Yes, you can! Eat local in the winter.
Written by Leah Stacy, photos by Jason Koski
On a Tuesday morning in late November, several farmers trickle in through the back door of Restaurant Good Luck, carrying crates of root vegetables and totes of salad greens. The primarily Finger Lakes–based suppliers make the snowy trek west to downtown Rochester because this is one of the restaurants that consistently sources local produce from them. It’s a practice Good Luck executive chef and co-owner Dan Martello began more than 11 years ago, when he was the chef at New York Wine and Culinary Center (now known as NY Kitchen) in Canandaigua.
Back then, the idea of sourcing local for a restaurant in any season was novel—now, it’s almost expected in upscale local dining. “There’s this big movement with people wanting to eat local, and I think a lot of it has to do with the great success of farmers markets,” says Martello. “But it starts with restaurants—seeing local produce in restaurants translates into people wanting to buy at markets or join CSAs.”
According to the New York State Agriculture and Markets chart of what’s in season on agriculture.ny.gov, the only fruit available year-round is apples, with pears coming in close behind (August through February). Vegetable selections are a bit more robust: dry beans, herbs, onions and potatoes are available year-round, while root vegetables like beets, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, winter squash and turnips are available through the coldest months of the year (generally into March or April). But the availability entirely depends on the individual producer, and most New York State farmers aren’t growing year-round.
There are a few reasons for that, but first and foremost is the upstate New York climate.
“Farmers want to farm, but they can’t farm outside all winter,” says Martello. “In the past, they weren’t investing in hoop houses or greenhouses because there was no demand. But as a chef, and I will speak for any in the area, if the produce is out there in the winter, we will buy it. There’s no doubt.”
As the demand has continued to upswing in the last few years, Good Luck suppliers Patty Carman and Steve Orsini of Full Moon Farm realized the need to invest in ways to harvest longer. About four years ago, they bought hoop houses—or high tunnels, as the larger, arched versions are called: affordable structures that are solar powered, won’t flood and can climb to 70° inside on a sunny winter day.
“Having these enables us to grow greens, herbs and microgreens through the winter,” says Carman. “We plant the whole house in December and leave the plants without maintenance for about two weeks, and they’ll grow healthy, slow but sure.”
Carman likes to experiment with specialty crops, so she also uses the hoop houses to grow things like pink radicchio where it will be protected from curious deer. The farm has a greenhouse as well, which requires a heat source and is used to grow microgreens and perennials like rosemary, along with edible organic flowers for Cristallino Premium Ice, a specialty ice company that also supplies many bars and restaurants in downtown Rochester.
For farms that don’t have hoop houses, cold storage is still a viable way to keep providing local food into the winter months. Sharon Nagle of Firefly Farm, another Good Luck vendor, supplies root vegetables like carrots, winter squash, potatoes, leeks and beets through January. And while she hasn’t invested in other ways to provide year-round produce, she does believe it’s becoming a more urgent need.
“People are very interested in where their food comes from now, and there’s a lot of opportunity for winter CSAs,” she says. “Farmers already have a long growing season, and winter is harsh here, the market would have to prove itself. But I’m surprised we haven’t seen more of the young farmers experimenting with this.”
Martello agrees, and thinks the market is ready.
“If someone could grow all year and sell to restaurants, they’d have no shortage of customers,” he says. “It’s the next logical move for a new farmer, because it’s hard enough to make a living in the short growing season. There’s a bigger initial investment for hoop houses and greenhouses, but if you’re planning on farming as your career, it’s smart.”
Nagle also sees American food culture overall as part of the challenge—most people are used to getting cheaper food at grocery stores, or they don’t know they can eat local in the winter. Molly Flerlage, CSA coordinator for the Full Plate Farm Collective in Ithaca, says educating restaurants and consumers alike is key.
“There’s been this misconception that in the off season you can’t get local food, but it doesn’t disappear in the winter,” she says.
The Full Plate Farm Collective has been connecting local farms to consumers for more than 15 years, and their organic vegetable winter CSA offering currently has about 200 members and sources from farms across the Finger Lakes region.
“Our produce is mostly coming from farms that have high-tunnel greens and root crops in cold storage,” Flerlage says. “As the season goes on, it broadens to include pickled products and sprouts that can be continuously produced in the winter.”
In Rochester, Headwater Food Hub has a similar model, though it’s larger scale and two-pronged between wholesale supply and consumer CSAs. This winter, Headwater is pausing the winter CSA to expand production and rebrand some of their products, but the CSA currently has more than 500 subscribers and curates products from more than 20 farms across New York State, at times reaching into New Jersey and Northern Pennsylvania.
Account manager Jacalyn Meyvis says a normal winter CSA includes root veggies that are over-wintered (and therefore sweeter), indoor greens grown with hydroponics and aeroponics, cheese from Muranda Cheese Company in Geneva, bread from Flour City Bakery (picked up fresh every day), mushrooms from Leep Foods and pasture-raised meat and eggs from the animal-welfare-approved Autumn’s Harvest Farm on Seneca Lake.
“We’re trying to fill the gap of local food in the winter,” Meyvis says. “Once people realize there are ways to eat local during the winter, it makes so much sense to do that. A lot of people just don’t think it’s possible.”
The wholesale sector of Headwater Food Hub runs year-round for farm-to-table restaurants—Rochester heavy hitters Radio Social, Lento and Vern’s get the majority of their vegetables, eggs, pasture-raised meats and cheeses from Headwater. In addition, the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology and newly minted Farm-to- School program (a state incentive that subsidizes local food costs) source from Headwater’s wholesale side. But Meyvis says most of the awareness about eating local in the winter starts with the restaurants.
“Restaurants and the average person play a big role in influencing,” she says. “It’s really neat when restaurants put [Headwater] on the menu as well as listing our farms. If you invest in sourcing local food and tell your friends or audience, that makes a huge difference.”
Several markets—including the Ithaca Farmers Market, the Rochester Public Market and the Brighton Farmers Market just outside Rochester—run year-round, with local produce available a la carte for those who don’t have CSAs. Meyvis says Headwater plans to have monthly Saturday pop-ups from February through April to supply the CSA members on forced hiatus this winter.
“They were devastated at the thought of not having access to us in the winter,” she says. “People around here, from consumers to farms to restaurants, are really invested in their food—it’s so cool, I think we’re on the brink of something great.”
Leah Stacy is a multipotentialite who lives in Rochester: leahstacy.com.
Jason Koski lives in Trumansburg and works up a voracious appetite by biking to various photo assignments in search of good food and tasty visuals.
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2020 Issue of the magazine.