Farmers' markets have everything but farmers

`There are just not enough of them,' says New York organizer

August 11, 2002|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - Tony Mannetta does not worry about having enough customers at the hugely popular farmers' market in Union Square in Manhattan, or most of the 27 other markets scattered across the city that he oversees for the Greenmarket program.

What he does worry about is having enough farmers for all of them. So later this summer he plans to head for the fields in Orange, Ulster and Dutchess counties, to knock on barn doors in an effort to meet the demands of the markets in operation and a dozen more that the program wants to open.

"We are running out of farmers," he said. "Could we use at least 50 more farmers in the next five years? Absolutely."

It is getting to be a common problem.

As people grow ever more picky about their vine-ripened tomatoes, and cities and towns from upstate New York to the San Francisco Bay area search for ways to keep their residents happy, it seems that just about everyone without a farmers' market is angling for one in their downtown. And many of them are finding that there are simply not enough farmers to go around.

Supply and demand

Though the most popular markets have no shortage of farmers - and sometimes even have waiting lists - the newer and less-established ones often cannot find enough. The result is a textbook lesson in supply and demand: Farmers who once haggled with middlemen to sell their crops are now being fought over themselves.

In Haverstraw, N.Y., for instance, it took nearly two years to line up three farmers to start a market in July 2000. "I thought, `Build it and they will come,'" said Mark Russo, a program director for the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rockland County, who helped organize the market. "No way. There are just not enough of them."

A market in Bound Brook, N.J., could not open as planned this summer because not one of the 30 or so farmers contacted through phone calls, letters and visits during the past four months was available. "It's still a work in progress," said Karen Fritz, a resident who is leading the search.

270 in New York

The nation's growers will roll out their harvests at more than 3,000 farmers' markets this year, a record comeback for something that all but disappeared in many places during the last century with the spread of refrigeration, prepackaged foods and supermarket chains. New York state has 270 markets, or nearly one-third more than in 1996, trailing only California, with 403 markets, in sheer number. Markets in New Jersey nearly doubled, to 49, during the same period.

"Communities have just gone crazy over farmers' markets," said Don Wambles, an Alabama official who has organized 23 new farmers' markets in his state since January. "Now that society has changed, they're looking for that bit of history that is not there anymore. A lot of our seniors grew up going to farmers' markets, and they miss that."

Farmers' markets - just like the produce they sell - come in all sizes and varieties. The smaller ones typically have two or three farmers, though in large city markets, it is not unusual to find from 50 to 100. In some places, a single farmer may even pass his farm stand off as a market.

But the love affair with farmers' markets comes at a time when large amounts of farmland are disappearing around the country. In the past decade, more than 40 million acres of farmland were lost to development and other uses, including about 700,000 acres in New York state, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The farmers who actually go to the markets are an even smaller group. Markets allow the farmers to sell directly to consumers, and turn higher profits by cutting out middlemen, enabling some farmers to earn enough to support their operations year round.

But more-traditional growers tend to shun them, saying that they do not have enough time, or enough workers, or in truth, any real inclination, to hawk their corn and tomatoes.

`Dinosaurs'

"Farmers are dinosaurs," said Ethel Terry, a farmer in Orient Point, N.Y., on the eastern end of Long Island, who coordinates nine markets in Nassau and Suffolk counties. "They're creatures of habit - as we all are - and they don't want to leave the farm."

Other farmers say they have become frustrated with markets that are often poorly run and draw too few people to be profitable. Vance Corum, a market consultant and a co-author of The New Farmers' Market: Farm-Fresh Ideas for Producers, Managers & Communities, said that most market organizers do not realize the amount of work and planning involved.

Many farmers' markets today grew out of a grass-roots movement in American cities in the mid-1970s. Farmers' advocates saw the markets as a way to help struggling farmers, while urban planners hoped to draw crowds to neglected areas like Union Square and Harlem. Author John McPhee added a touch of glamour when he went to work weighing green peppers at a Brooklyn Greenmarket and later wrote about his experience for The New Yorker.

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