Thursday, December 04, 2014

Willamette Valley Farmers' Markets Keep Expanding

When Scott Alexander, publisher and editor of Willamette Living magazine, asked me what I'd like to write about for the winter issue, I immediately thought of the profusion of winter farmers' markets that have sprung up in the last couple of years.

Most of the time, looking out my frosty bedroom window on a cold winter morning makes me want to snuggle deeper under the covers. But dreaming of steaming hot bowls of soup chock-full of winter greens or imagining the rich aroma of roasted chicken cooking on a bed of winter vegetables can get me out of bed and headed to one of the many winter farmers’ markets in the Willamette Valley.

In spring and summer most folks don’t blink an eye at the thought of eating seasonally, with the profusion of berries and greens, vegetables and fish, meat and poultry flooding farmers’ markets. But talking about doing the same thing in winter might conjure visions of sad, soupy bowls of boiled root vegetables.

Fortunately for us, though, the relatively mild maritime climate of the Willamette Valley is perfect for growing crops that do well in our winters. Some vegetables, like kale and most root vegetables, taste even better when temperatures take a dive.

Give Tom DeNoble of DeNoble’s Farm Fresh Produce in Tillamook a choice between a height-of-summer carrot and one pulled out of the ground in January, and it’s no contest. He’ll choose the winter carrot every time. According to him, the quality of winter vegetables is just as good as or even better than in the summer, though they may not be quite as pretty. That’s because cold temperatures cause the plants to produce sugars that act as antifreeze, making them taste sweeter. Plus they’re also growing more slowly, which causes them to develop more intense flavors.

Farmers up and down the valley have been getting smarter about using season-extending methods like hoop houses, cold frames and row covers, plus selectively breeding vegetables for characteristics like cold tolerance while maintaining or even improving flavor. For shoppers that means that in addition to year round regulars like fresh salad and braising greens, carrots, apples, cauliflower and broccoli, there are the winter stars like the fractalized chartreuse cones of romanesco, and my choice for the ugliest, most delicious vegetable ever, celery root (aka celeriac). Then there are root vegetables like kohlrabi, beets in all colors of the rainbow, turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnips and rutabagas. For omnivores of all stripes there is sweet, start-of-the-season Dungeness crab, and lots of lamb, pork and beef.

"The game has changed with winter markets," said John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm in Philomath. In addition to being able to keep plants in the ground through the winter, what really pushed his farm into its current year-round status was that his crew needed full-time employment to stay in the area. Winter markets mean he can now keep them working year-round rather than laying them off each fall, hoping they’d come back the next year. This means the farm, like any business, also benefits from retaining their institutional knowledge, spending less time on training and more time improving systems.

Read the rest of the article to learn about the economic impact that winter markets have on their communities, plus find a listing of all the winter markets—18 and counting—in the Willamette Valley.

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