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Issue 2: Community Scale Economics

Green Market

by Jane McGroarty

Four days a week Union Square in New York City is home to a farmers’ market, one of the 28 locations in the five boroughs where fresh farm products are sold. Tony Manetta, Director of Greenmarket, walked through the Union Square market on a humid August day, stopping to ask Jing Lee, a farmer from Pittstown, New Jersey, how he was managing in the drought. “We water here and then we water there and hope it’s enough,” replied Lee, whose stand was overflowing with tomatoes - red, yellow, orange, cherry, and small delicious grape tomatoes. He is especially proud of the eight varieties of Asian pears he grows. In 1984 Lee, after a career outside of farming, took over his family’s 40-acre farm on which his father had grown fruits and vegetables for sale to New York’s Chinatown community.

The largest farmer’s market program in the country, Greenmarket was co-founded in 1975 by New York City architect and planner Barry Benepe. While working on a planning project for the city of Newburgh in upstate New York, Benepe discovered many apple orchards and family farms close to bankruptcy. The rural farms were either too small to be attractive to the larger wholesalers or grew out-of-favor products, such as older apple varieties like Winesaps. Inspired by the taste of these fresh farm products and a desire to help farmers survive, Benepe decided to find a way of connecting the struggling farmers to urban consumers with a mutual benefit for both.

Without doubt the most substantial achievement of Greenmarket has been the development of an economic and culinary bond between the farmers and urban consumers. Dave Williams, who operates the Williams Fruit Farm with his wife Bonnie in New Paltz, New York, sells at the Windsor Terrace market in Brooklyn. “Besides the business, it’s the people” says Dave. It is this connection among people that makes Greenmarket founder Bob Lewis, a planner colleague of Benepe’s, most proud. He sees Greenmarket as the modern day agora - a marketplace - an expression of community and people’s need to be together. Through this marketplace, city dwellers have gained an understanding and respect for farmers and the work they do. The farmers have also changed their attitudes about New York City and its residents. Through this marketplace, city dwellers have gained an understanding and respect for farmers and the work they do. The farmers began at the markets thinking New York City was crime ridden and that its residents were unfriendly and snobbish. They found, instead, a hospitable city and appreciative customers.

Later at the Greenmarket’s office on East 16th Street, Tony Manetta took a conference call with the manager of a fledgling farmers’ market program in Seattle. The walls of the office, a friendly, serviceable fifth floor space, are filled with awards and plaques honoring Greenmarket during its twenty-four year existence. Scores of notebooks hold thousands of press clippings that document the history of the program.

With an $800 grant from the America the Beautiful Fund, Benepe and Lewis approached Elinor Guggenheimer, then Commissioner for Consumer Affairs for New York City, about starting a farmers’ market in the city. Guggenheimer suggested they contact the Council on the Environment of New York City, a non-profit organization under the Mayor’s office. The Council agreed to sponsor Benepe’s farmers’ market program, and in July 1976 seven farmers brought freshly picked produce to a city-owned lot at 59th and Second Avenue in Manhattan. By noon the produce had sold out. That summer two more markets opened, at Union Square and near the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Since 1976 Greenmarket has steadily grown into a full fledged New York City institution serving 250,000 customers per week between May and December. City dwellers who had never tasted sweet corn picked that morning now relish nasturtiums in their mesclun salads. Farmers who had traditionally grown the hybrid crops promoted by agricultural extension agents now grow such items as arugula, fingerling potatoes, and sugar snap peas. Today Greenmarket has a full-time staff of 12 and a part-time staff of 20 and is almost entirely self-supporting. Ninety-seven percent of its operating budget comes from fees paid by farmers, which includes $25,000 annually to the Department of Parks and Recreation for use of seven park sites.

There was some early opposition to Greenmarket from local merchants and supermarkets, who claimed that farmers were undercutting their prices and benefiting by avoiding rent and city taxes. A 1978 editorial in The Herald commented that “the city needs to keep local merchants in business more than the city’s residents need an apple that’s a day or two fresher.” Ever suspicious New Yorkers initially needed convincing that farmers’ markets were safe and acceptable places to buy food. Early issues of the Greenmarket newsletter are replete with articles about European open-air food markets and thriving food markets in New York City before World War II, an attempt to convince consumers that farmers’ markets are a time-honored way of selling fresh food. In the end the fresh farm products themselves persuaded consumers, who learned to appreciate the fresh fruits and vegetable they bought directly from the farmers who grew them.

Today the quality and variety of Greenmarket products are equal to that of top quality retail stores. As farmers reaped the benefits of direct marketing, they were able to invest in equipment, irrigation systems, and new crops, transforming marginal farms into serious business enterprises. According to Manetta, at the outset of Greenmarket almost none of the farmers had irrigation systems - now virtually all do.

One of the often overlooked benefits of Greenmarket has been its role as a planning tool. The 172 farmers who participate own or lease over 12,000 acres of land with 5,609 in production. Fifty percent of the Greenmarket farmers claim they would not be in business if they did not participate in the program, with 25% stating that Greenmarket sales represent a significant portion of their business. Without the economic benefit of a direct marketing program like Greenmarket, failing farms would end up being sold at depressed prices, generally for residential or commercial development. Greenmarket has sustained the “farmshed” in many rural and semi-rural counties around New York City.

In the urban setting, the Union Square Greenmarket has been an important force in the revitalization of the neighborhood. In 1976 Union Square was a neglected urban park that was home to a cadre of drug dealers. Many of the buildings surrounding the square were abandoned or poorly maintained. The presence of the market made the Square safer and more active, sparking private development, residential conversions of loft buildings as well as substantial city improvements to the park. Today the square is lined with upscale stores and restaurants such as the Union Square Café, whose owner, Danny Meyer, is a regular Greenmarket patron. In other cities, farmers’ markets have been used successfully to bolster failing downtown retail districts.

