Photo by gleangenie/morguefile.com
There was a time when many consumers in the northern U.S. pretty much forgot about local produce after November. Once the pumpkins, apples and cider, cranberries, squash and turkey were gone, it was out of sight, out of mind until spring.
If you're reading this column, you're in the agriculture industry, so you know as well as I do that there have always been plenty of local farm products year-round, just not the same wide selection or specific products that your average shopper would expect to find at a farmstand or farmers' market in the summertime.
Winter offerings were limited to Christmas trees, dairy products, processed products like jams and preserves, greenhouse flowers, and produce put in cold or controlled-atmosphere storage at harvesttime.
Those products are still staples for many farms, but until fairly recently, farmers involved in direct marking had to decide whether they wanted to stay open to sell such off-season products, supplement their own product line by buying from suppliers in other locations, or shut down completely until spring.
Several trends have converged to make nearly year-round selling feasible for northern-latitude farmers. If you're in a colder clime, you now have both the means to extend your growing season and marketing outlets where you can sell your fresh produce in the winter.
First, season-extending high tunnels, also known as hoophouses, allow growers to put crops in the ground much earlier and harvest much later in the season. Those with high tunnels can supply customers with fresh-picked greens in March and tomatoes in November.
Next, the increasing number of indoor winter farmers' markets and permanent public markets is providing additional marketing venues to sell those crops, along with the traditional winter staples.
The third trend is the locavore movement, whose followers try to only eat food grown within a narrow radius of where they live. As the locavore concept has spread and gained visibility over the years, it has influenced more mainstream consumers to seek out local products year-round.
If they seek, they will find, aided by the proliferation of informational tools and resources such as foodie websites, government websites and, of course, social media.
One pretty cool social media-type site I came across recently is Real Time Farms (http://www.realtimefarms.com). A self-described crowd-sourced nationwide food guide, the site allows users to track where food comes from by mapping farms, farmers' markets, food artisans and eateries across the country where they've bought food. They can also post photos of the farms and the products they sell.
Users can search for food businesses by name, product or location. Search results pinpoint locations on a map and give information about the businesses and photos posted by users. Any user has the ability to contribute to the site.
That's just one of many ways consumers are gathering information about local farms and products - and talking about them too. And it's a 24/7/365 conversation unfettered by time zones, seasons or geographic borders. It's word-of-mouth marketing on steroids.
The bottom line is that today you can have products to sell more months of the year, outlets where you can sell them, and a very interested customer base to purchase them. The planets seem to have aligned for extended-season marketing.
The author, a freelance writer, is a public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Massachusetts Department of Food & Agriculture.