PLYMOUTH, Mass. — A steady stream of customers filled baskets and shopping bags with vegetables, cranberries, cheese, fresh-baked breads and pies while chatting with the dozen or so farmers selling goods in the visitor's center of a local museum.
It was a bitterly cold, gray December day, but for many, it felt just right for the farmers market as live music and a warm fireplace helped set a holiday mood.
A growing number of farmers markets are extending their operation into and through the winter months – even in cold-weather states like Massachusetts. The expansion comes as more farmers are prolonging their growing seasons with greenhouses and other methods. It's also fueled by an increased number of people who aim to eat locally produced food year-round.
"It can't be a five-month-long thing and then just stop and everybody go to Walmart," said Dave Purpura, a farmer who participates in the winter market at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum dedicated to the Pilgrims. "If you want to be serious about promoting the local food economy, you have to go through the winter."
Purpura planted some vegetables late in the season specifically for sale at the winter market.
Nearby, Donna Blischke sold potatoes, onions and squash that she stores in a root cellar at her small organic farm in Carver. The winter market also gives her a chance to sell jams, jellies and sauces made from produce left over from the fall harvest.
"It's a way to earn a little extra money in the winter months, while still providing local foods," Blischke said.
There are at least 898 winter farmers markets running nationwide, a 17 percent increase from two years ago, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A winter market is defined as one that operates between November and March.
Winter markets often run less frequently than their summer counterparts; the Plymouth Farmers Market, for example, runs weekly from June through October and monthly from December through March.
Perhaps surprisingly, several northern states are among those with the largest numbers of winter markets, including Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, Connecticut and Michigan, the USDA said.
Chicago's Green City Market expanded to year-round operations three years ago and draws an estimated 60,000 visitors during the winter months, said Lyle Allen, the market's executive director. He recalled his anxiety before the first January opening.
"It was 2 degrees and the wind chill was 40 below," Allen said. "I was worried. We were concerned about what kind of reaction we were going to get from the general public."
But his fears evaporated when he showed up at the museum where some 35 to 40 farmers set up shop twice a month in the winter.
"There were a thousand people waiting to get in," he said.
The trend toward year-round markets fits in with overall growth in farmers markets. The number nationwide grew 16 percent from 2009 to more than 6,100 nationwide this year, according to the USDA's 2010 farmers market directory. Many markets have been reporting record sales in recent years.
Year-round markets tend to do better. A USDA survey found markets that operated for more than seven months in a year had three times the amount of sales revenue per month and twice as many customers per week as those that didn't.
Stacy Miller, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, a Maryland-based group that promotes farmers markets nationwide, said that makes sense.
"If you open up in May and shut down in October, every May it's `OK everybody . . . remember farmers markets?' Having some continuous presence over the winter helps mitigate that," Miller said.
The markets encourage farmers to try a variety of ways to extend their seasons, she said. Growers combine old techniques, such as storing vegetables in root cellars, with new ones like hoop houses, which use plastic or some other material to trap warmth from the sun and protect plants from frost.
Many shoppers at Plimoth Plantation welcomed the opportunity to have a farmers market in the winter.
"I love it," said Joyce Malaguti, a yoga instructor from Plymouth. "My purpose is to support the local farmers and the good food, as much as I can."
But some farmers see a downside to year-round markets. After an exhausting growing season, some said they look forward to a break during the winter to rest and plan for the next year.
Weston Lant, who owns an organic farm in Rochester, Mass., expected to sell off the last of his green vegetables at the December market in Plymouth and wasn't sure whether he would return in January or February.
"I need a little bit of down time," he admitted.