Thirty years ago this week, seven intrepid farmers trucked in produce and plants they’d grown upstate or in Jersey or Long Island and set up makeshift stands in a fenced-in lot on Second Avenue and 59th Street. It was July 17, 1976, and no one knew quite what to expect—not the farmers, who’d been recruited from agriculture associations and roadside stands; not the organizers, Barry Benepe and Bob Lewis, who’d spent months scraping up seed money and hacking through acres of red tape; and not the public, who viewed the spectacle as some sort of bizarre hayseed performance art.
Ron Binaghi Jr., 16 at the time, was there with his father. The way he tells the story, at the end of that very first Greenmarket day, after they had been rapidly depleted of their stock of tomatoes, peppers, and peaches, they headed back to Stokes Farm, their Old Tappan, New Jersey, homestead, slightly dumbstruck. “Is there a famine somewhere in that city?” Binaghi Sr. marveled.
In a way, of course, there was. Before Greenmarket—that inconceivable time predating easy access to Green Zebra tomatoes and garlic scapes—New York wasn’t always a land of agricultural plenty. Even though the city was surrounded by (ever-shrinking) farmland, you’d never know it by the stuff on supermarket shelves. Greenmarket was founded, in large part, to preserve farmland by helping growers sell directly to consumers, bypassing the middlemen who made selling wholesale such a crippling proposition.
Thirty years later, Greenmarket has blossomed, with 179 producers at 45 locations in all five boroughs. Farmers’ fees, dictated by the amount of space they occupy, the location, and the day, make up most of the organization’s operating budget. It’s obvious, especially at this bountiful time of year, and especially at Union Square, the flagship market that celebrates its own 30th anniversary on August 30, what we get out of the program. How about the farmers?
“We make way more money at retail than we did years ago in the wholesale trade,” says Binaghi, who won’t reveal exact figures but says he derives 90 percent of his income from Greenmarket. Nevia No, a partner in Yuno’s Farm with her husband, Kwang Yoo, says that participating in Greenmarket has doubled their income. When she married Yoo, he and his father were wholesaling Asian vegetables they grew on a Riverhead farm to Asian markets. Eight years ago, she persuaded him to let her try her hand at a Brooklyn Greenmarket. “He said, ‘Go ahead, do it on your own. I’ll give you some leftover vegetables,’ ” says No. “I sold $700 on the first day. I came home screaming with excitement.” Four years ago, they moved the farm to New Jersey, and a year later, they quit the wholesale market entirely.
Some of the benefits are less tangible, but no less real. If Greenmarket brings the essence of the country to the asphalt-paved urban jungle, it also helps guarantee that the country stays right where it is. “If it weren’t for Greenmarket, I’d be rich,” jokes Binaghi, whose seventeen Bergen County acres are worth $10 million. “We would have sold the land for houses and retired to an island somewhere, so you could say Greenmarket is directly keeping our land from development.” And it’s no accident that Greenmarket’s lifespan has paralleled the rise of the local and seasonal culinary movement. Way back when, says Binaghi, “some chef said, ‘Here’s some seed, can you grow this stuff for me?’ All right, dopey chef, we’ll grow it for ya. And then the general public starts asking us for specific things. In New York City, there’s such a diverse ethnic population. From the Caribbean they want Caribbean thyme; people from Belgium want good leeks. People in the suburbs don’t even know what leeks are.” Stokes Farm grows about 50 items but is best known for heirloom tomatoes and fresh-cut herbs. “Rosemary put my kids in college.”
On the following pages, we take a closer look at five Greenmarket purveyors in their milieus, so you can see exactly where they’re coming from.