What makes a year-round market successful in a four-season climate?

When considering whether to extend the season for your farmers market, market managers and organizers must consider many factors. One of those factors is supply – not only of vegetables but of customers.

Most farmers markets in Michigan are ending their seasons soon, but a growing number are choosing to stay open or have the capacity to move to a year-round schedule. Market managers and organizers must consider the supply and demand in the winter months: not only of farmers and vendors but also of customers.

Supply in the winter requires that a market have farmers and vendors who are interested in participating in the winter. Your local market may have vendors who are bringing baked goods, prepared food and handmade products or crafts and these people might be very interested in a longer season. Farmers who raise animals for sale will often have product throughout the year because they freeze the meat they are raising. When it comes to fresh produce, you must check with your farmers about their desire and capacity to farm beyond the frost.

Some farmers prefer to have winter for planning and focus on other projects that are necessary to prepare for the coming spring. In addition, many organizations, like Michigan State University Extension, offer educational opportunities and meetings during the winter for farmers. Vegetable and fruit farmers must have either growing or storage capacity for the winter season. Even in the northern climate of the Upper Peninsula, farmers can utilize unheated, passive solar greenhouses, sometimes called high tunnels or hoophouses to grow plants through the winter. Many products at local grocery stores including winter tomatoes are coming from the area around Leamington, Ontario in Canada. These vegetables are being grown in a large concentration of hoophouses.

In assessing supply, ask your farmers and vendors if they would be interested in extending their season. There are a number of loan programs that can help Michigan farmers finance hoophouses including Hoophouses for Health, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, The ShadeFund, and Michigan Economic Development Corporation.

Considering farmer interest is important before making decisions about extending your season. Engage your farmers or vendors in conversation. Don’t take any of them for granted – even those with products that aren’t impacted by seasons. Many vendors make decisions based on additional considerations including family responsibilities, off-season employment, product demand during the off-season and the desire to have a break from the grind of preparing products for sale at market.

Assessing the supply of market customers is critical to success. Farmers markets have a season that brings products to people but you must be sure that your customers are interested in shopping at your market year-round. Much of the appeal of your market is the fresh food, but do not discount the appeal of being outside and enjoying the day. If your market has the space to be inside, you may be less visible to customers and may have to make a larger effort at advertising and marketing. Consider reducing market days or hours for the winter season to put the resources of vendors and market organizers to their best advantage. Engage customers through a survey during the core season and look for ways to promote your market through seasonal promotions such as themed holiday markets.

With careful consideration, the opportunity for a year-round market may be easily recognized through thoughtful communication and assessment.

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