In 1976 when Union Square was still considered dangerous, Barry Benepe took the risk of opening up a farmer's market. 40 years later, the greenmarket is thriving and yesterday Benepe and his GrowNYC team celebrated their success and how far they've come.
"The city planning department called us up and said, 'We're trying to rescue Union Square, could you put up [a farmers market] in Union Square,' Benepe told us. "Those first years were bad years. Nobody came. The park was considered unsafe. There were murders in the park...So it took a while to catch on."
As the neighborhood began to change, the market started to catch on. Now he has 54 greenmarkets all over the city that operate year round and every day of the week.
He came up with the idea during the '70s, both because it was hard to find good produce in the city and because he wanted to help preserve farmland throughout the area. Though quality produce is ubiquitous in New York City now, the loss of farmland to development is a continuing problem and one that the Union Square Greenmarket still helps combat.
Michael Yezzi, owner of Flying Pigs Farm in Shushan, NY, has been a vendor at the market since 2001. He purchased his 200-acre farm to save it from getting developed into houses, starting out with just three pigs. 16 years later he's expanded to 1,000 pigs and 1,500 chickens. He sells to restaurants which include five of the Jean-Georges restaurants and Il Buco as regulars, and notes that his products caught the attention of these famous chefs because of the greenmarket.
"Our customers understand the importance of humanly raised sustainable products and their willing to pay what it costs and have the disposable income to do that," he said. "Being three hours from New York's biggest city makes this possible where it wouldn't be from Kansas's biggest city or something."
Yezzi's story is directly in line with what Benepe was trying to accomplish. When Benepe opened his first greenmarket on 2nd Avenue and 59th Street, he had only a dozen farmers. Now there are 240, five of whom were part of the original group in 1976. He opened the Union Square market a few months after opening the 59th Street location (which as the NYC story goes, has closed and is now a high rise) making it the oldest existing greenmarket in the city.
The changing food trends, with a tendency toward non-GMO and local food, have only helped expand the popularity of the markets. Whether it's the gluten free craze, interest in Asian greens, or pasture-raised livestock, the greenmarket tended to be ahead of the game.
"When I started it was somewhat at the peak of the awareness around local," said Michael Hurwitz, Director of GrownNYC's Greenmarket Program since 2007. "And obviously we've been promoting local agriculture and regional agriculture for forty years. So it has never been a trend for us."