One only needs to pick up a newspaper to find evidence of an increased emphasis on locally grown and raised agricultural products throughout the United States. Restaurant reviewers regularly make note of menus featuring items such as regional free-range chicken or local organically grown fruits and vegetables. Recipes in food columns often focus on seasonal products and refer readers to farmers’ markets for purchase of ingredients. Gardening columns encourage home and community gardeners to locate and use unusual or heirloom seeds and plants.

Although this food revolution represents a small portion of the market, it has grown dramatically over the past twenty years. The 1994 National Farmers Market Directory published by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) listed 1755 markets. Two years later the number had risen to 2411, a 37% increase. The upward trend has continued since 1996 with estimates of a 10% increase in 1998. Although direct farm sales to consumers in 1992 were approximately $404 million, this represents a mere .2% of all sales of farm products. Farmers located near urbanized areas, such as New York, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles have the highest rates of direct sales. This small and energetic movement has spawned scores of organizations that promote direct marketing of farm products, offer assistance in organic or sustainable agriculture, and advocate preservation of farmland.

A confluence of social and economic trends has contributed to the growth of farmers’ markets. The environmental movement, which began with publication of Rachel Carson’s seminal work Silent Spring in 1962, showed how pesticides were poisoning the environment. The earliest advocates were concerned with pollution; pesticides in farming were identified as a major source. Reports of harmful effects from the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics used in growing and preparation of foods spurred some consumers to seek products that were grown without chemicals. During the early 1970s local “organically grown” fruits and vegetables began to be sold, mainly at farm stands or in health food stores, though use of the term “organic” was somewhat elastic and often used simply as a marketing device. Various watchdog groups and organic farmers themselves educated the public, leading many states to adopt organic certification programs.

In the 1960s many small farmers were left behind as agribusiness farmers cornered the market with products grown primarily for appearance and shelf life. In the past, New York City’s traditional wholesale markets provided an outlet for local farmers who sold to stores and restaurants as well as the public. During the fiscal crisis in the 1970s the city closed one market in Canarsie and privatized its Bronx Terminal Market, effectively closing its markets to local farmers. Greenmarket restored direct selling and allowed farmers to retain the value added to their products by the shipping, distribution, and marketing costs of the supermarket based system, making farms more economically viable. Despite recent encouraging profitability of farms near urban areas, sprawling development remains an undeniable threat to farmland. The American Farmland Trust, an organization that “works to stop the loss of productive farmland and to promote farming practices that lead to a healthy environment,” estimates that more than half the value of total U.S. farm production (and nearly 80% of fruit and vegetable production and 50% of dairy products) is produced in rapidly urbanizing areas. Farm profitability and production efficiency alone will not protect farmland as competition for land expands.

The United States loses one million acres of farmland per year to development. Farmland protection advocates maintain that this loss degrades the environment through loss of open space, wildlife habitat and watershed protection. As residential sprawl replaces farmland, taxes increase. Scenic Hudson, an environmental group that has spent $2.5 million to preserve 1,000 acres of farmland in Dutchess County, New York, found that the town of Red Hook spent $1.11 in services for each $1 of tax revenue generated by residential development, whereas it spent only 22 cents in services for each dollar of tax collected on farmland or open land. New York state has legislated farmland protection through such tools as agricultural districting of millions of acres and purchasing of developments rights.

The dramatic change in attitudes toward food in the past twenty years has been another stimulus in the growth of farmers’ markets. In 1971 Alice Waters opened her now legendary restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California. Waters’ pioneering philosophy of using fresh, high quality seasonal foods influenced a generation of professional chefs, home cooks, and diners whose palates were captivated by the flavors of farm-fresh vegetables, herbs, and meats.

In the decades following World War II Americans had been seduced by the availability of year-round “fresh” fruits and vegetables. Flavor and quality took a back seat in a marketplace where distribution and transportation considerations favored the cardboard tomato and the waxy torpedo cucumber. Waters restored flavor and freshness to the culinary agenda, and around the country chefs and consumers followed her example. In addition to supplying farm products to high profile restaurants, Greenmarket participates in the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) which provides 70,000 WIC (Women, Infants and Children) families in New York City with coupons to purchase fresh farm products. Last year $750,000 worth of products were purchased at Greenmarket sites in the city.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing New York’s Greenmarket and others around the nation over the next decades will be finding enough people to farm. Many of the children of today’s farmers will not become farmers. Bob Lewis sees the U.S. State Department as a resource for relocating refugees onto farms. Today many Wyoming farmers are Hmong refugees from Cambodia who came to the United States during and after the Vietnam War. In Utica, New York a number of Bosnians have begun farming. A small but growing number of the New York City region’s farmers are former city dwellers who have chosen the agrarian life.

It is humbling for architects and planners to contemplate the profound impact of Barry Benepe’s Greenmarket on the landscape of New York City and its environs - a project which “challenged the definitions of place and design.” The markets have not been designed as architectural projects, nor does the preservation of hundreds of family farms on thousands of acres appear in any town or city planning document. These markets are a lot like circuses - the farmers pull in their trucks in the early morning, quickly set up their tents, and display their products. The customers begin to arrive - noontime workers, restaurateurs, homemakers, and families - inspecting the wares, making their purchases, and chatting with their favorite farmers. By late afternoon the tired farmers pack up for the drive home. The plaza or park, emptied of the bustling activity of the day, is returned back to the city.

Jane McGroarty is a registered architect practicing in Brooklyn, New York. She is a graduate of Barnard College and the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning. Currently Jane serves as a Vice-President of the Brooklyn Heights Association and is the incoming President of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility.

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