Those who claim the Bay Area is "seasonless" clearly haven't spent much time at our farmers' markets. Right now, we're still clinging onto the glory days of summer, but in a few weeks, tomatoes and stone fruit will give way to persimmons and pomegranates. After that? Months of nothing but kale and chard on offer.
Or at least that's the perception. Why should customers even bother to shop at East Bay farmers' markets, then — especially during the dark, cold days of the fall and winter seasons?
Those customers would do well to listen to the farmers and farm stand managers, who are effusive about the fall produce about to stream in. For instance, Full Belly Farms will soon offer at least ten varieties of winter squash. Lucero Farms is already starting to harvest some of its many squash varieties, including kabocha, butternut, spaghetti, acorn, delicata, and sweet dumpling. At the Happy Boy Farms stall at the Saturday Berkeley farmers' market, J.B. Ingraham, the farm stand manager, said she can't wait for their buttercup squash — an heirloom varietal that she says is "the sweetest squash in the world."
In the non-squash category, Kaki Farms, Blossom Bluff, and R. Schletewitz Family Farms will soon have tables full of persimmons and pomegranates, and more farms than it's possible to list will be flush with tangerines, mandarins, grapefruit, kumquats, and other varieties of citrus fruits all winter long. Swanton Berry Farm will have bags of Brussels sprouts ready to replace the baskets of strawberries; Riverdog Farms will sell six kinds of kale and four kinds of chard; and Feral Heart Farm will have three varieties of sweet potato. At Dirty Girl Produce, the farmers are especially proud of their puntarelle chicories, an Italian bitter green that's tough to find in grocery stores.
The farmers that the Express interviewed acknowledged that the market crowds thin out during the fall and winter months, which means they make significantly less money. But most of the farms account for this in their business model. During the slow season, many stands sell preserved versions of their summer fruits and vegetables: Dirty Girl Farms sells canned tomatoes and beans; Full Belly Farms sells dried peaches, dried tomatoes, and tomato sauce; and Blossom Bluff Orchards offers dried varieties of many of its stone fruits and also sells jams and preserves. Though Quetzal Farms slows down its market attendance after late October, it usually still makes an appearance once a month to sell a wide variety of dried chilies (a wider variety and fresher than you'll find at most local grocery stores) and jarred salsas. Borba Farms sells smoked peppers and dehydrated tomatoes next to its piles of winter greens and green beans.
Many stands have also tried to add some year-round (or close to it) items to keep business steady. Kashiwase Farms sells almonds long past when the season for stone fruit, its primary crop, is over; and Kaki Farms has walnuts and pecans. Full Belly sells popcorn and has recently begun selling flour that's milled at the farm. The eggs, chickens, pork, and lamb that many market stands sell will be in their coolers all winter long. And most stands the Express talked to keep potatoes, onions, garlic, and shallots in storage so they can bring them to the market during the winter.
The markets themselves work to stay customer-friendly, even in the cold, dark, and (hopefully) rainy months. The Berkeley Tuesday market goes from 2–6:30 p.m., meaning that from November through March at least the last hour of the market is in the dark. Ben Feldman, the food and farming program director at the Ecology Center, which runs the Berkeley markets, said that when there's less daylight, it's their mission to make sure their markets are well lit and visible. The market adds extra lighting, and some of the stands take down their tents to create a brighter and more welcoming atmosphere. The Ecology Center also organizes a Holiday Crafts Fair to keep the market lively.
A year-round farmers' market does have its issues: Shorter days and inclement weather make harvesting difficult at the farm, there's lots of guesswork and gambling about when to plant in the springtime, and bad weather on market days can drive customers away. Despite these challenges, many of the farmers strongly believe in the concept of the year-round farmers' market and show up every week all year, rain or shine.
As Tim Mueller, one of the founders of Riverdog Farm, said, "Dedication to the markets enable us as a farm to create year round employment for our crew. Our farm workers don't have to move; their kids can stay in the same schools. Stability [at the farmers' markets] translates to stability for real communities."
From the customer's side, the quiet-season markets are a breeze: Parking is easy, the lines are short, and there's plenty of time to ask questions.
Farms mentioned and where to find them:
Blossom Bluff Orchards: Tuesday and Saturday Berkeley Farmers' Markets; Sunday Temescal Farmers' Market
Borba Farms: Friday Old Oakland Farmers' Market
Dirty Girl Produce: Tuesday Berkeley market
Full Belly Farms: Tuesday Berkeley market
Happy Boy Farms: Thursday and Saturday Berkeley markets, Saturday Grand Lake Farmers' Market; Sunday Jack London, Montclair, and Temescal markets.
Kaki Farm: Tuesday and Saturday Berkeley markets.
Kashiwase Farms: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday Berkeley markets; Sunday Temescal market
Lucero Farms: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday Berkeley markets; Sunday Temescal market
Quetzal Farms: Saturday Berkeley market
R. Schletewitz Family Farms: Friday Old Oakland market
Riverdog Farm: Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday Berkeley markets
Swanton Berry Farm: Tuesday and Saturday Berkeley markets.