With fall's first snow flurry behind us, summer's once-strong tomato vines and vibrant squash plants have been pulled from their fertile beds to wither in compost piles with each cooling night. Booths at the farmers' market are scant on scallions and leafy greens, and the ever-dwindling supply of gourds and root vegetables are plucked hastily from vendors' checkered tables. As winter draws near, it's more difficult to keep your bicycle basket stocked with a bevy of local bounty. But with a little planning and some diet adjustment, the locovore looking to stay fed when the weather gets frigid still has a variety of options.
Though forgoing salads and fruits in the wintertime is an unnecessary sacrifice, relying less on imported foods has a variety of benefits. In addition to supporting local farmers, reducing "food miles"—the carbon cost of transporting crops—and boosting the local economy, eating locally is better for your health. According to Harvard Medical School's Center for Health and the Global Environment, food grown locally is often allowed to ripen longer before being harvested, which increases its nutritive value. Also, when growing for local markets, farmers tend to favor crop varieties with higher nutrition content and taste than varieties that ship well. Because local produce is consumed soon after it's harvested, it's less processed and handled by fewer people.
"If we continue to have fuel shortages, we will not be shipping vegetables all over the world. And people aren't going to have many choices but to eat a very limited diet or to eat preserved foods," says Dan Walters, a founding member of online food co-op, Idaho's Bounty.
Idaho's Bounty is one of several options for folks looking to consume local foods in the winter. The Web-based co-op unites consumers with producers from around the state in an effort to rebuild the local food shed. Ranchers and farmers offer bi-monthly lists of their available products and consumers buy them online. Pick ups are every other Wednesday at locations in Boise, Hailey, Ketchum, Stanley and Buhl. Though many local farms will run out of produce soon, Idaho's Bounty maintains a year-round selection of local meats, eggs, cheeses and prepared products.
"Idaho's Bounty has access to products that are more or less shelf stable, or stable with some refrigeration or freezing," says Walters. "There are local products like frozen meats, cheeses, dairy and eggs that are available year round, so you can source most of those items locally if you can't source most of your shopping locally."
Luckily, James Reed, another Idaho's Bounty founder, has invested in three large geothermal greenhouses that will soon start growing warm weather products like spinach, kale, chard, tomatoes and cucumbers throughout the year for their members.
"Our hope is to produce in the 100- to 1,000- pounds-a-month range of greens and other vegetables, which we will have available to Idaho's Bounty membership with surpluses going to some of our restaurant accounts," says Reed.
But for those who prefer the more traditional, shaky-wheeled-grocery-cart shopping experience, the Boise Co-op will also have some local produce items available as the weather gets colder. Though this year's growing season was affected by an unusually cold spring, winter staples are still showing up, just in limited quantities.
"In a good year, we have a nice selection of organic carrots ... but mostly it's squash and potatoes and onions that we get from a few different farms here in Idaho. Of course we get chestnuts locally here, we get some apples, but there's not a lot this year," says Boise Co-op's produce buyer, Roben Latham.
But for many restaurants that pride themselves on serving local cuisine, the secret to keeping plates piled with local foods is preserving summer's harvest. Dave Krick, owner of Red Feather Lounge and Bittercreek Alehouse, has loaded up on freezable goods like corn, tomatoes and various types of berries.
"It's not as tough as it used to be in the wintertime, but it's still tough. Obviously we don't have a lot of vegetable production in the wintertime here. The harvest comes in bounties in the summer with particular things that we're able to freeze," says Krick.
In addition to frozen produce, Krick has ample storage in his large wine cellar for crops like potatoes, onions and squash, which will keep for a number of months in a damp, dark climate. Generally, though, Krick prefers altering his menu to reflect what's available seasonally. Right now, the menu is filled with squash dishes—butternut squash soup, squash ravioli—but as the winter progresses, menu options will lean more towards hearty meats and cheeses. Krick is also looking forward to working with Idaho's Bounty to buy local catfish, tilapia and sustainably grown trout from the Hagerman area.
"Before we had refrigeration and freezing, about our only option was to eat what was available during the winter, or what we could dry or smoke or can," says Walters. "It's a relatively modern notion that we might even have fresh greens in the winter."
And home food preservation has seen a recent boon. According to the University of Idaho Extension office, which offers a six-week Master Food Preserver Program and weekday phone support for home preservers, interest is way up in processes like canning, freezing, drying and pickling.
"As the economy has become rather shaky, to put it diplomatically, we're seeing a huge increase in our food preservation and canning questions," says Alexis Woodbury, UI Extension program assistant. "Normally this time of year, after a hard frost, we see a decrease in our calls. But not so this year. In fact, it's increased for the month of October."
Another resource for home food preservation is the National Center for Home Food Preservation Web site, uga.edu/nchfp, which arose from a partnership between the Cooperative Extension System and the United States Department of Agriculture. This site is an exhaustive resource for anyone looking to learn the correct methods for home food preservation, including canning procedures, a guide to building your own food dehydrator and lists of spices that change flavor after freezing. Clay and Josie Erskine, from the local farm Peaceful Belly, have been preserving their harvests for years, deciding the best way particular fruits and vegetables should be preserved.
"We put up a huge majority of our own food. Tomatoes—sauces and salsas—and all fruit. We do tons of dried fruits for snacks and tomatillos, peppers, peas, beans. I do freezing, dehydrating and canning," explains Josie.
Though it takes some planning and a healthy dash of creativity to extend autumn's local harvest into the winter, the results can be incredible for your health, budget and the local economy. According to Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, if we ate just one meal a week this winter using only local ingredients, we could collectively save up to 1.1 million barrels of oil a week.
"Eat local once a week. Make sure that once a week you go to farmers' market, and you buy enough food for one meal. You're making a huge difference," says Josie. "The one thing that I would like to get across to people is that it's not an elitist thing, it's not hard to do and you don't have to fully commit."