Winter markets keep Boone farmers’ pockets warm through the cold

Hayley Canal, Staffer

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In the basement of the Watauga County Agricultural Conference Center, a woman picks up her walkie-talkie. She requests an order of winterberries for the woman waiting in the doorway, microgreens and honey for the man conversing in the hall and bread for the student sitting across from her. It’s another busy Wednesday at the High Country Food Hub, a local online food market open through the winter. Despite the weather, the local food economy won’t freeze over the next few months. 

The weekly King Street Market closed Oct. 29, and the Watauga County Farmers’ Market will reduce its hours before closing in December until May 2020. 

The year-round High Country Food Hub and the seasonal Winter Farmers’ Market provide space for local producers to continue distributing and selling food indoors. 

“It’s small and cramped, but you learn to love it,” said Michelle Houston, who works with the Food Hub through the Volunteers in Service to America program. “That’s the kind of interaction you need when you’re trying to educate people on local food.”

The winter market was created five years ago by Preserve Heritage, Agriculture and Regional Markets Now, a Boone-based nonprofit focused on providing grants for organizations without 501(c)(3) recognition. 

“We worked for two to three years trying to talk the vendors into being able to do it. They didn’t think they had enough products to get through the winter,” said PHARMN treasurer Laura Graham. 

Graham said many local producers extended their growing seasons in recent years, some in direct response to the winter market opening. Season extension is achieved through greenhouses or hoop-house technologies, which trap heat and provide light for produce to thrive. Once a rarity, off-season markets now frequently feature winter produce.

“You have spinach, arugula, spring salad mix, even though it’s not spring salad mix, it’s winter salad mix, but they just continually call it spring salad mix,” said Rebecca Brown, a junior sustainable development major and regular volunteer at the hub. 

Three years ago, Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture took on the responsibility of the Winter Market. This season is the first year the market will occur every Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the Watauga Agricultural Conference Center. BRWIA also oversees High Country Food Hub.

Beyond supporting producers and purchasers throughout the winter, the Food Hub helps F.A.R.M. Cafe maintain its provision of fresh, local food. 

F.A.R.M. Cafe is a nonprofit “pay-what-you-can” restaurant located on King Street. 

Elena Dalton, program director of the cafe, said they work with about seven local farmers, purchase coffee beans from local roasters and try to buy regional honey. F.A.R.M. Cafe sources ingredients from the Food Hub more in winter months to keep the same menu every season.