by Tove K. Danovich
When the first New York City greenmarket opened in June 1976, the seven farmers picked for its debut sold out of produce by noon. The success of this 59th street and 2nd avenue location led to the addition of two more before summer was even over – the Union Square Greenmarket and one near the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Thirty seven years later, the Greenmarket program, sponsored by the Council on the Environment of New York City's Grow NYC, has over fifty locations in the five boroughs, serving 250,000 customers per week from May through December.
These markets have been credited with helping farmers within the NYC "foodshed" stay in business by providing them with an opportunity for direct-to-consumer sales. They're also at least partially responsible for sparking enough activity, foot traffic, and interest to revitalize entire neighborhoods, as was the case with Union Square.
But do people really understand the work that goes into making these markets tick? Most farmers who sell at NYC's greenmarkets have already been awake for four hours by the time customers arrive. Often these people leave the farm around three or four in the morning then muster the energy to joke with regulars and answer questions throughout their eight hour market day. Depending on how many greenmarkets they sell at, they might return home just in time to catch a few hours of sleep before doing it all over again.
But when customers go to the market, all we see are rows of fresh fruit, greens, honey, and meats of all type and philosophy. Dirt and hard work are in the air at every greenmarket in New York City. We're there to get a taste of the country life, not the reality that comes with it.
Discerning foodies that we are, we want our food to be local, sustainably grown, and available to us when when we want it. That, unfortunately, is not how real sweat-and-tears agriculture works.
"At the end of the day," Tucker Square greenmarket manager Laurel Greyson said, "Farmers are in this to make a living." As both a greenmarket manager and an off-and-on farmer herself, Greyson can empathize with many of the troubles faced by small, local farms.
Customers might complain that they don't understand why it's hard to find organic fruit at the farmer's market when they see it constantly on display at their grocery store. If you want local food, you have to be willing to put up with these greenmarket difficulties. Unlike the fruit flown in from Mexico or California, produce in the Northeast is in a climate more vulnerable to frost, pests, and other problems, making certain organic food harder to grow – though not impossible.
Likewise, many farmers don't even have the option of picking produce only when it's ripe. "People don't always realize that farmers aren't getting up at one to pick the fruit that morning," Greyson said.
If a rain or frost is on the horizon, a farmer's best bet is to get everything off the ground or out of the trees and sell what they can. Better to sell fruit that's slightly hard than to work all year without making a profit.
Greenmarket enthusiasts are constantly being encouraged to "know your farmer, know your food." We're told to ask questions about how the meat or produce was raised, how many miles it travelled, and whether it's an heirloom variety.
As food-savvy customers, people say our job is to get to know the farmer because we want to know what we're eating. Maybe it's time we learned a little more about the how's and why's of the way that food comes to market so we can understand the lives and concerns of the farmers who grow it.
Reposted with permission from www.foodpolitic.com
More from Food Politic: www.foodpolitic.com/food-nonprofits-making-a-difference
Tove K. Danovich is the Founding Editor of Food Politic. Her work has most recently been published in Grist, The Brooklyn Rail, The Nervous Breakdown, her food blog Eighty-Sixed, and others. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Follow her @TKDanovich.