To everything there is a season: understanding seasonality in Michigan

In a time when most fruit and vegetable is available in the supermarket year-round, learning about seasons helps consumers make connection with local food and food systems in Michigan. Learn how to get information about seasons for fruits and vegetables.

When my mother was growing up, my grandmother spent the summer canning fruits and vegetables for the winter. Because her family was large, my grandmother canned and preserved as much as she could at the peak of freshness. As a result, my mother has a mental calendar, ingrained in her, for when certain fruits and vegetables will be harvested in Michigan. Many people may know that Michigan’s strawberry harvest usually happens in June but really understanding seasons helps you to understand the timing and realities of farming in Michigan’s changeable weather. This is an understanding of something called seasonality. Seasonality is defined as “of, relating to, or varying in occurrence according to the season.”

The timing of certain foods during the seasons helps to explain why some foods are popular at certain times of the year. Local food festivals often coincide with the peak of a particular harvest. In Boyne City, Michigan, the MorelFest, a celebration of that elusive and delicious mushroom, occurs each year in the middle of May, or the heart of spring in northern Michigan. Seasonality can also help us to understand how traditions around food are created. Popular Thanksgiving dishes that include winter squashes and cranberries were created because those were fruits and vegetables harvested in late autumn.

Increasingly restaurant menus and magazine features of certain recipe ingredients coincide with the seasons. Some restaurants even pride themselves on having a seasonal menu. In their 2013 survey of professional chefs, the National Restaurant Association found that the number one trend for restaurant menus is locally sourced meat and seafood. Locally grown produce is the number two trend. Each of these menu ingredients, if locally-sourced, will have some constraints associated with their availability, although some seasons are getting longer or earlier. Weather conditions also affect these seasons and lead to “early” and “late” seasons for certain fruits and vegetables. Traditional weather patterns have also been affected by climate change. According to Michigan’s state climatologist, Dr. Jeffrey Andresen, climate change is producing “changes in the frequency of some extreme [weather events, which] are consistent with long-term trends, and recent extremes are also generally consistent with future ­climate projections.”

Farmers are increasingly employing growing techniques and methods that extend seasons for certain fruits and vegetables. Passive solar greenhouses, also called hoop houses or high tunnels, which do not require heat, are making it possible for farmers to lengthen the growing season for some foods. This means that locally-grown tomatoes can be available in June before the bulk of the field-raised crop in late July. While season extension technology cannot overcome all of the winter cold for some crops, other foods can be maintained with careful storage by producers. That is why Michigan’s apples can usually be found into the winter.

MSU's Center for Regional Food Systems created this helpful Michigan Produce Availability Guide to understand the seasons of Michigan-grown produce as well as season extension and storage. Michigan State University Extension also has resources about how to use fresh produce, called Michigan Fresh as well as how to can and preserve food safely. For more information about local food, look for articles from MSU Extension’s Community Food Systems team and sign up for a news digest that will give you great resources every month. 

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