Farmers set down roots at city’s primo Greenmarket

By Terese Loeb Kreuzer

The Union Square Greenmarket was New York City’s first and it is still the largest of the city’s 62 Greenmarkets. It opened in August 1976 with 10 farmers. Now there are around 140 farmers at Union Square. They sell their wares on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. — vegetables, fruit, flowers, bread, cheese and other dairy products, wine, lavender and much more.

The farmers come from six states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Many of them drive two or three hours to get to the market, work there all day, and then have the trip home.

“It’s a hard life but a rewarding life,” said David Hughes, the Union Square Greenmarket’s operations manager. “You have to love it. It’s a total vocation.”

Hughes said that some of the producers had inherited their farms but others had come to farming from other professions. He mentioned Bill Maxwell, a former journalist who now sells vegetables, and Barbara Olson, who had been in publishing sales and is now a baker.

Then there are people like Ed Huff, who sells cheese and other dairy products, eggs and vegetables from his farm in Hunterdon County, N.J. His son, Brian, 37, who works with him on the farm is the fourth generation in the business.

“I needed to get out of the area I live in,” said Huff, explaining why he sells at the Greenmarket. “There are few people there.”

Elly Hushour, who has a goat farm in Nazareth, Pa., said the same thing.

“I would starve to death in Pennsylvania, if I didn’t sell in this market,” she said. “The New York consumer understands goat products.” She brings goat cheese from her herd of about 100 female goats to the Union Square Greenmarket every day that it’s open, year-round, and has many steady customers. Hushour has been in the Greenmarket for seven years.

Robert Duncan, a dairy farmer from Troy, N.Y., has only been selling in the Greenmarket for three months. Typically, he said, he gets up at 3 a.m. on market days, leaves his house at 4 a.m. and arrives at Union Square a little after 7 a.m. He heads back home around 6:30 p.m. and when he gets there, still has chores to do. It’s a long day, but he is glad to be in the Greenmarket. Upstate, he said, there are many dairy farms and it’s more difficult for him to sell his milk.

Duncan’s farm has been in his family for 70 years. Prior to that, his great-grandparents, who came from Ireland, and his grandparents had a farm in Sycaway, a nearby community. At his stand in the Greenmarket, where he sells milk that has been pasteurized at low temperatures so as not to destroy the nutrients, Duncan has a metal container full of glass bottles that his father used to carry from door to door when he made milk deliveries. Duncan still sells milk in glass bottles because, he said, the flavor is better than when the milk is packaged in plastic.

Stewart Borowsky is one of the Union Square Greenmarket farmers who has been there longest. He has been selling wheatgrass and salad greens in the Greenmarket for 17 years. Like Hushour, he’s there every day that the market is open. Originally, Borowsky had a farm in Sullivan County, which entailed a two-and-a-half-hour commute each way. Then he realized that since he could grow his products indoors, he could move to Brooklyn. He now has roughly 2,000 square feet of space that he has turned into an urban farm.

Borowsky also has an old school bus to transport his wares. He says it’s perfect because it has a rubber floor and large windows. He has equipped it with hot and cold running water so that he can keep his wheatgrass sparkling fresh.

“It’s a wonderful market,” he said of the Union Square Greenmarket. “There are so many farmers here, and it’s a nexus of transportation.”

Operations manager Hughes, whose experience with the Union Square Greenmarket goes back 10 years (he worked there for a farmer before becoming the manager in February 2002), agrees that the Union Square Greenmarket is wonderful and has done wonders for the neighborhood.

“In 1976, it was dangerous,” he said. “The Greenmarket has revitalized the park and made it safer.”

Hughes gets to the market between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m., when nightclub revelers are going home, subway crews are leaving their shifts, newspaper trucks are making their deliveries, and the farmers are begining to pull in.

“You really feel like it’s alive here,” he said. “It’s never dull at Union Square Park. I call it the cosmic center of the city.”