Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

A special Villager supplement

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Fresh asparagus is now in season at the Union Square Greenmarket.

At 30, Greenmarket’s firmly rooted in shoppers’ hearts

By Janet Kwon

The fragrances of various herbs, flowers and freshly baked goods fill the air, as throngs of eager New Yorkers flood the Greenmarket at Union Square on a Saturday morning. Braving the late May heat and humidity, customers go from tent to tent in search of truly fresh produce, either harvested the day before or even that morning. Two long rows of tents run along the curves of the north end of Union Square Park, creating a pathway for customers to shop at the 68 stands, which offer everything from all-natural maple syrup for one’s morning pancakes to pots of blossomed begonias to plant in a backyard garden.

The Union Square Greenmarket is the largest one of 51 Greenmarkets in the five boroughs and is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Also, it is one of 23 Greenmarkets that stay open all year round. Although a sizable crowd turns up every market day at Union Square, the largest crowd gathers on Saturdays to fill their bags with just-picked Fuji apples, bundles of organic mescaline greens and other farm-fresh produce.

Couples, families and students, young people and old fill the market — many holding bulky bags full of food. Some carry children on their shoulders and use strollers as makeshift shopping carts. Some relax in the park with a book under the shade of a tree while munching on thick slices of freshly baked banana nut bread. It’s easy to forget that this country market is surrounded by a bustling metropolis.

“The Greenmarket brings a small town feel to a big city,” said Gabrielle Langholtz, a Greenmarket spokesperson. “It brings a richness to meeting the person who grew your food. It’s like the village square — surrounded by skyscrapers. People bring their dog, smell the lilacs and talk to strangers. There’s just something there that you can’t find in grocery stores.”

The benefits of Greenmarkets are two fold, Langholtz explained. First, it helps local farms stay in business. (“Local,” meaning farms within an approximately 90-mile radius from the market so that the food truly will be fresh upon arrival) Second, the market keeps New Yorkers healthy.

“You get food that was picked the day before — delicious and ripe — grown by the person selling it to you…People are increasingly interested in buying and eating food they feel good about,” Langholtz said.

These two goals were what the founders of New York’s Greenmarkets had in mind when they first brought farmers into the city to sell fresh produce. Barry Benepe, an architect and urban planner, and his colleague Bob Lewis wanted to bring fresh produce to New Yorkers, as well as help the struggling farmers in Hudson Valley who were on the brink of going out of business. Benepe and Lewis approached the Council on the Environment of New York City, a nonprofit organization under the mayor’s office, with the Greenmarket proposal, and received an $800 grant to get the project rolling.

The very first market took place in July 1976 in an empty lot on 59th St. and Second Ave. in Midtown, with only seven farmers selling produce directly out of the back of their trucks. All the food was gone in just a few hours, and the farmers thought that there was a famine going on in the city, recalled Langholtz humorously.

Langholtz also recalled that the general condition of Union Square Park before the Greenmarket was dangerous, to say the least.

“It was a very different time. I remember they used to call it ‘Needle Park,’ and it was like the movie ‘Midnight Cowboy.’ It was a place that nobody wanted to go to,” she recalled.

While admitting that the Greenmarket can’t take all the credit for the improvements of the park, she added, “But now, the neighborhood has really grown around us. It’s one of the most delicious neighborhoods in New York City — largely because the Greenmarket is there.”

One hurdle that Benepe and Lewis faced when starting the market was recruiting farmers, due to the traditional rift between urban and rural communities. Although it was much stronger in the 1970s, the rift still exists today, as both sides hold certain biases against each other.

“We watch The Weather Channel, we use the computer, we don’t use sundials — we can be smart, you know,” said Ron Binaghi, who runs Stokes Farm, Inc., in Old Tappan, N. J.

Binaghi was 16 years old when his father sold cut flowers and firewood out of his truck on that first Saturday market three decades ago. Since then, Binaghi has been a leading presence at the Union Square Greenmarket selling fresh herbs, geraniums, heirloom tomatoes and more every week. On the recent Memorial Day weekend, Binaghi said geraniums were the hot item of the day.

Perched on the rear of his truck, Binaghi took a breather from the hot sun and snacked on an empanada. His deeply tanned face broke into a broad grin as he talked about farming.

“It takes so much creativity, and you can grow anything you want to if you feel like it…it’s a lifestyle, not just a job,” he said.

Along with creativity, farming takes a lot of common sense, he added. Binaghi said he learned the practical ins and outs of farming from his father.

