COLUMBIA — Immersed in the rising and falling tunes from Jon Hockenbury, a local musician, Columbia residents were busy seeking local homegrown food to serve on their dinner tables early in the new year.
The Columbia Winter Farmers Market reopened Saturday morning at Parkade Plaza after a one week break for the Christmas holiday and will continue every Saturday until March 15. Local farmers said they use various methods and techniques to keep serving organic storage vegetables and fresh greens in winter.
However, the cold weather does lessen the variety of produce that the vendors can provide.
"Tomatoes need so much light and heat to produce," said Art Gelder, president of the Columbia Farmers Market, "but spinach (and) lettuce is easier to grow."
With the application of certain techniques, they can be served year round.
Jim Thomas Jr. almost sold out of all his fresh greens only half an hour after the market opened. Spinach, different types of kale, lettuce, and arugula were gone, and only cabbage and some root crops remained.
He has been using two hoop houses, which are basically a metal frame with a plastic cover, in his Share-Life Farms to maintain a warm enough atmosphere for the winter crops to grow. Eight or nine kinds of greens are produced in the hoop houses, he said.
"Sunlight coming though the cover of the hoop house warms up the inside," Thomas said. When it's in the teens outside, it can be around 70 inside, he said.
In winter, the hoop houses are essential to Thomas' farms. Serving produce in the winter market is his only income source.
"The greens really helps me to come to the market," he said.
Customers like to buy fresh vegetables at the winter market, said Jim Thies, owner of the Veggie Patch, who just started using his hoop house last year. Thies said that it is the popularity of the greens in the winter market that prompted him to use the hoop house.
Besides hoop houses, farmers have also adopted other methods to enrich the variety of the late-season products. Thomas said he just put row covers into use last year to moderate the climate in his hoop houses and he also uses a walk-in cooler, an ice box of 20 to 40 degrees, to store cabbage, one of the "frost kiss" vegetables that get sweeter after a frost. Both Thomas and Thies also use root cellars.
Although effective, all of those techniques and methods can still be threatened by severe winter weather. Referring to this year's blistering cold weather, both Gelder and Thomas expressed concerns.
"Three or four years ago, we had three hoop houses collapse because of the heavy snow," Gelder said. Farmers need to get the snow off their plastic covers, he said. Severe winter weather like ice or snowstorms can destroy the hoop houses.
Regardless of the challenges for farmers, the Columbia residents at market Saturday morning were thrilled by the natural and fresh locally raised vegetables.
Holding three bags full of potatoes, spinach and chicken, Esther Stroh still wanted to get more cabbage and eggs.
"I just want my money to go back to the community, to support local farmers, instead of going far away to California," she said.
Supervising editor is Zachary Matson.