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What the Farm Gives: A Morning at the Wholesale Farmers' Market

07/28/2010 05:29 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By 6:30 yesterday morning, I was chatting with Jack Hoeffner, one of the farmers who sells at the Wholesale Farmers' Market at Hunt's Point in the Bronx. New York City's Greenmarket had organized a two-hour buyers' tour to introduce farmers and customers, and to attract attention to the market, which came under Greenmarket's purview just last year. The drive up from Brooklyn, a mecca of sorts for good foodies in this city, was seamless at that hour, but my first smile of the day was when one of the entrance guards explained that, you know, he didn't see too many ladies up here. When you're about to spend a few hours with some old school vegetable growers, you may as well start off old school.

This market is a place where farmers can sell directly to wholesale buyers like restaurants, corner grocery stores, and small-scale food processors. Today there were nine sellers, their white trucks scattered across the parking lot, with bags of corn and onions, and boxes of potatoes, peppers, and cucumbers stacked on the concrete. The farmers are here because selling at this market allows them to sell in bulk but at an agreeable price and without much distribution responsibility.

Hoeffner, who farms in Montgomery, New York, and whose family has been in the business for five generations, attributes the challenges of the small farmer to reckless markets. In a traditional wholesale market, he might make an agreement to sell a box of cabbage for $10, but by the end of the day the market clearing price is $8 per box, and he is forced to give up those $2 in order to keep buyers coming back to the market. That price unpredictability would be okay if he benefited from the up-side as often as he suffered from the down-side, but the reality is that if he makes an agreement to sell at $10 and the price goes up to $12 over the course of the day, he is stuck with his original deal. Hoeffner sells at the Wholesale Farmers' Market because here, at least, the spot market for his products exists and he takes what he can get, without the risk of his buyers renegotiating a price.

The Greenmarket gives these farmers, many of whom are beyond middle age, access to marketing and sales opportunities that they would otherwise lack. These are not guys who are going to serve the unique needs of dozens of different buyers or contract their production with big companies, but they do want to sell in a fair and efficient way to customers that value their products. The market succeeds at pulling farmers and buyers together, but as Shayna Cohen, who organized the event, pointed out, growing the market is "a chicken and egg thing." You don't get farmers to come to the market unless there are buyers, and buyers won't be there unless the farmers are.

Talking with Hoeffner exposes how much dissonance there is between farmers' ability to sell fresh, whole foods and apparent demand for it. Restaurant buyers may claim to want seasonal, local produce on their menus, but the reality is that buying from nearby farmers a few months of the year can jeopardize relationships with national distributors that deliver peaches and tomatoes all year round. "When you farm, you sell what the farm gives up," Hoeffner says. This mentality of taking what the land, and hence the market, offers does not extend to most restaurant buyers and consumers. We have been conditioned to expect that we can get what we want, when we want it.

Back home in Brooklyn, it's easy to think that the future of healthy, whole food and efficient markets for that food are in our immediate future, and it's easy to forget that the farmers we rely on for that food face an uncertain future. From day to day, they don't know who will be at the markets and how much those customers will need. From week to week, they don't know what crop prices will do, so they guess at the most advantageous times to harvest and sell their products. From year to year, they try to compete with huge makers and movers of food.

If we are going to strengthen and promote a network of regional foodsheds, not to the absolute exclusion of broader trade but with a core value of ensuring stable farm communities in proximity to our cities, we need to rethink how we define a dependable food supply. Does dependability mean getting the same assortment of products day in and day out, or does it mean having the agility to respond to the market, the season, and the farmer to incorporate a changing array of foods into our lives and menus?

Instead of trying to control and correct for diversity in our food supply, we should embrace it. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should never, ever eat pineapple in January. I'm saying that to revitalize small- and medium-sized farms in this country, we first have to shift our mental models, accept some degree of variation in our food supply, and adjust accordingly our expectations of what farmers like Hoeffner and his cohorts deliver.

This article is cross-posted at Zocalo.

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