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Greenmarkets Bring Healthy, Local Food to New York Year-Round

By Omar Atia • Sep 2nd, 2012 • Category: Features

Amidst the noise and frenzy of downtown Manhattan, one outdoor food market stands unaltered by the urban rush of its surroundings. That market is the Union Square Greenmarket, an anomaly in its setting that feels better suited for the tranquil reserves of the Catskills than one of New York City’s busiest intersections.

Over the decades, the Union Square Greenmarket has thrived in this location while educating people about food. It emerged as one of New York City’s first bastions to cultivate the locavore ethos, a food philosophy that promotes healthier eating and a better-informed sense of an ingredient’s origin, its seasonality, and its sustainability.

What started in 1976 as a business run by a handful of local farmers has since blossomed into the flagship greenmarket of the city. The Union Square Greenmarket stands as the largest of the 66 branches across the five boroughs. On a peak-season day, it can draw up to 60,000 customers.

“We have very loyal regular customers who come from Queens, Brooklyn, or New Jersey,” said Brian, the market manager of the popular Hammond Dairy stand at Union Square. Brian, a middle-aged, amiable man who has developed a rapport with his regular customers, also runs Hammond Dairy at the Stuyvesant Town and Cortelyou Road Greenmarket in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. At those locations, he says he receives many customers who live in the community as well as “families who stock up their refrigerator every week with yogurt” in 32 ounce-sized quarts.

The yogurt comes in six seasonal flavors: vanilla, chocolate, raspberry, peach, strawberry, and plain. It hails from the Hammond Dairy farm in Amenia, New York, a small town in Dutchess County. Since 1976, Dr. David Hammond has owned and run his eponymous business while maintaining his full-time career as a veterinarian, which helps ensure the humane care and treatment of the farm’s animals. While it also sells meat, eggs, and vegetables, the Hammond Dairy stand at Union Square generates most of its following from its yogurt.

“It’s a very high integrity product. It’s a full-fat yogurt and all of the flavors are all natural,” said Brian.  Unlike many supermarket brands, Hammond Dairy’s yogurt is non-homogenized but it is pasteurized, to comply with state law. “There’s no other product like it on the market right now.”

The Hammond Dairy stand is just one of many to occupy the Union Square Greenmarket. In the peak season of summer, the market can boast over 100 produce, fish, and baked-goods vendors. The variety of their offerings range from pasture-raised beef, to organic honey, to squash blossoms, to lavender flowers, to Long Island caught oysters. Unlike most other branches, which are only open on Sundays, the Union Square Greenmarket is there four days per week, every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday.

On one crowded, sweltering summer afternoon, the sun’s intensity didn’t stop hordes of customers from descending upon rows of nectarines and currants.

It was a dazzling visual feast, with everything from stone fruits to berries on ripe display in their peak season. Vibrant hues of crisp reds and plush oranges lined tables of green baskets, where customers of all ages and backgrounds filtered through, feeling and smelling fruits for ripeness.

From young women in yoga gear, to older, silver-haired mothers and apron-clad chefs, masses of people fingered rows of sugar plums and nectarines. There were also irregularly shaped, deep-hued purple eggplants and more esoteric varieties of onions and squash that customers prodded and inspected before bagging the produce in their recyclable totes.

“People are always looking for color in summer,” said Jorge Carmona, a farmer from eastern Pennsylvania. For the past seven years, he has built a following at the Cortelyou Greenmarket in Brooklyn. “I’ve known some people for five years,” he said. The “relationship between farmer and people” is what Mr. Carmona sees as one of many advantages in shopping at the greenmarket.

He arrives at six in the morning to set up before opening for business at 7 AM. Most days he doesn’t pack up until 3 or 4 PM. He cites the 7 AM to 12 PM time slot as his busiest hours.

While the majority of his clientele are regular, neighborhood people who address him affectionately as “Jorge,” Mr. Carmona also sells to several restaurants. He has fostered one of his closest relationships with Tom Kearney, chef at The Farm on Adderley, which is just two blocks away from Mr. Carmona’s greenmarket stand. As a restaurant, it is known as a Brooklyn cornerstone in the locavore ethos.

Together, Mr. Kearney and Mr. Carmona continually work to develop items for the restaurant’s menu. “Crop diversity sets into motion the natural ability of an ecosystem to take care of itself without the introduction of pesticides or chemical fertilizers,” said Mr. Kearney. The restaurant’s menu is constantly in flux, changing on a week-to-week basis in coordination with the freshest products Mr. Carmona delivers to Mr. Kearney and his restaurant. On the restaurant’s website, the menu has links to where it sources many of its products, allowing for clear traceability of its local produce. Mr. Carmona’s vegetables account for a substantial portion of the menu.

Citywide greenmarkets have facilitated the availability and affordability of locally grown, organic products. Through the expansion of the number of locations, the greenmarket has developed a more ubiquitous presence. Many greenmarkets also now accept food stamps as payment.

For Mr. Carmona, the fall is best, because it is the peak season for many of his leafy greens, such as kale, swiss chard, and various forms of lettuce. It is also “more comfortable,” a welcomed break from the summer heat.

Brian, from Hammond Dairy, also said fall is optimal for selling his yogurt because most people don’t want to eat it amidst the heat. On that sweltering day at the Union Square Greenmarket, he took out a type of thermometer to measure the ground temperature only to read it’s reached over triple digits. He grinned and wiped a trickle of sweat off his forehead before greeting the next customer.

Still, there was a constant stream of costumers who filed in, one by one, to buy Brian’s yogurt.

“I’ll have the usual, raspberry,” said a young bearded man, undeterred by the weather. Brian smiled and said, “You take a large, right?”

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