Photos by Lisa Shively
A lot of farmers hibernate for the winter. It’s no secret: biting cold, blustery winds, and blizzards are not friendly to vegetables. It’s hard to find a nice, ripe tomato in December. Onions just aren’t as tasty in January. And February ground simply is not the best incubator for peppers.
But the trends are clear. Increasingly, Middle Tennesseans want to eat healthier, locally sourced food, and we really want more vegetation in our diet. Of course, the epicureans will tell you that it’s always best to eat food in season, and they’re right. But, hey, I love gazpacho all year, not only in the summer. So I would absolutely relish getting my hands on some fresh tomatoes, onions, and jalapeños this winter.
Well, winter be damned. Despite the harsh season’s best efforts, Middle Tennessee farmers have banded together to make sure I get my tomatoes. Farmers’ markets are a staple of Middle Tennessee food culture (and culture in general). Spring and summer are prime growing seasons, of course, with fall being the traditional time for final harvesting. But thanks to some major advances in agriculture, farmers are able to protect the ground from more unfavorable seasons.
Several Middle Tennessee farmers’ markets and their vendors are offering produce that is non-traditional for the winter months. This means that, as I wrote before, I can get some locally sourced tomatoes in December, but it also means that vendors aren’t sticking to what might usually be traditional farmer hibernation season.
Included in the list of places featuring something special this winter are the Nashville Farmers’ Market, Franklin Farmers’ Market, Stones River Market, the Winter Market at the Smith-Trahern Mansion, and the West End Farmers’ Market. Locals in each area (or those who don’t mind a bit of a drive) are in for a treat: a mix of fall seasonal foods and traditional fare (pumpkin spice everything), and some fresh vegetables they may be used to seeing only in the spring and summer.
Take, for example, some of the unique practices and produce of the Winter Market at the Smith-Trahern Mansion (which have been going on for a little while now). A market run by Montgomery Extension agents and volunteers, the Winter Market at the Mansion is a continuation of the Clarksville Downtown Market, and winters have become a time to explore new opportunities and keep things afloat for the vendors and volunteers.
“In 2010, many of the bakers and food processors asked at the end of our Clarksville Downtown Market if Extension could help find a venue for the market to continue inside,” says Extension Agent Kean. “So, the Smith-Trahern Mansion Home of Family and Community Education agreed to have vendors use their home as the Winter Market location.”
Karla Kean works with Tennessee State Cooperative Extension-Montgomery County office. While her primary job is to work with local producers and provide horticulture and small farms programs, Kean also helps identify vendors—with her colleague Martha Pile—for the Winter Market, especially those selling fresh produce, and she helps keep things moving in the winter and spring months.
“Our Winter Market is unique in the fact that we open when the Clarksville Downtown Market closes down for the season, which is usually in mid-October,” Kean notes. In fact, the market is open from mid-October all the way through June, when the Clarksville Downtown Market and other venues open up again for the warmer season, and it features about 75 different vendors.
Kean admits that it can be a little difficult, though.
For example, the market is open only on Fridays, which means that people with Monday-through-Friday day jobs are not likely to be able to visit the mansion during the market’s operating hours. The mansion is a place for education and community, yes, but it’s also a place for weddings and receptions, making Saturday markets impossible.
But despite the somewhat odd market hours, there’s plenty happening. The weekend the market opened for the season, vendors sold to hundreds of people who had stopped and docked during a riverboat cruise.
In addition to the usual trappings of “farmers’ marketry,” the Market at the Mansion keeps its educational focus intact.
“Each Friday, we try to plan an educational event and/or demonstration to draw in the public,” Kean says. According to Martha Pile, the events and courses cover tree planting, raising vegetables and fruits, canning, growing herbs, creating seasonings, and other UT Extension educational opportunity promotions.
While all of this is wonderful, it still doesn’t explain how farmers are providing fresh, out-of-season produce in the winter months. Well, that’s another part of Kean’s job. As the horticulture agent, Kean works with local producers to teach them how to extend their produce growing season.
“This can be done through the use of high tunnels and low tunnels, row covers, etc.,” she explains. “We are limited by the amount of produce that we can provide, but will have limited cool-season type vegetables available throughout the season.”
It may be limited, but it’s more than none. And with all of the other vendors participating—for crafts, food, and other business endeavors—the Winter Market at the Smith-Trahern Mansion is surely a great place to visit this winter.
“Almost everyone has an idea or dream of a small business and that idea might just be the way to more income,” Kean says. “[The Winter Market] promotes local entrepreneurs through Montgomery and the surrounding counties by inspiring, educating, and organizing entrepreneurs and consumers.”
Well, that’s perfect. The winter farmers’ markets in Middle Tennessee keep entrepreneurial dreams alive, and they help keep businesses going. Of course, that’s the most important thing. But it’s no small thing, either, that winter farmers’ markets keep alive my dream of having a tasty, locally sourced Caprese salad on New Year’s Day.