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Talking with New York City Greenmarket Co-founder Barry Benepe

Fighting for farmers' markets (and the walkable neighborhoods that come with them)

In 1976, Barry Benepe co-founded the Greenmarket, the largest, most successful open-air farmers' market program in the United States, with markets in 30 neighborhoods across New York City. Benepe grew up working his family’s farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and eventually landed a job as a planning consultant for Hancock, Little, Calvert Associates. When his boss Robert Weinberg passed away, Benepe took over the office space—and hired Bob Lewis, a fellow planner, to create a market space that would address both the economic needs of upstate farmers and the need city residents had for fresh-picked produce: the first Greenmarket. With underwriting from the JM Kaplan Fund and Fund for the City of New York, they opened a market at 59th Street and Second Avenue. Two more markets opened in 1976. There had been nothing like it in New York since 1935.

Now, there are over 40 markets, managed by GrowNYC (formerly Council on the Environment of NYC). I spoke with Benepe from his home in Saugerties, New York.

GOOD: Why didn’t you just call it a farmers' market?

Barry Benepe: Because there were so many ordinary food stores in the city using the words “farmers’ market” even though there were no farmers within a hundred miles selling to the store. They just took this popular term. We couldn’t get Department of Consumer Affairs to come down on them as fraud. They said we would need to get the City Council to enforce the use of the word. We didn’t have time to lobby them, so we developed a federally protected service mark, the Greenmarket, to signify that this was locally grown farm food.

G: People were actually opposed to the Greenmarket when you started?

BB: The first negative reaction came from the wholesale food industry. In their newspaper, The Packer, there was a big headline story that said it would be a big threat to the produce market in the city. As soon as they realized it was a true farmers' market, they turned around and supported it. Some of the community boards gave us a hard time, especially Community Board 6. The chair of that board would go away for the summer, but when she returned from the Hamptons on Labor Day, she wanted the market gone. But we stayed.

G: So the basic idea was to provide food from farms to people in the city?

BB: It was sort of natural marriage. That food in the supermarket was trucked in and had no flavor, no sweetness, no juice. If you wanted to get a ripe peach or an ear of corn, you had to go to a farm stand, so we said, “Well, why not have a farm stand here in the city?” Two of our mentors, John and Karen Hess—who had written Taste of America—were both well-read and appreciated good food. John had written about a market in Syracuse, New York, which was quite successful with downtown business in making neighborhoods more attractive to shoppers and residents.

G: Did you see success immediately?

BB: It was a step-by-step process. We would get calls from around the city from neighborhoods that needed a stimulus. And we learned to not just respond to appeals but to look for good, visible sites. The less successful markets were in places where people were not buying food or not buying fruits and vegetables. One of the people Bob Lewis brought in was a writer who had written a book on oranges, John McPhee. He put his story in The New Yorker. Then the article was quoted by a California Congressman in the Congressional Record, so we got national attention.

G: In that essay, “Giving Good Weight,” McPhee says that touching and tasting the food is what markets are all about.

BB: That’s very true. The direct contact—that’s what makes the market so special. It’s not air conditioned. You’re out in the heat of the day or the cold of the day. You can touch it, feel it, smell it. It’s a very direct, sensual experience. At the same time, there’s an interaction with farmers. They learn about farming and their life. In some cases, they really form friendships. And in a few cases, romances and even marriages.

G: Is this exactly what you thought would happen?

BB: Although I’m a planner, I have a vision for what we should be doing. It’s not like I thought, “Oh my, we’re going to have twenty markets around the city in ten years.” We just open one market and make that work. The first year we actually opened three markets. Had we not opened a block from Bloomingdale’s and Alexander’s stores, we may never have been noticed. But the fact we were in a prime location meant that we were noticed by a very well-heeled group. Union Square, where we opened that same year, was a bust.

G: Now, it’s a central location.

BB: It’s the juncture of three important communities—Grammercy Park, Greenwich, and the Flatiron. The market has a lot to do with urban spaces. We like being in places with strong images, especially strong historic images. So Union Square was a great choice from that standpoint.

G: Where do you see the Greenmarket of the future?

BB: I would like to keep a distinct boundary between rural and city, which over the last 30 years has been eroded by the automobile, the highway system, and the real estate speculation system by people like Robert Moses, the automobile industry, and a very complacent, agreeable public. Now we’re reaping the problems associated with that. These urban tentacles spread out and get lots of farmland and now we’ve got to have our produce shipped 3,000 miles. In order to counteract that—to keep farmland in production, to keep clean water, to protect the environment—we need to keep this medieval boundary between tight knit cities and the open countryside. I always said that if all the supermarkets in New York would carry local produce, they could put the Greenmarket out of business. That would be fine. The supermarkets could buy from farmers, but they don’t. It would be great if all the stores would all go buy local.

Image: Farmers Market at Union Square, New York City. May 9, 2009., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from canarsiebk's photostream.

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