Enjoying the quiet charm of Farmers’ Markets in winter

11872188_10153361086281274_5041627166111848023_oOur local farmer’s markets are easy to love when the sun is shining, the fiddlers are fiddling and the stalls are stacked with luscious summer produce, but what about the markets in winter? They have a special charm about them that is, perhaps, not as readily apparent

“Winter markets are beautiful and fun,” says Nesh Dhillon, executive director of Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets. “There is less hustle and bustle, and more local faces. This is our community at its core.”

Three of SCCFM’s five markets are open year-round, rain or shine: the downtown Santa Cruz market on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 5:30pm; the Westside Santa Cruz market on Saturdays from 9am to 1pm; and the Live Oak market on Sundays from 9am to 1pm.

“People assume that everything tastes best in the summertime, but that’s not always so,” he says. For example, vegetables grown in winter become stressed as temperatures drop and concentrate their sugars for survival, resulting in the highly desirable “frost-kissed” taste.

“This time of year the flavors are sweeter, especially in root crops like parsnips, carrots and beets. There is more density of flavor in leafy greens—kales and chards are phenomenal,” he says.

Brussels sprouts, cabbages and other cruciferous crops like broccoli and cauliflower are also at their best during the winter months in our area. And you’ll begin to see early artichokes here in winter due to our mild coastal climate.

MICRO-GREENS

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SCCFM executive director Nesh Dhillon with education and events coordinator Nicole Zahm

If people get bored with hearty winter veggies, Dhillon suggests experimenting with micro-greens grown in Corralitos by Ken Kimes and Sandra Ward of New Natives.

“If you are missing the bling of summer produce, I always tell people to get into micro-greens. They are one of the hidden gems of the market,” says Dhillon. “Sprinkle some on top of any dish and it totally enhances the meal.”

Micro-greens grow vigorously and are less perishable in winter months. He recommends buckwheat shoots and pea shoots as a fresh-tasting addition to any salad.

Citrus is the other pillar of the farmers’ market in winter. Fruits like oranges, mandarins, pommels, kumquats and mandarins are plentiful and several vendors sell them at the farmers’ markets.

Brokaw Farms, for example, began selling citrus at the downtown market in mid-January with clementines, Eureka lemons, and guavas. Brokaw is the only grower in California that sells tree-ripened white guavas—which makes them hard to handle but divinely fragrant. They are also featuring, for the first time this year, an early-season avocado called Carmen that they’ve developed themselves, to be followed in a few weeks by everyone’s favorite Haas avocados.

RAIN OR SHINE

12509571_10153376445281274_3303944567139583892_nMost of the vendors at SCCFM attend year-round and winter markets are crucial for the survival of many local farms.

“Some growers are seasonal and plant cover crops in winter, but most of our farms are production-based growers and need to have an outlet year round,” says Dhillon.

“It’s really important for people who are dedicated to local food to know that the “off-months” are critical to keeping farms going,” he emphasizes.

While market days in winter can sometimes be rainy, they are never cancelled. “If markets try to second guess the weather, they’ll always get it wrong,” he jokes. “So we’re open every single week, rain or shine—barring the storm of the century.”

“We have to make that commitment, it shows respect for the community,” he adds.

When shoppers put on their rain gear and come out to the market on a stormy day they always get the most heartfelt appreciation from vendors and market staff. Step under the awning and there will likely be lots of time to chat, which is another advantage of going to the farmers’ market in winter.

WHAT’S NEW

1613908_10152741614276274_8081378396098968385_nAs winter gives way to spring, the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets will open its Scotts Valley market on April 2 and run every Saturday from 9am to 1pm until Thanksgiving. Its Felton market opens the following month on May 3 and runs every Tuesday from 2:30-6:30pm until the end of October.

A series of free food preservation workshops organized last season with Mountain Feed and Farm Supply proved so popular that they will be expanding the program this year.

Up to 20 classes will be held at all five SCCFM locations on homesteading skills like making jam, fermenting sauerkraut and turning local milk into cheese. Along with the classes there will be music and tastings to turn it into a little party.

The workshops will complement two other well-established programs: the Pop Up Farmers’ Market Brunches featuring local chefs; and the Foodshed Project, a series of events that pair farmers and chefs to teach about growing and cooking with specific ingredients. Last year’s Foodshed series focused on blueberries, plums, cheese and beets, with lots of tastings and fun activities for the kids. Watch for new  topics at this year’s series.

“My whole thing is educating people to take ownership of the food that’s grown here in the community and to have fun,” says Dhillon.

Clearly, local farmers’ markets deserve our support in every season of the year.

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