Volume 74, Number 55 | May 25 - 31 , 2005

Focus on Union Square

Villager photos by Talisman Brolin

Buying apples the no-fuss way out of crates in the Union Sq. Greenmarket

Green or Whole Foods, markets have square covered

By Josie Garthwaite

When Whole Foods Market opened on Union Sq. S. this spring, the neighborhood was abuzz with what it would mean for the Greenmarket across the park. Would locals neglect the very institution that helped revitalize the neighborhood in favor of a national chain?

But two months later, the 50,000-square-foot store is mostly out of sight from the Greenmarket’s tents, thanks to the park’s greenery, and as the market nears its seasonal peak, the supposed threat is also out of mind for most farmers, thanks to good business.

Although Whole Foods offers similar products to its open-air neighbor, with an emphasis on natural and organic foods, the Greenmarket thrives because of its sellers as much as because of what is sold.

Trina Pilonero has been vending her Silver Heights Farm heirloom plants at the Union Sq. Greenmarket for three years. On a recent day in the market, a shopper comes to her booth on the west side of the square and pokes around the rows of young potted plants.

“I’ve never tried lettuce,” he says. “Tell me about lettuce.”

Having grown the plants herself, Pilonero can tell him they’re easy to care for and assure him the plants will continue to grow if he harvests the outer leaves.

“O.K.,” he says, but Pilonero isn’t done. Before making the sale she needs to know if he wants tall or short, round or romaine. Priding herself on an array of choices, she reminds her customer, “Gardening should always be an adventure.”

After the man makes his purchase (short and round seem to do the job), Pilonero sends him off with a smile as he moves on to the next stall, saying, “Come back and let me know how those do.”

Similar exchanges occur every week at Greenmarkets throughout the boroughs. The 29-year-old program of the Council on the Environment of New York City has grown from 12 farmers in an empty lot to a bustling network of 47 markets in 33 locations in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island, with 23 markets operating year-round.

By comparison, Whole Foods has 169 stores nationwide, three of them in Manhattan.

Once she’s helped her customer, Pilonero is willing to bother with the new store.

“They’re just another corporate giant,” she says. She won’t shop there, and dismisses suggestions that it might represent competition.

Looking around at her tables of old-fashioned and unusual-variety vegetable plants, she says, “I like the weird stuff.” She may share some customers with the three-floor store down the block, but it doesn’t seem to have interfered with her business.

Unlike most farmers markets, New York’s Greenmarkets don’t collect sales reports from their vendors, so comparisons of profits from before and after Whole Foods’s appearance can’t be made. The store opened in March, a naturally slow time of year for the farmers market, so as the seasonal business begins to increase, it may be too soon to tell what the relationship will be.

It began congenially enough, however, with the new upscale supermarket donating $8,900 to the Greenmarket as the first of four annual “5% days,” when 5 percent of a day’s profit goes to a local nonprofit organization.

Whole Foods spokesperson Fred Shank draws the image of shoppers carrying Whole Foods bags at the Greenmarket, and Greenmarket bags in Whole Foods.

It’s not only shoppers crossing over — mixing open-air with subterranean, small bags with shopping carts, hand-wrapped with prepackaged — but purveyors well. Shank points out that the Whole Foods prepared food team checks out the Greenmarket every week for fresh ingredients; and products from Greenmarket regulars, like Ronnybrook farms and Bread Alone, can be found on the new chain store’s shelves. Planners expected the new Whole Foods to bring more people to the area, and folks from the Greenmarket, as well as the new store, say it seems to have done so.

The complementary relationship between the new store and the Greenmarket follows a trend Robert Lewis, Greenmarket co-founder and current chief marketing representative for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, has observed from the beginning.

“The Greenmarket has been a catalyst for the area,” he says. “And the response — residences, restaurants, dormitories — has further enhanced the Greenmarket.”

As the largest of the Greenmarkets, up to 70 growers participate in the Union Sq. market in peak growing season, July to November. With a recent nod from the city’s Parks Department to extend the market further down the square’s west side on Saturdays, more farmers and vendors can now come to the Union Sq. market for its busiest day.

Kelly Williams, a Greenmarket spokesperson, says the market will likely cover nearly the full length of the square by August, the height of the season.

With its bounty of fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat, poultry, honey, wine, flowers and baked goods, Williams says, “It’s hard to say that the market needs anything else.” Farmers and other vendors will be selected to fill the additional space on the basis of offering a balance of commodities, she says. Market organizers and vendors like to keep a profitable distribution of products among the city’s various locations. If the Union Sq. market has three apple growers and Tompkins Sq. has none, a grower might be assigned to the smaller market.

Across the boroughs, Greenmarkets help sustain close to 175 regional farmers and support nearly 16,000 acres of farmland. Each week in the peak season, more than 100 restaurants buy ingredients from the farmers and more than 250,000 customers frequent the markets. Of that number, Union Sq. draws 60,000 shoppers each day in peak months. As a result, Williams says, expansion is key to admitting new growers to the popular market because once admitted, they have little motivation to leave.

Michael Hoffman of Honey Hollow Farms, who sells eggs at the market, can understand why. He likes energy of the active market.

“Business changes. It’ll slow down and it’ll pick up,” he says, “but it’s better than being in a supermarket when people come together like this.” Looking at the river of shoppers and the flowers with their long stalks bobbing up from the crowd, he says, “I feast here.”

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