A True Farmers’ Market

by Stephanie Villani, Blue Moon Fish

A friend who frequents a farmers’ market in Gloucester, Massachusetts confided that she had figured out that one of the farmers there was selling blackberries fraudulently. He would not identify where he got the berries (which were twice the size of the other farmers’ berries). What really gave him away was the fact that he wore spotlessly clean clothes, had soft hands, and was unfailingly chipper at 5 am in the morning every week. Most of the farmers I know are quite exhausted, especially in the midst of the season, and just take a look at their hands and fingernails if you want to know who works and who doesn’t. The dirt, calluses and scabs tell the tale.

One of the best things about the GrowNYC Greenmarkets is that you have the opportunity to talk to a real farmer and not just a buyer and seller of produce. Everyone accepted into the program must grow their own produce, bake their own bread, raise their own honeybees, or fish from their own commercial vessel. Participants must reapply for the program every year, and produce or harvest items from a region defined by a circle around NYC (extending 120 miles to the south, 170 miles east and west, and 250 miles north).

It’s true that participants can apply to purchase some regional product to be sold at certain times of the year; for example, we sell tuna and swordfish from local boats when it is in season. After receiving written permission from the Greenmarket Director, the source of purchased product must be identified at market and the town and state where it comes from listed.

Want to know how the tomatoes are grown? Just ask. Farmers will tell you if they use organic practices or not, if the tomatoes are grown in a hothouse or a field. Want to know why we aren’t selling black sea bass? Just ask — the fishery was closed by the NY State Department of Conservation and is slated to reopen in September. Have a question about honeybees? Our honey producers can fill you in on swarming bees, bears getting into the hives or anything else you want to know.

A second friend — a producer in a local Long Island market — recently ranted and raved about her market being overrun with resellers, one of whom had huge red tomatoes and zucchini in May. The so-called farmer refused to identify where her farm was or how the tomatoes were grown. She brazenly took business from the true farmers selling kale and overwintered onions and potatoes until the real local crops came in.

Another reseller sold bread that was obviously commercially produced. Market management was uninterested in inspecting these folks through farm visits, looking at food processing licenses or in following any rules at all, enraging my friend who sells a truly local product. Also unfortunate, the legitimate farmers that participate in this market refuse to stand up against the fraudulent resellers.

They wouldn’t stand a chance at Greenmarket. GrowNYC has a very active Farmer and Consumer Advisory Committee, which meets monthly and discusses issues at market, violations, etc. Producers have a strong interest in upholding the integrity of the market, as does market staff, and they are not afraid to speak up.

The 37-page Greenmarket Rules document has been developed over the 40 years of the program, not always in the most civil of manner. Meetings were contentious; issues took decades to hash out, with dozens of farmers, several Directors, and countless community members weighing in.

The rules keep us to a higher standard. We have a true farmers’ market here, not a flea market, and a true community who gives of their time to participate.

I believe that we are a “model of good market management,” as my friend says. Nothing is perfect and the rules keep changing and developing, but the hard work that goes on behind the scene of the farmstands and the shoppers is something to be proud of.

The husband and wife team, Alex and Stephanie Villani, of Blue Moon Fish are a commercial fishing family from Mattituck, on the North Fork of Long Island.They catch their own wild, local fish and sell exclusively at various Greenmarkets in New York City, with 40 years commercial fishing experience and 28 years at the markets.

Stephanie and her fisherman husband credit Greenmarket not just for their livelihood but also for introducing them. Alex was selling his catch at Greenmarkets in the early 90s when Stephanie took a part-time job selling apples for a vendor who happened to occupy the stand right next to his; the rest, as they say, is history.

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