40 Years of Greenmarket: The Rebirth of Farmers Markets in New York City

By Marcel Van Ooyen, GrowNYC Executive Director

On a hot July day in 1976, in an empty lot across from the 59th Street Bridge, a handful of farmers took a chance on selling their fresh produce to the people of New York City. By midday, there was nary a vegetable to be had; they had completely sold out. From that first day, Greenmarket has been an unqualified success story for both city dwellers and our region’s family farmers alike.

July 16, 1976, the first Greemarket was held in a parking lot across from the 59th Street Bridge.

The founders, Barry Benepe and Bob Lewis, knew they had created in Greenmarket not just a place to buy fresh, delicious produce but a strategic way to preserve our region’s quickly disappearing farmland. They were cutting out the middlemen and providing family farmers a way to sell directly to consumers, thus ensuring they were paid a fair price for their produce.

Wanting to share this success story with other organizers that might have their same vision for a more sustainable alternative for our dinner tables, they painstakingly documented their process from inspiration to reality in a booklet they called, “The Rebirth of Farmers Markets in New York City.” As a preface, John Hess, the celebrated food writer and an instrumental figure in the early days of Greenmarket, provided his take on the first two years. Looking back 40 years later, thanks to the hard work of our farmers and Greenmarket staff along with the support of New Yorkers, his vision as written in 1978 has come true:

The quality of life in and around our cities has eroded grievously in recent decades. Our greatest city, New York, has suffered some of the greatest problems. Yet at a time when a series of man-made disasters have struck here, it is good to be reminded of the city’s underlying vitality. Here and there, neighborhoods revive spontaneously, vacant lots bloom as community gardens, and now- Greenmarket.

Not long ago, few would have thought it possible. The city is fed by plasticized, ageless produce trucked from thousands of miles away, at a vast cost in fuel and flavor. In a radius of an hour’s drive around the city, the farmer was all but extinct, and one by one the survivors were getting offers from developers that they could not refuse.

But a little group of practical visionaries led by Barry Benepe believe they could halt this decline, and reverse it. By their own dedicated efforts, with a little seed money from foundations and not a penny from the taxpayer, they have wrought a minor miracle.

In two seasons, Greenmarkets have become an institution, one of the city’s valued assets. To visit one is to smell the fruits of the earth again, to enjoy the revival of life. One recalls the elderly city dweller who, parting the dewy tassels of a fresh ear of corn, cried with delight “Oh, look at the lovely worm!” The pleasure of the shoppers…is matched by the evident pride and satisfaction of the farmers.

It is only a beginning. New York should have, and will have, scores of Greenmarkets, thousand of community gardens and a great number of bakers and other artisans serving their neighbors in newly enlivened public squares.

Farmers’ markets exist elsewhere, of course. But few if any are so purposefully aimed at the well-being of nearby farmers and of the community as a whole. Further, because the obstacles here are the same as those in other cities, only worse, the New York experience may serve to encourage and enlighten community leaders elsewhere. It is to be hoped that this clear and accurate report will help them. To them, best wishes and a hearty appetite.

As Greenmarket enters into its 40th season it’s gratifying to see that John Hess’ vision has come true. Today there are over 50 Greenmarkets and thousands of community gardens in all five boroughs, and our city continues to inspire innovative food entrepreneurs that are aware of the need to keep our rural and urban communities connected. At the same time, we are still fighting many of the same issues he references: manmade disasters, factory farms producing tasteless produce, and the constant threat of development to our nation’s farmland.

For the next 40 years, the Greenmarket community, comprised of the incredible New Yorkers that come out each week to shop and the farmers that work tirelessly to feed you, will be just as important as it has been for the past 40. As we continue to tackle these issues, it is our collective interdependence and efforts that will continue to sustain and grow our region’s agriculture and make our city more just and livable.

Want to learn more about GrowNYC and our $40 for 40 campaign? Visit http://www.grownyc.org/blog/greenmarket-40-40