Her long, gray hair was pulled back into a two-section ponytail with one pink scrunchie and one blue. She greeted her customer with a “Howdy, ma’am.”
“Sun’s out,” the shopper replied.
Kristi Hutchinson looked at her bags of arugula for sale and pulled a single leaf out of the plastic.
“Getting a little frosted,” Hutchinson said.
The Oxford Farmers Market goes up rain, snow or shine, year-round. In the wintertime, the market is only available on the first and third Saturday of each month, compared to its weekly schedule in the summer and fall. This spring, the market will also be open on Tuesdays.
This past Saturday the market operated under a brilliant sun with the perfect summer soundtrack of birds chirping and dogs barking. The only difference from a May market, of course, being the high of 24 degrees and layers of hoodies, jackets and scarves.
Yet, somehow the recent cold spells have not eliminated the production of fresh, local fruits and vegetables. Over the years, farmers in the region have found ways to continue selling crops all year; some by stocking up on produce in the fall, others by moving their farms indoors.
Beets in buckets
Hutchinson, owner of 5 Oaks Organics, has been growing crops inside her home for years. She moved to a new house with a furnace in August, but before then she had been filling the empty bedrooms of her home with plants, keeping them warm from the sunlight shining in through the bedroom windows.
“Outside is the better way to do it,” she said. “Plants are supposed to have soil, wind and the rain.”
Now, on her new 15-acre property, Hutchinson does grow crops outside when the weather is right. But in the winter, she has found the best way to continue her business is by setting up an indoor farm in her long, narrow basement.
On five-foot wooden shelves sit arugula and spinach in wooden trays, while buckets of beets beets in buckets are scattered across the floor. Hutchinson hangs shop lights over the plants to warm them to a proper 60 degree soil temperature and places trays of water underneath the crops to avoid spraying water on top of the plants, which can lead to mold.
There is about one week in which the plants just grow within the soil; the seeds split open, and eventually the plants bud to the surface. Besides keeping the plants warm, the shop lights also aide in the coloration of the plants. If they don’t get any light, Hutchinson said, the plants will turn out pale instead of the deep green that she wants.
It takes five to six weeks for the plants to be ready for market, and the process keeps her very busy.
“I am probably down there four to five hours a day,” she said. “Yesterday I was there nine hours.” Hutchinson then chanted the process aloud, imitating the cyclical motions of her day: “Cut it, spin it, bag it. A lot of up and down the stairs.”
“I’m always planting, always cutting, always watering,” she said. “But normal people probably have a greenhouse.”
Hutchinson makes her living off of these plants. There didn’t used to be winter markets, she said, but now that there are, she can support herself off of her business year-round.
“Things constantly have to be growing if you’re going to have anything for market,” she said.
On Saturday, Hutchinson wore a green sweatshirt, a Tractor Supply Co. baseball cap and sunglasses. Her ensemble was complete with one red glove and one blue, to compliment her mismatched scrunchies.
Hutchinson looked at her plants as she warmed her fingers together. She admitted her current produce was not quite as sturdy as it is in the summer. In the summer, she said, she has better, stronger plants, when they can be grown outdoors.
Single-seed fruits won’t make it through this year’s cold
Across from Hutchinson’s booth, Scott Downing of Downing Fruit Farms stood in front of his white truck full of apples, wearing a single black glove and two hoodies pulled over the top of a red ball cap. Downing is the seventh generation of farmers in his family, operating the farm in its 181st year.
Downing Fruit Farms is known for their apples and cider, and the farm produces 12,000 bushels of apples each year. Accompanying their famous apples on Saturday were jars of apple butter and tubs of locally-sourced honey.
“This is my last week for apples,” Downing said as a customer approached his booth.
Downing is hoping to have apples year-round in the future. His farm is about an hour away in Greenville, Ohio, and he has been coming to every Oxford farmers market for the past 15 years. When the apples run out, he sells asparagus, and will have radishes at the end of March.
He believes that he sometimes does better at the winter market as opposed to summer since there are less vendors to compete with. However, some of his crops may not survive the cold this winter.
“Trees are dormant right now, but when it gets below 0, any fruit with one seed is susceptible to cold weather,” he said.
That means that his peach and plum trees are not likely to make it through this year. Since the peach trees are so sensitive to the cold, he said he usually only has peaches one in every five years. Apple trees, on the other hand, can handle 15 to 20 degrees below.
A warm smile goes a long way
Despite the cold, Saturday’s farmers market was full of smiles, laughter and friendly conversations among vendors and customers alike. Market manager Larry Slocum welcomed guests with a wide smile and open arms, same as every other Saturday.
“It’s all about energy,” he said as he milled about the market.
The market has dwindled significantly from its peak season in the fall, down to eight vendors now from the 25-plus listed on their website.
Daniel French of 37 Acres Grass Farm said the market is much more laid back in the winter, and he won’t come if the weather gets below 20 degrees. However, French doesn’t have to worry about the growth of his product in these freezing temperatures.
“Winter markets work well for us because everything is frozen,” he laughed, gesturing to the chicken and pork packages in his truck. He didn’t take them out for fear of the sun thawing the meats. “The really dedicated customers come all year long.”