In 1987, when I left Manhattan’s Upper West Side and corporate employment to try my hand at organic farming in upstate New York, almost everyone who knew me thought I was suffering a severe lapse of judgment. The un-spoken assumption was that after a year or two I’d be back in town, a chastened and somewhat poorer man.
Instead, I became part of a movement to generate a new kind of bounty: fresh food grown in New York and other northeastern states. The timing of my entry into the world of small scale, local, organic farming could scarcely have been better. With each new year the demand for what we grow increases, as evidenced by the proliferation of Greenmarkets, food co-ops, urban CSA’s, personal chefs, and delivery services that specialize in all manner of delectables both local and fresh. Every savvy supermarket and food store in the city is keen to jump on the local food wagon, at least a little bit.
Sometimes a small voice inside me rises up to say, “Maybe it’s gone a bit too far.” It’s that possessive part of me that wants to maintain the local grower niche that I stumbled onto, largely by luck, 27 years ago. It’s been a good niche, but now I’m just one of the herd.
Then I reflect that many more New Yorkers have access to fresh, local and nutritious food than did when I started farming in 1987. The city is a healthier place. These are good things. I also note that my business as a grower of vegetables and herbs has not diminished during this wonderful greening of New York City. Instead, it has expanded modestly from year to year, except for those few, painful seasons when Mother Nature has dealt us a bad hand.
Bottom line: if we can grow it, our customers will come. On a good Saturday or Wednesday in the fall, our stand at Union Square can have as many as 20 people in line at a given time. We have to seriously hustle to keep things moving. It feels good and it pays the bills.
About ten years ago a Whole Foods set up on 14th Street opposite Union Square. Many Greenmarket farmers, myself included, were un-happy about this incursion onto our turf. We worried that the corporate megastore would si-phon off our business and leave us hanging out to dry. But this has not happened.
Sometimes people show up at our stand with empty Whole Foods bags and stuff them full of lettuces, bunches of kale, onions, garlic, herbs, potatoes and whatever else we have on offer that day. Maybe they’re picking up a few fancy or exotic items at the mega store — things they’ll never find at Greenmarket. You can’t buy mangoes or bananas, or orange roughy at Union Square.
Personally, I no longer worry about competition from Whole Foods, Trader Joes and their ilk. I’ll concede they’ve got a role to play in a great city like New York and have helped raise the bar on food quality and diversity. But I know they can’t compete with us on freshness and personal touch. (Most of what we sell is harvested the day before and sold by the people who grew it.) Our customers know this, too.
Keith Stewart, who sells produce at the Green-market in Union Square, is the author of It’s a Long Road to a Tomato: Tales of an Organic Farmer who Quit the Big City for the (Not So) Simple Life.
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