BENNINGTON -- Even when the days are short and their farms are covered with snow, local farmers have embraced new techniques to keep the Bennington Farmers Market stocked with fresh produce all winter long.
One of the few New England farmers markets that continue running through the winter, the Bennington Farmers Market (formerly known as the Walloomsac Farmers Market) has grown so popular that last year they upgraded the monthly off-season market to run twice each month. During the summer, the market takes place every Saturday and Tuesday at the riverside park on Depot Street in Bennington, and during the winter they move indoors to the First Baptist Church at 600 Main St.
Leslie Kielson, president of the market's board of directors and a vendor herself, said the market's off-season expansion has been a boon for the local food community.
"It has been great not only for the farmers, but really for all the producers, who are all smaller producers selling locally. It provides more of a steady income stream throughout the year, as opposed to just during the six months that we're outdoors," she said. "And, it's really a service to the community to be able to get fresh locally produced products, where they're buying directly from the producer."
John Primmer of Wildstone Farm in Pownal was similarly enthusiastic about the year-round market.
"The winter market now going twice a month has made a huge difference in our bottom line," he said.
Wildstone is one of three produce farms that continue to supply the market with fresh produce throughout the winter, along with Mighty Food Farm in Pownal and True Love Farm in Shaftsbury.
The farms use carefully monitored root cellars and coolers to store fresh root vegetables throughout the winter, as well as unheated high tunnels (or greenhouses) for growing fresh greens like lettuce, spinach and kale.
Primmer explained this high-tunnel technique is a relatively new idea, which has only become popular in this area over the past 10 or 12 years.
"It's based on the way French market gardeners grew things back in the 19th century around Paris," he said, "and a lot of folks have been adapting it for Vermont. Everybody's still learning, but we share our knowledge."
Because the greenhouses are unheated, Primmer said, they're often as cold as the outdoors. To protect the plants, he covers them once the outdoor temperatures drop into the 20s.
"The big challenge is finding a time to harvest. If it's cloudy and cold, you really can't harvest in the greenhouses," he said. "Once you peel back their covers, you're going to expose the plants to that cold. So, we have to read the weather ahead and time it just right."
Lisa MacDougall of Mighty Food Farm in Pownal, who has been selling at the Bennington market for seven years, explained the process of storing root vegetables in her coolers at just-above freezing temperatures allows her to sell carrots, onions, potatoes, winter squash, sweet potatoes, celeriac, turnips, rutabaga and more at the Bennington market.
"They're stored at 33 degrees in a pretty high humidity in the walk-in coolers," she said. "We have them stored in special woven plastic bags, and they're stored dirty. When we need them, we take them out and wash them."
"I definitely think that storing the vegetables dirty helps," she said. "It has been shown that carrots will have a higher sugar content. They stay really fresh. It's a matter of keeping the humidity in there, so the vegetables stay fresh, and then keeping it cold."
While the Bennington market's loyal local customer base loves having access to locally grown organic vegetables throughout the winter, the markets have also become important social occasions for the local community. Even in the winter, each market brings local musicians and special events, like a tool-sharpening demonstration happening Friday, March 14.
As the market prepares to move back outdoors in May, they've started to plan more regular events, projects and activities for children at the market, starting with their yearly tradition of collaborating with Bennington College students for special kids' events around Earth Day.
"It's great just to watch as people come in and see their neighbors, and other folks from the community, and they hang out and talk in small groups," Kielson said. "It definitely has a strong community feel."
If you go ...
What: Bennington Farmers Market
When: First and third Saturday of each month
Where: First Baptist Church on Main Street in Bennington
When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. through the end of April. Starting in May the market will return to the park on Depot Street along the Walloomsac River every Saturday morning and Tuesday afternoon.