We intended to create and manage a winter farmers market that provided a viable direct marketing outlet for local farmers and ranchers. The Hillsdale Farmers Market conducted nine open-air twice-monthly markets from early November 2004 to March 2005. One market was cancelled due to an intense ice storm that immobilized the city and made it impossible for farmers to transport produce.
Local producers proved capable of producing and marketing a stunning array of seasonal produce, greatly increasing consumer access to fresh, local farm products during the winter months. Educational materials were produced and disseminated to facilitate consumer adoption of this regions winter produce. Markets were well attended by vendors and customers alike, with two winter market sessions nearly matching the summer market’s high customer attendance rate. Nearly all vendors were pleased with the winter market’s positive financial impact and were planning to return for another winter market season. Total market sales volume and consumer profiles were analyzed using a Rapid Market Assessment technique.
1) Create and promote a covered, farmer- and rancher-initiated, community-supported winter farmers market.
2) Enhance the economic viability of farming in the Willamette Valley by providing a farm-direct marketing opportunity in the winter when few others exist and expanding demand for winter products produced in the Willamette Valley.
3) Sustain local producers and their labor year-round.
4) Decrease the number of food miles traveled from farm to table in the winter, thus minimizing the environmental impact of the transport of food during the winter.
5) Provide increased consumer access to fresh, local produce and other local agricultural products (lamb, oysters, beef, crab, pork) during the winter months.
6) Educate consumers about buying, storing and using produce (and other farm products) available during the winter months. Create resources that can be shared and duplicated for producers who direct-market during the winter months.
7) Educate farmers and market managers about what products can be grown and marketed directly during the winter in the Willamette Valley and demonstrate a viable winter farm-direct outlet for their products.
8) Evaluate the success of the project and disseminate lessons learned.
Our primary questions were:
1) Would the winter weather cooperate enough to have an open-air market, as no covered location is available in the community?
2) Would customers frequent a winter market if the weather was bad and buy winter produce?
3) Would a winter market draw customers from the greater Portland metro area (as opposed to the 80% summer customers that come from within a 2-mile radius of the market)?
4) Would farmers, ranchers and other vendors have a variety of produce and be able to grow and harvest significant quantities that attract and retain loyal customers?
5) Could the market advertise effectively enough and draw the customer base necessary to support a winter market?
We found that people came no matter what the weather, although sunny days always brought in more, and that plenty of interesting and fascinating produce was available. Survey results from a Rapid Market Assessment conducted by OSU Extension at the March 13 market show that over 80% of the market visitors lived within 5 miles of the market.
Other accomplishments include:
1) Providing a venue for businesses and non-profits to share what they provide the community.
2) Providing a venue for school-age children (music and nutrition projects) to share what they learned with the community.
3) Gleaning over $3,000 worth of produce, contributing it for the emergency food boxes distributed by Neighborhood House, Inc., a local non-profit social service agency.
4) Generating a large amount of community support exemplified by the large number of participating volunteers.
5) Providing an opportunity for market management to learn how to successfully cancel a market (due to an ice storm) with effective phone calling systems, TV and radio spots and signage.
6) Providing many “lessons learned”: generated research questions, collected data valuable to others, created methodologies for other markets and showed the importance of effective marketing and advertising strategies.
BENEFITS OR IMPACTS
1) Enhanced the economic viability of farmers and ranchers by providing a year-round direct market. Fifty vendors, including 30 farmers and ranchers, participated in the largest open-air winter market in Oregon. Several vendors (farmers) experienced their largest sales of any farmers market at any time during the year.
2) Enabled at least six farms to employ farm labor throughout the year due to the creation of a direct marketing outlet during the winter months.
3) Allowed for the development of new growing methods, provided an experimental market for new products and increased the types of produce grown throughout the winter by expanding the marketing season.
4) Routinely attracted crowds of over 2,000 customers—one market had the third largest attendance of any market in the history of the Hillsdale Farmers Market.
5) Decreased the number of food miles traveled from farm to table reducing the impact on the environment and use of fossil fuels.
6) Increased consumer access to fresh produce in the winter months and increased their knowledge of the use of winter produce, by distributing information to market goers on nutrition, use of winter vegetables and the seasonality of produce.
7) Proved there is a market and consumer interest in acquiring fresh produce year-round.
While winter production clearly represents a unique set of challenges, increasing consumer demand will continue to drive more and more experimentation with year-round production. Producers that have experienced the success of this off-season marketing opportunity have begun to use many season-extending techniques such as high and low tunnels and row covers. They are also experimenting with new crop varieties that can withstand cooler temperatures and are learning how to best store fall-harvested crops (dry beans, apples, squash, potatoes) for sale throughout the winter months. As winter fresh markets inevitably expand, so will the number of profitable producers.
REACTION FROM PRODUCERS
Vendor questionnaires were handed out to the 37 vendors who attended the March 13 and March 27 sessions. Fourteen vendors completed the questionnaires. All 14 responded that two sessions per month was the right number of market sessions in the winter. Eight vendors stated that their sales exceeded expectations and six stated that their sales met expectations.
As a percent of their overall sales, the winter market sessions for the respondents varied from less than 5% (three respondents) to over 20% (six respondents). All 14 respondents would attend a winter market next year with four adding that they plan to expand their product offerings next winter. One participant responded: “Every market consistently exceeded my expectations. My farm needs to produce more quantity and variety to meet the increased demand from this market. This winter market is showing farmers that we need to grow more winter crops.”
1) Create grants that provide capacity for farmers and markets to collaborate with local government to explore and invest in central covered market sites.
2) Realize that farmers need extensive lead time to plan for winter markets and schedule seed acquisition, labor, planting and harvesting.
3) Conduct a mini-plot to determine customer base, farmer interest, product availability, appropriate number of markets, schedule, times and location.
4) Extensive and sometimes expensive marketing and advertising is essential for the success of a winter market. Spending money here pays off. Do not assume because you have a successful summer market, that a winter one will be just as successful.
5) Create and maintain an emergency communication plan for market cancellation and an emergency contingency plan for inclement weather during a market (high winds, horizontal rains, snow and ice) and purchase and maintain equipment essential in changing weather conditions (canopy weights, canopy sides, snow removal capacity).
The Hillsdale Winter Farmers Market conducted significant marketing in the Portland Metropolitan area using signage as well as newspaper, television and periodical advertisement. Additionally, the Oregon Farmers’ Market Association (along with Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Agriculture) served as a principle vehicle for information dissemination through their existing listserv connecting market managers, board members and producers throughout Oregon through the Farm-Direct Market conference, their website and annual publications.