Local farms keep trucking through harsh winters

By Colin Shively

When the trees are green, the air is warm and the flowers are blooming, farmers throughout Illinois gather in Chicago at farmers markets to sell their produce. Yet, as October draws near and days grow colder, the local markets disappear, making it more difficult for consumers to keep buying produce from Illinois farmers.

Fortunately for local food lovers, some farmers markets survive the cold winter days by taking refuge in buildings throughout Chicago such as the Green City Market, 1750 N. Clark St., which moves into the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, once the warm weather leaves Chicago.

However, as difficult as it is to locate locally grown food in the dead of winter, the farms that produce the food have their own set of problems—Mother Nature—and she is not one to be lenient.

“Many of the farmers do Hoop Houses, which are similar to greenhouses,” said Nina Winston, executive director of the Illinois Tourism Alliance and employee of the Chicago Office of Cultural Affairs. “It is how they manage to farm during the winter season.”

Heritage Prairie Market in Elburn, Ill. is a four-season farm that does most of its growing right before and after the coldest part of winter—ensuring a fresh crop to sell to local consumers and at the Green City Market in Chicago.

“Our greenhouses are built on steel frames that we can put wheels on,” said Ted Richter, worker at Heritage Prairie Market. “We can move [the greenhouses] into three different positions, which allows us to protect different crops depending on the season. It is how we ensure that the crops survive the winter.”

The Heritage Prairie Market is just one of numerous farmers markets that travel to Chicago to sell its produce at the Green City Market.

“Obviously it gets really, really cold here,” Richter said. “We do have a basic green house and we do some greenhouse growing in the wintertime. It is a very limited production in the small heated greenhouse. We are going to face problems. The crops will freeze, although the ground won’t.”

Another problem during the winter that makes it difficult for local farms to keep producing is the lack of light that comes with winter, Richter said.

“We managed to get our timing down, but it is really a tricky time to get down for farming,” Richter said.

The Green City Market is not a daily event. During their summer hours (May through October), they are open for business Wednesdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. – 1 p.m., and they have more than 1,000 visitors each day the market is open. But during the winter, the number of visitors can dwindle, Winston said.

“During our time at the Green City Market, we have seen some fluctuation in the number of people who attend during the winter season,” she said. “It has a lot of factors. The cold is our main problem with the year-round farmers market.”

As the air grows colder, some consumers might worry about the freshness and taste of the food they are buying locally.

However,  with the use of greenhouses and technology that warms the food, the freshness and taste is always protected, Richter said.

“Actually, some food tastes better in the winter,” he said. “Carrots for example actually have a nicer, sweeter taste because the cold allows more sugar to be produced by the vegetable.”

As the winter season gets closer, year-round local farmers will keep producing, selling and remain eco-friendly in Illinois.

“Anytime we can buy locally, it definitely helps the local economy,” Richter said. “The farmers don’t have to trek across the country to sell their food. It helps us and it helps the environment, and that is why we like to sell year-round.”