“He was very practical. He taught me things like how to make change, and how to make the displays — he was really good at retail,” said Binaghi.

Indeed, Binaghi’s plants and herb displays were arranged in an aesthetically appealing fashion. Little potted plants were lined up in neat rows, and the flowers were impeccably arranged according to variety.

Binaghi emphasized that the right combination of both quality product and quality display is necessary to be successful selling in the Greenmarket, he said.

Aside from the technical aspects of farming and selling, Binaghi also stressed how much he values the relationships he has built with the different farmers that come to the Union Square market week after week.

“Many of these people have seen me grow up here. They say, ‘You were a little wiseguy back then, and now you’re a big wiseguy,’ ” he said with a laugh.

Not only do the farmers build relationships with one another, they build relationships with the customers who come out to support them every week.

Ted Blew, who runs Oak Grove Plantation in Pittstown, N. J., sat under his large green-and-white tent and spoke at length with an elderly couple, with carts full of produce they had bought from many stands, including Blew’s. Blew commented that such visits aren’t unusual, since seeing familiar faces is a big part of what sets the farmers’ market apart from chain grocery stores.

“You walk around, and you hear things like, ‘Good to see you!’ and ‘Haven’t seen you in a long time!’ That’s why people like the market — it’s very relaxed and casual,” said Blew, who has been selling flour, pork products, fruit and vegetables at the Union Square market for 27 years. This kind of experience gives the farmers a depth of knowledge for the food they grow, as well how to prepare them.

Loyal Greenmarket customer Mimi Wallace frequently shares cooking tips with farmers at the market, and she also enjoys swapping recipes with chefs who use local ingredients in their dishes.

“The farmers are so knowledgeable about their products,” said Wallace. “At those chain stores, they don’t seem to know anything about anything. Half the time, they don’t even know the names of the things I buy.” Although she lives on the Upper West Side, Wallace said she always comes to the Union Square Greenmarket because she enjoys the fresh quality of the produce and the open-air market’s ambience.

Another pair of loyal Greenmarket patrons, Shimon and Tammar Rothstein, enjoy the atmosphere as well.

“Places like Whole Foods is not a place to buy food; it’s more commercial and not unique. Now, this is unique,” said Shimon as he gestured toward the market’s myriad stands.

“You see people shopping here carrying bags from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods,” said Davy Hughes, the Union Square Greenmarket’s operating manager.

Hughes said the larger chains and the Greenmarkets have developed an almost symbiotic relationship: what customers can’t find at one venue, they can buy at the other.

“But they can’t beat us for the freshness and the seasonality,” he stressed.

Freshness and products in season are the goals for many chefs who frequent the Greenmarkets in search of highest-quality produce to use in their restaurants. This trend has boosted the profile of local farms, as well as the restaurants that feature them, as patrons ride the locally grown food wave with gusto. However, Langholtz warns that, in some cases, a few restaurants have fudged their food’s origins.

She cited an example of a restaurant featuring market-fresh seasonal peas a month before they were even sold at the Greenmarkets — just for the sake of “being trendy.”

However, most restaurateurs have long-standing relationships with local farms, and they uphold the integrity of their products, said Langholtz. She listed some restaurants that showcase in-season local ingredients: Il Buco in Noho and the Tasting Room, Prune, Butter and Blue Hill in the East Village.

Chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant on Washington Pl. said that about 40 percent of the restaurant’s food comes from the Greenmarkets. For him, shopping there isn’t a chore, but an integral part of his cooking.

“It connects you to your work and your job by way of pleasure,” said Barber, who used to be a farmer himself. “It’s always a more enjoyable route to go…it’s the way you want to grow food and it’s the kind of food you want. You should support it.”

The restaurant derives much of its resources from Barber’s family farm, Blue Hill Farm, in Great Barrington, Mass., in addition to the Union Square Greenmarket. In his current menu, the prevalent in-season local ingredient is asparagus. Barber says about half his menu now contains asparagus, since it will be going out of season in three weeks.

As New York’s Greenmarket turns 30 years old this July, there are a host of events planned to commemorate the event. On the week of Mon. July 17, the Council on the Environment of New York City will be treating customers to free birthday cake at the Greenmarkets. Also, there will be a fundraiser benefit dinner at Blue Hill restaurant on Sept. 18 hosted by Barber.

In addition, market co-founder Barry Benepe is scheduled to talk about various aspects of the Greenmarket at the 92nd St. Y on Sept. 21. The Council on the Environment of New York City will also call upon approximately 100 restaurants citywide to raise the profile of Greenmarket produce used in their menus.

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