Drama at New York's Only Wholesale Farmers' Market

Local drama: the farmers, the merchants, the politicians, and the hooker

Smelling faintly of fish and diesel, the parking lot at the Fulton Fish Market is the kind of place where people make jokes about dumping bodies. It also happens to be the makeshift home of New York's only wholesale farmers' market—or what remains of it.

One blustery April morning, five trucks were parked in a semi-circle next to the river, the water slapping against the rocks below. The farmers—most of them well over 60 and clad in overalls—huddled stoically in the cabs of their trucks, dozing off or chatting until a buyer pulled up to inspect their wares. The farmers had arrived at 2 a.m. and would stay until about 8:30 a.m., after which they'd pack up and head back to their farms.

The New York wholesale farmers' market has a long and vital history, but now it's virtually without a home and teetering on the brink of extinction. If the group loses just one or two more farmers, the market probably won't survive.

Why should you care? You've heard the arguments for buying local: The produce is fresher; less fuel is consumed; it's good for small farmers and the local economy. But trekking to greenmarkets with cute cloth bags only goes so far.

The big wholesale buyers—stores and restaurants—don't find it feasible to shop at consumer greenmarkets. So if you want more local produce from shops and restaurants, there has to be a convenient wholesale source. And because big wholesale merchants generally don't buy from small and mid-sized farms, those farmers need to find a way to band together and market themselves to wholesale buyers.

None of the chefs I spoke to had even heard that a wholesale farmers' market exists at the Fulton Fish Market, even though they all thought it was a good idea. "A wholesale farmers' market would be ideal. Unlike the everyday shopper at the greenmarket, we're buying in heavy bulk—so cost-wise, it would be ideal," said Neil Ferguson of Allen & Delancey.

Lee Gross, chef at Broadway East, agreed: "A wholesale produce market for the restaurant industry that is akin to the Union Square farmers' market would be great. Who wouldn't want that? I do a fair amount of shopping in Union Square, and as a chef, it gets frustrating maneuvering around all of the civilians who are taking a leisurely Saturday stroll."

Bolstered by data that indicate this unmet demand, the state Department of Agriculture and Markets has proposed creating a dedicated site for an expanded wholesale farmers' market with indoor and outdoor facilities for 130 farmers. The department is betting that better infrastructure, publicity, and organization would attract more farmers and buyers. Both Toronto and Paris have already done this successfully.

Last year, the project's proponents found a champion in Governor Eliot Spitzer, who declared in his 2007 State of the State speech that he was making a wholesale farmers' market a priority for 2008.

And then Spitzer ended up screwing the farmers as well as Ashley DuPré. Spitzer's ouster means that 2008 will see no new construction. Governor Paterson said through a spokesperson that he "remains committed to the wholesale farmers' market and pushed to keep funding for it in this year's budget." And there's $40 million for agricultural development in this year's state budget. But can the various bureaucracies and players agree on a plan?

Jack Hoeffner is a fifth-generation Hudson Valley farmer and the coordinator of the current market in the parking lot. He'd heard about Spitzer's plans, but he's skeptical about promises from the government. Hoeffner has seen the devolution of the market over the past 50 years. In 1935, his family, along with about 100 other farmers, started selling their produce in the Bronx Terminal Market, near Yankee Stadium. But when the city handed over the Terminal Market to a private company under a 99-year lease, the farmers were eventually kicked out to make way for the market's redevelopment as a retail space. They moved to a parking lot under the Major Deegan Expressway. Two years ago, the developers said they needed that parking lot for construction equipment, so the farmers—their numbers rapidly dwindling—were homeless again. They rented part of the parking lot of the Fulton Fish Market; this is their second season there.

There's an obvious fix to this situation that wouldn't require a whole new building: Give the farmers space in the Hunts Point wholesale produce market. That's where the big produce vendors are located, and it's where the vast majority of wholesale buyers in the city get their produce now. That option was on the table at the start of this season, but the deal fell through.

"We made several attempts to go into Hunts Point and were always beaten back by the merchants," said Hoeffner.

Actually, Matt D'Arrigo, one of the biggest vendors and the co-president of the market, says he was all for the plan. But Hoeffner heard that a few vendors—the ones who also deal in local produce—were wary of bringing in the competition. Hoeffner got nervous and decided to sign the lease with the Fulton Fish Market for the 2008 season—right back where he was before.

Curt Conklin, who owns Homestead Floral Designs, a floral and produce shop in Westchester County, buys from Hoeffner, whom he's known all his life. "I've seen it change from something gigantic and very vibrant, to something . . . still vibrant, but much smaller," he said. "I was upset when the vendors didn't allow the farmers to come to Hunts Point, and I think that the state has neglected the farmers by not putting in a decent facility."

For his part, D'Arrigo is trying to get the Hunts Point produce market refurbished. He proposes that one of the old buildings could then be made into the farmers' market. In his vision, the new produce market for the traditional big wholesalers would be next-door to the old one, which would house the farmers—a perfect one-stop produce shopping setup for stores and restaurants. D'Arrigo will propose his plan to the Economic Development Commission this month.

Meanwhile, Hoeffner and his fellow holdouts will be out in their trucks by the East River six days a week, selling herbs and flowers, then tomatoes and sweet corn and other summer fruits and vegetables, before packing it in for the season around Thanksgiving and waiting to see what next year will bring.

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