmet both say that a lack of communication and transparency led many managers and vendors to worry that the regulations would be harmful to business. After the hearing, both said they thought the regulations showed steps in the right direction.
“Many misrepresentations were made of what the proposal was,” Rockamann says. Still, she believes that the seven-month permit is based on “older notions” of when farms can grow.
With the approach of a new season, Gunn is hoping for new legislation sooner than later.
“Usually we meet with our farmers’ markets right before the start of the season and some of our season starts in about March,” Gunn says. “So we are feeling a little bit of pressure.”
Murray said he was unaware of any proposed regulations facing Chicken Man or Cheese Lady — he shops in the city, which is not directly affected by the county’s decisions. Reached by email in Puerto Rico, he waxes poetic about the growing role of farmers’ market produce available in the 80-degree temperature. But he said he misses his St. Louis markets and seeing neighbors at weekly markets.
“It’s as much a social experience as it is a shopping experience. You get a chance to see people who you don’t see during the week,” he said, adding that it is “absolutely” a public space.
“I guess it’s what took place in the old market places of yesteryears,” he said.