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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New York City's Farm Fresh Produce

Air Date: Week of

Farmers from surrounding areas bring a little bit of the country to the city each time they set up their stands at New York City's many outdoor green markets. Richard Schiffman recently visited one such market and spoke with consumers and providers about the fresh difference these old fashioned direct markets make in their lives.


CURWOOD: When New Yorkers want to see fall colors, they can head upstate on the Thruway or catch the subway to Union Square, where the colors are as bright as the fall foliage, only tastier. There are deep, red, organic tomatoes. The russet tones of squashes. And the soothing greens of fennel and bok choy and sweet basil. Richard Schiffman has our story on open-air markets, which are a feast for the senses and soul. Refuges where the pavement-weary can renew their contact with nature's seasonal bounty.

SCHIFFMAN: At 5:30 on Saturday morning, the crisp autumn air is still and the moonlit streets are strangely deserted. But in a cafe across from Union Square, farmers gather to greet the urban dawn with a breakfast of eggs and hash browns.

HODLING: I try to go to bed when it's about 9:30, but the phone kept ringing.

WOMAN: I get there at 11 and get up at 3:30

SCHIFFMAN: When did you leave upstate?

HODLING: We were up about 20 minutes of 2 this morning.

SCHIFFMAN: That's early even for a farmer.

HODLING: Well, I've been doing it all summer, so. All I can say is thank God for New York, man. If it weren't for New York and these markets we'd starve to death.

SCHIFFMAN: For farmers like Pete Hodling of Hudson, New York, the trip down to one of the city's 22 green markets is an economic necessity. With increasing competition from large corporate farming and rising land prices throughout the Northeast Corridor, the small family farm is becoming a relic of the past in many areas. But thanks to the nation's largest network of street markets, many small farmers in the New York area and beyond have been granted a new lease on life.

(Man calling out at market: "Here, have this one, too...")

SCHIFFMAN: As the first gray light of morning illuminates the square, trucks are unloading their crates overflowing with peppers and squashes, potted plants and fragrant herbs. Scores of white canvas tents are being assembled on the sidewalk.

(Traffic sounds and a man calling)

SCHIFFMAN: Some 70,000 people are expected to pass through the market on this fall Saturday. Gray Kunz, the renowned chef of Lespinasse restaurant, is one of the first shoppers to arrive. He's picking over some miniature pumpkins.

KUHNS: Last Thanksgiving, we cut these up and we served a small portion of soup, took the cover off, and poached them actually in sauterne and sweet wine cinnamon and then put the soup back in here. It was really a great ornament, also, on the plate.

SCHIFFMAN: It isn't long before the sidewalk is choked with people. Mothers with baby strollers, senior citizens with shopping carts and roller-blading teens. But nobody seems to be in much of a hurry. Some are sorting through the piles of yellow tomatoes and the sweet corn picked just hours before. Others are gazing wide-eyed at the mysterious root vegetables which are shaped like the convolutions of a human brain. New Yorkers are taking a short vacation from their world of concrete and glass.

(Traffic noises, sounds of unloading, voices)

WOMAN: New York is not only the Plaza Hotel or Fifth Avenue or Lafayette. It is also here. I feel I am living in the village, now. It's better than you go to supermarket. I like to come here not only for the cheaper, just for touch the real life of the people.

WOMAN: I like coming here because it's so wonderful to interact with the people from the farms and shop outside. And just the whole atmosphere and a little something civilized in the middle of all the insanity. It's like escaping from the city for a little while. It's wonderful.

WOMAN: It's nice being in a place where you actually see things not in plastic packages and the food is really fresh, the broccoli's on the stem. The squash looks great, the pumpkins are wonderful. And you just get a sense of the seasons that you lose when you're in the city.

PATRAKER: It's easy to forget that before the onset of modern transportation and preservation techniques, people ate only what was in season and locally available.

SCHIFFMAN: Joel Patraker is the coordinator of the Union Square market. He says that the market puts people back in touch with natural cycles.

PATRAKER: Since the season comes back, when you live in a big city, especially like New York City, 3 in the morning tonight if we want to go buy a pineapple I bet you someone will sell it to us. So you lose that whole sense of seasonality. When you come to a farmer's market and you ask for the corn in May, somebody explains to you that there is no corn in May, you know, and you tell them why. And the same thing with when do the first beets show up and when does the first pumpkin show up? And you can even learn the season of a dairy cow if you want to know why is there less milk on the market today than there's not?

(Sound of food being weighed on a scale. Man: "That's not quite 4 pounds, it'll be $3.75." Woman: "That's fine, thanks." Man: "What other apple would you recommend? I'm looking for something that's really tart, but bursting with juice, you know?" Man: "Actually the Macintosh right off the tree is extremely crisp, tart, you have one right there. Then the Cortlandt I highly recommend. It's not just a baking apple, but...")

SCHIFFMAN: Apples are a big item at this time of the year. At the height of the season there are over 50 types sold at the Union Square green market. Some of the more unusual varieties might vanish from commercial cultivation if it were not for New York's network of farmer's markets. Organic grower John Gryzhinski says that agribusiness in America today is geared toward producing a few standard varieties in large volumes. And that makes it hard for small growers like him to market their crops.

GRYZHINSKI: Most of the big markets only want a pallet-load of the same product, the same size, the same grade, and that's 40 boxes. And a lot of my product, I don't even produce 40 boxes of for the whole season.

SCHIFFMAN: John Gryzhinski takes pride in the diversity of his produce. He doesn't grow a lot of anything, but what he does grow is free of synthetic chemicals and picked at the height of ripeness. The green market allows him to farm as he likes to farm, and to turn a reasonable profit at the same time.

GRYZHINSKI: In a wholesale market, the farmer retains less than 28% of the value of the product, okay? With direct sales like this, we're getting it all.

SCHIFFMAN: Green market farmers come to get a fair price for their crops, but the rewards which they reap at the market are not just financial. Most American growers sell to a middleman. They never hear from the people who actually eat their food. But green market farmers talk to their consumers every week. Time and again they hear what few American farmers ever hear: the words "thank you." Eileen Farnan is an organic grape grower from the Finger Lakes region of western New York State.

FARNAN: The second year we came, and the people started saying, "Oh it's so good to have you back," you have no idea how great that felt. Many years of dealing with corporate America and the wine industry made you feel like they were doing you a favor by taking your grapes. And down here the people really appreciate us coming and look forward to us every year.

SCHIFFMAN: For market coordinator Joel Patraker, this sense of connection between farmer and consumer is what the green market is all about.

PATRAKER: I want to always be able to say to someone, do you know who grew the food you ate today? I want to be able to say, you know, you're eating Ken's eggs, you're eating Elvina's beans, and this is Morris's lemon grass. And that's a special thing to be able to say that.

SCHIFFMAN: Plans are now being laid for a national center for farmers markets training and development in Washington, DC. Joel Patraker says that he looks forward to the day when city dwellers throughout America will enjoy fresh foods sold by the people who produce them. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Schiffman at the Union Square green market in New York City.



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