All photos by Rachel Fernandez
Chicago residents are sufficiently pampered with some of the best outdoor farmers markets during the spring and summer seasons. Vendors from all over the Midwest set up shop everywhere from Hyde Park to Evanston to sell their fresh cucumbers and bell peppers and berries that seem to only grow for a couple of weeks out of the whole year.
It all seems to come to a screeching halt, however, once the brutal Midwest winter starts. November rolls around, strawberries turn sour and standing outside becomes a burden. Outdoor markets once crowded with booths and people suddenly become deserted with the exception of a few plastic bag tumbleweeds, and dedicated vendors move their concessions to the more sparse (yet still popular) winter farmers markets.
The experience changes drastically based on the season and what can be grown. Candi Skinner, a farmer and vendor for Lyons Fruit Farm based out of South Haven, Michigan, sets up about four booths with eight other workers in the summer whereas she and her husband handle the one booth they set up in the winter.
“On a given day at a market in the summer I have about 20 items where now I just have a handful,” says Skinner. “Apples are the only product in season right now and most of them are left over from the fall.”
As apple farmers, Skinner and her husband are able to sell their products throughout the winter since the fruit stores well and stays fresh for a long time, but the colder months are also the peak growing season for a variety of vegetables. Produce like root vegetables, gourds and leafy greens all make appearances from November to April.
“During the winter we sell mostly spinach and carrots. They are storage crops and they last a long time,” says Brian Elias, a regular year-round vendor for Tomato Mountain.
Favorite summer products such as tomatoes don’t grow as well in the frost, but there are still ways that consumers can enjoy these products all year. Elias takes to preserving the veggies so that customers can eat fresh salsa and pasta sauces even when it’s cold outside.
“We jar our tomatoes during the summer so we can sell them throughout the winter,” says Elias. “Once our carrots and spinach sells out, we really only have our jarred products.”
Although both the veggie variety and the crowd sizes go down in the winter, Elias finds that the shoppers in coats are usually the most loyal.
“We have a more focused customer base in the winter than in the summer,” says Elias. “During the summer many of the markets are very ‘see-and-be-seen’ whereas the folks who come out here trudging through the cold are here to shop and more inclined to buy.”
There’s a certain stamina that winter farmers market customers have to maintain. Braving the cold every weekend to go to a small market stocked with acorn squash and radishes does take thick skin and deep-rooted dedication. However, these shoppers are absolutely making the best of the seasonal produce as we enter the final weeks to make squash soup.