“These two acres,” says Greenmarket director Michael Hurwitz, standing in the center of Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, “represent 18,000 across the region.” Hurwitz, who was addressing a group that gathered at the market on July 29 as part of Open House New York’s The Final Mile series, was referring to the footprint of agricultural land taken up by the farmers who sell their wares at the largest of the city’s Greenmarkets. That footprint, illustrated on a map in the market info tent that morning, stretches 250 miles to the north, 175 miles from east to west, and 120 miles to the south. Within it are produced more than 13,000 varieties of products on sale at the Union Square Greenmarket on any given market day.
The offerings weren’t always so complex. As the city’s main produce distribution center migrated to Hunts Point in the Bronx starting in the 1950s, New York increasingly relied on large-scale industrial agriculture and manufacturing for its food supply. Within just a few decades, there was enough concern over the widening disconnect between the city and its agricultural hinterland that the first Greenmarkets were created in 1976 to improve access to the urban market for regional farmers.
The very first market was located in Midtown, on 59th Street, and featured just twelve farmers. By 11:00 in the morning, Hurwitz told the group, the market was sold out. That this happened so quickly surprised even the organizers. The farmers on site asked, half-jokingly, if there was some kind of famine in the city that they hadn’t heard about.
Over time, the Greenmarket system, which is administered by the non-profit GrowNYC, has grown to encompass more than fifty markets at sites in all five boroughs. While most are not as robust as the one at Union Square, the network represents a critical piece of the city’s food system, as it provides small and mid-sized farmers and other producers with affordable access to the booming urban market. While interest in local food is soaring, the scale at which many of the wholesalers in places like Hunts Point operate is prohibitive for many local producers, which has created a gap between demand and supply. The Greenmarket system is playing a significant role in filling that gap.
To do so, though, requires a great amount of attention to detail. Hurwitz and his team work hard to create a sense of balance in their markets, allowing for a healthy amount of competition without creating a situation where one market or another is flooded with too-similar products. Different vendors are selected for in-demand spots at Union Square with an eye toward variety as much as quality. Once vendors are in place, the Greenmarket team works closely with the proprietors to help them navigate the demands of selling in a sophisticated urban market.
“To do well here,” according to Hurwitz, “you need to be a good farmer, a good marketer, your own distributor; you have to offer great customer service. There’s a lot to keep on top of. The display of a stall has to be strong—that’s their storefront, right there.”
Hurwitz introduced the group to several of the vendors throughout the market, including Andrew Coté, of Andrew’s Honey fame. A fourth-generation beekeeper, Coté spoke with enthusiasm about the recent completion of a rooftop apiary just a few blocks north of Union Square, within sight of the market. Andrew’s Honey has apiaries across four of the five boroughs, and the jars displayed at the market stall featured decorative covers proudly displaying the name of the honey’s neighborhood of origin. An employee offered samples on tiny spoons, encouraging passersby to taste the difference between Bedford-Stuyvesant and the East Village.
Coté also explained the infrastructural reasoning behind the lack of full five-borough coverage: bridge tolls. As it turns out, the cost of a ride over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge is just high enough to make the transportation of honey uneconomical.
Hurwitz also took the group to the market stall that houses Ronnybrook Dairy Farm. This third-generation family farm (83% of Greenmarket farmers own farmland) sells milk, ice cream, yogurt, and butter at Greenmarkets around the city. While discussing the ins and outs of life at the market with Ronnybrook’s Tom Toigo, Hurwitz impressed upon the group the importance of that age-old real estate maxim in the way that the market is laid out: location, location, location. “The number one thing [that influences a market’s success] is existing foot traffic. Nothing can beat that,” Hurwitz explained. Toigo agreed, noting that his booth was once relocated slightly while the city worked on the renovation of the north end of Union Square and had a measurable drop in business that week. “People were coming up afterward and asking, ‘Where were you last week? I missed you,’” Toigo chuckled. “Well, we were right there! All you have to do is make a left!”
The ephemeral nature of the city’s Greenmarkets—the rapidity with which they appear and then disappear on market dates, the way that they shift, grow, and contract with the seasons—is part of their charm. But don’t let their human scale and social nature fool you; these markets are a significant economic force, collectively doing more than $200 million in business each year. They are also helping to strengthen regional and local agriculture by creating reliable access for farmers. “These are vital places of business,” Hurwitz told the group. “The children of our farmers see that they have a real economic future here.”