A Day at the Farmer’s Market

New York City’s farmers’ markets return for the summer, offering fresh food and sustainability.

Karen (left) and Catherine, the GrowNYC compost workers. They spent their day organizing the compost toters and handing information about composting to patrons of the Greenmarket.

Summer has arrived, and New York City’s farmers’ markets are in full bloom. Across the city, over fifty farmers’ markets are providing a bounty of fresh, local, ethically produced honey, meat,  produce, dairy products, and more. The harvest season for most produce starts in the spring and summer, so the farmers’ markets are in full swing after coming out of their winter hibernation last Spring.

For this article, I decided to visit the 77th/79th Street Greenmarket. The Greenmarket is operated by GrowNYC, an organization that sponsors various environmental initiatives in New York City including several farmers’ markets. Greenmarkets are “grow-your-own,” meaning that everything on offer has to be carefully grown by the farmer selling it. This system ensures quality and accountability, since it allows shoppers to learn about where their food comes from and how it was made, directly from the person who grew it. 

My adventure in the Greenmarket started at the booth of John D. Madura Farms from Pine Island, NY. This booth had a wide selection of fresh produce, and was staffed by a friendly man named Allen. While I admired the kale, carrots, scallions, and oyster mushrooms, Allen enthused about the variety of produce available. “The farmers market has things that are different. You rarely see green garlic in the supermarket,” he said. Green garlic, as Allen taught me, is garlic that isn’t mature and doesn’t have a fully developed bulb. The garlic stalks were a bright, cheerful green, warm from laying in the sun, and they seemed much more lively and vibrant than the cold, plastic wrapped produce available at grocery stores.

I had seen for myself the amazing quality of the food at the Greenmarket, but I also wanted to learn about how the Greenmarket helps the environment. So, I went to the GrowNYC information booth and spoke with Tammy, who is working with GrowNYC. She told me about GrowNYC’s mission to create healthier environments and communities. The Greenmarkets contribute to this mission by providing nutritious, sustainably produced food. “The most special thing about the Greenmarket,” explained Tammy, “is that we’re reducing the carbon footprint of food and using fewer pesticides.” While using fewer pesticides is up to the farmers, the Greenmarket is able to actively reduce its carbon footprint by only allowing local purveyors. Farmers at the Greenmarket need to be from within 200 miles upstate or from within 100 miles in New Jersey, Connecticut, or Pennsylvania. While that may not sound all that “local” at first, consider that food in a supermarket can be from thousands of miles away, or even from another continent. 

Having learned about the environmental benefits of the Greenmarket and about the delicious produce available, I decided to walk around a bit more and find farmers offering different goods. Luckily, I found the booth of City Saucery, a Brooklyn based tomato sauce business. What makes City Saucery unique is that they make their sauces from so-called “ugly tomatoes,” which are tomatoes that are bruised, overripe, or otherwise unattractive. These “ugly tomatoes” are often thrown out because they won’t sell as well in a grocery store. Michael, one of the owners of City Saucery, said “we use ‘ugly’ tomatoes that won’t sell to supermarkets to prevent food waste.” The sauces are also specially made to be free of any additives or artificial ingredients. Michael explained that “we crush our tomatoes, we don’t dice like most sauces, because diced tomatoes need calcium chloride to retain their shape.” This lack of additives creates a tomato sauce made solely of ingredients that are actually food, not chemicals, which is sadly a rarity in today’s world. 

While talking to Michael, I was struck by how different this experience was from a supermarket experience. Everything was warmer, literally and emotionally. The sun beamed cheerfully, creating a pattern of dappled light on the sidewalk. Breezes blew lazily, the air smelled like summer. A low hum of chatter and laughter filled the Greenmarket, and beyond that I could hear the gentle roar of New York City. I felt full of energy and purpose, somehow grocery shopping felt like a grand adventure here. Everyone I spoke to was friendly, enthusiastic, and seemed like they genuinely wanted to be here. Compared to this experience, supermarkets felt like winter: silent and fluorescent, air-conditioned into an artificial chill, absent of the warmth and light that the Greenmarket possessed in abundance. 

The Greenmarket’s drastic differences from a supermarket made me want to find something unique, that truly wasn’t available in any shape or form at a supermarket. Earlier, I had enjoyed green garlic, which is certainly a rarity in most stores, but I wanted something more out there. I found that something at Riverine Ranch, a water buffalo farm from New Jersey. Riverine Ranch is the opposite of the mainstream, industrial food chain in every way that matters, starting with their very approach to farming. The water buffalo at Riverine Ranch are all fed on grass, not grain. This is how all bovids are supposed to be fed, but most large scale milk producers feed their dairy cows on grain, which is unhealthy for them. Brian, the owner of Riverine Ranch, stated, “feeding cows grain is not good for the animals and not good for you.” However, many farmers give their cattle grain, because that causes the animals to produce more milk. Grass-fed water buffalo produce much less milk than dairy cows do, but their milk comes from healthy animals who are treated properly. “The water buffalo doesn’t work on mass production, they need to be on a smaller scale like the farmers market because they give less milk,” explained Brian. Despite this disadvantage, Brian said that he still prioritizes feeding his cows grass, because “it’s rewarding, it’s more sustainable.” Sustainability and ethical animal treatment are some of the most important concerns for a discerning shopper, and the Greenmarket has farmers who provide both. 

My final stop at the Greenmarket was decidedly less attractive than the produce stands. I was going to the compost bins. Though they aren’t what comes to mind when you picture fresh fruits and vegetables, the compost bins are where your orange peels, avocado pits, and apple seeds should end up. GrowNYC runs sites all over the city for people to drop their compost off, so I visited the site at the Greenmarket. There I met Karen, a compost master for the New York Compost Project. She was hard at work overseeing people as they deposited their compost for the week. Items such as fruit stickers and plastic garbage bags are not compostable, and Karen had to check each compost bin to make sure no non-compostable items had snuck in. Karen described the New York Compost Project’s mission as “We collect food scraps, some yard waste, so it can be turned into compost. And then it goes to the green spaces in the city to keep it out of the landfill, it helps our environment by stopping landfill growth and improving plant health. Compost is the true miracle grower.” The compost site at the Greenmarket is one of New York City’s busiest, and each Sunday the collected compost fills about 20 toters. Overall, the New York Compost Project collects tons of compost, but in Karen’s eyes there is still a long way to go. “We collect a lot but not enough. There’s so much that can be collected, this is just a drop in the bucket,” said Karen. She added that “we could be doing much better as a city.” 

After my educational trip to the compost bins, my day at the Greenmarket came to an end. I had admired vibrant produce, ethically sourced milk, and food-waste preventing tomato sauce. I had learned about composting and the importance of buying locally grown food. And I had experienced the warmth and community of shopping outside of the supermarket. The farmers’ market displayed that living in a healthy, environmentally-friendly way goes hand in hand with enjoying delicious food.

Sustainability and ethical animal treatment are some of the most important concerns for a discerning shopper, and the Greenmarket has farmers who provide both.