|Easy- to-construct high tunnels have been especially popular for off-season fruits and vegetables that fetch premium prices. Photo by Mark Davis|
Whether you’re selling at farmers markets, through a CSA or on your farm, lengthening your marketing season can be critical to spreading your workload and evening out your cash flow. It can also help maintain relationships with customers and allow you to offer year-round employment to key employees. While some farmers enjoy having off-season “down time” to make repairs or plan for the coming year, others find that practicing seasonal diversification makes for a more well-rounded farm enterprise.
Season extension involves using greenhouses, unheated hoop houses, row covers or alternate varieties to push fruit and vegetable crops earlier into the spring or later into the fall.
In Oregon, farmers Aaron Bolster of Deep Roots Farm and Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm teamed up with the Oregon Farmers’ Market Association on a SARE-funded project to test the idea of extending a popular Portland farmers market through the winter months. Customers got acquainted with the wide array of local products available year-round, while farmers gauged off-season demand. Deep Roots used hoop houses to grow late-season greens and other cold-hardy crops; other farmers, like the Boutards, offered value-added products based on their summer berries and other specialties.
“This is an area where there used to be a lot more emphasis on winter production, but with more shipping and competition from the South, it kind of fell away,” Bolster says. “Now, with the demand for local produce, there’s a real opportunity for farmers who are willing to take it.”
A key goal for Bolster and the Boutards was to keep people employed year-round to foster good workers. They also found the winter market was a catalyst for them to grow more vegetables year-round, then try shopping any extra product to local stores and restaurants. “In winter there’s certainly more risk, but it’s worth it,” Bolster says.
|This Rhode Island greenhouse offers options for producing before and after the traditional season. Photo by MB Miller.|
Sometimes, the key to capturing a valuable market is timing. Having the earliest local sweet corn or tomatoes at the farmers market will command a price premium; the trick is to keep customers coming to your stand through tomato season and beyond. Thinking creatively about how to maximize the overlap between peak demand and peak production is an important part of direct marketing. Becky Walters of Burns, Kan., developed her distinctive pumpkin salsa after selecting an early-maturing pumpkin variety to coincide with tomato and pepper season.
Another part of season extension has to do with understanding the seasonal preferences of your target market. Meat producers often find that customers buy ground beef in the summer and roasts in the winter, for example. In Colorado, the Groves have learned that they have to ship on Thursdays because many people like to receive their meat on Friday for special weekend meals. Moreover, the Groves say that bison sales are strong around the winter holidays and into January, apparently because people resolve to eat healthier meats around the first of year. Finally, raising heritage turkeys for the Thanksgiving market has proven a yearly boon for many poultry producers.