Bringing It All Back Home

Why one farmer gets up at 3 a.m. on a Saturday.

homeIt’s 7:30 on Saturday morning at Grand Army Plaza, a stretch of asphalt at the northwest entrance of Prospect Park, and for myself and some 25 other farmers who have anxiously unloaded trucks and set out our crops, it’s showtime at the most important market of the week.

My morning started four hours earlier about 80 miles due west in Changewater, NJ, a small historic hamlet that straddles two counties, Warren and Hunterdon, and the stream that forms the boundary, the Musconetcong.

Saturday is our biggest market of the week, which means Friday is our biggest picking day. The spring thaw begins with a trickle of hoophouse greens, shielded from the cold: baby lettuce mix, arugula and spinach. Soon after, the real profit center of spring arrives with the triumverate of asparagus, strawberries and peas. Shell peas are still a rite of the season for many customers, although the more-convenient sugar snap pea seems to have eclipsed the traditional variety in popularity. Lettuce goes from precious to overgrown during the first serious hot spell. Onto the fava beans, thin-skinned new potatoes and the first zucchinis.

By high summer we’re in the fields at 6 a.m. to beat the heat, but also to pick as much as possible. I meet in the barn with the five full-time workers for a strategy session. What kind of numbers do we want? How many buckets of beans, boxes of tomatoes? If a crop is looking good and at a stage of maturity when we can pick a lot in a short time I may throw out a big number that raises eyebrows. “It’s Brooklyn,” I remind them and they understand. All things are possible in Brooklyn.

We often have extra help on Fridays and we’ll send them into the beans. Sometimes we’ll join them for a quick gang-pick, designed to get a jumpstart on the harvest but also to raise the morale of the part-timers who may be destined to spend the whole day in the beans. Back at the barn we discuss the schedule. If it’s warm we might start with the broccoli. Get it picked before the heat sinks in, chill it immediately in cold well water and put it in the cooler. A team of two may dig potatoes while the other three go into zucchini and cukes, before they get bigger.Unless we’re desperate, I’ll try to get fieldwork done: cultivate, plant or spray. Before lunch we may pick cantaloupe to get it out of the heat and into the shade.

The main event after lunch is tomatoes, in all their glorious guises. We try to do them all: Jersey beefsteaks, heirlooms, pinks, yellows, plums, cherries, grapes. The challenge is to get them all picked—a long process during the hottest part of the day.

As we wind down toward late afternoon, someone is designated hombre de lavar, “the washer,” a plum assignment if it’s hot; not so desirable later in fall. We finish the day with greens, lettuce, herbs and other odds and ends. As darkness falls, some clean garlic, onions and shallots while the others load the truck.

Many Friday nights end at 9:30 or 10. If I eat and get to bed by 11, I just might get 4½ hours of sleep. But if you can’t get up for the Grand Army Greenmarket, you should find a new day job.

Grand Army has been called Brooklyn’s answer to Manhattan’s Union Square. Each is a bustling open area adjacent to a park that is a natural crossroads and gathering spot for nearby neighborhoods. And while nothing can beat the sheer density of shoppers that make Union Square market look like a mosh pit at times, there can be a whole lot of jostling at Grand Army when different neighborhoods converge on the piles of bicolor sweet corn in the middle of August and a temporary madness called shucking fever takes over.

It was in 1983, in a burst of irrational exuberance related to a five-acre land purchase behind my house that I decided to expand my backyard garden to two acres and sell at the Greenmarket.

I consider myself a market gardener because I grow many crops in relatively small plantings with an eye on how it will look on display at our stand. We’re not focused on volume sales, but instead try to create a mix that will bring color, texture, interest to our stand. While agritourism and agritainment are the buzzwords back on farms with grape stompings, pick-your-own apples and hayrides out to the pumpkin patch, we use freshness, seasonality and diversity to entertain the urban customer.

My connection to Brooklyn began long before I signed up to sell my crops there. My grandfather started a metal-smelting business on the gritty Brooklyn/Queens border. My newlywed parents had lived near Myrtle Avenue, and I was born in Bethany Deaconess Hospital on St.Nicholas Avenue. When my family moved to West Hempstead, L.I. (a kind of suburban ground zero) in the early ’50s, many of my classmates’ families were transplanted Brooklynites. The neighborhood candy-store owners learned their egg cream and cherry coke mixology in Brooklyn, and while in high school I rode shotgun for Morty Dash, a Brooklyn milkman with an early-morning route in Garden City, L.I., who taught me how to eat White Castle at 6 a.m. When I went to SUNY Stony Brook, it was full of Brooklyn hippies, hipsters and intelligentsia.

So selling at Grand Army was like going home again, and I signed up as a charter member when the market opened in 1993. Originally I had stayed focused on the farm and hired people to sell the produce in Brooklyn. Big mistake. Even with good market people representing the farmer, it is axiomatic that no one does a better job running a market than the guy who grew the stuff. When I started doing the Brooklyn market myself, I saw profits increase and realized the selling is at least as important as the growing. Maybe more. And while playing around in a 50-acre garden is fun, selling the produce from that garden can be even more fun.

In addition to Grand Army on Saturday, I sell at two other markets each week: the Union Square Greenmarket on Monday and another near the UN on Wednesday. The three markets allow us to keep up with the flow of produce from the field so that the zucchini doesn’t get too big or the tomatoes too ripe. My three markets are very different from each other, which also keeps it interesting. Union Square is exotic, high-profile. Chefs and caterers look for the tiny yellow bean that will separate them from the pack. Food stylists shop for picture-perfect purple kohlrabi, media types do sound bytes on seasonal vegetables. In between the extracurricular activities we somehow manage to sell produce. The UN market is a quiet midtown oasis that attracts an international crowd and their personal chefs.

But throughout the week we never lose focus on the main event: it all starts and ends with Brooklyn.

Brooklyn is basic. It’s families shopping for the week. Young professionals try out new recipes and experiment their way to a healthy lifestyle; Caribbean women look for the hottest pepper or the freshest bunch of greens; Russians fill up their bags with “Pink Beauty” tomatoes.The market gives everyone from the different surrounding neighborhoods an additional excuse to linger and mingle on common ground. People exchange recipes, discuss the virtues of seedless vs. seeded watermelon and argue over the best cucumber variety or merits of yellow and green beans.

And Brooklynites are a hardy bunch. They don’t let a little rain stop them from their weekly shopping. There are a lot of markets that aren’t worth doing during steady rain. Midtown Manhattan? Fuggetaboutit! But in Brooklyn the dedicated market faithful pull on their raingear and hike to Grand Army, because, as one customer told me, “We need to eat.” (Last October I was setting up during the height of a vicious nor’easter when a particularly vigorous gust ripped the grommets out of my tarp. With my rain protection destroyed, I was forced to return to the farm with a full truck, knowing that no matter how bad the rain and wind were, I would have done some business that day if I could have stayed.)

But after selling at the Grand Army Plaza market May through November for eight years I realize the money is only the half of it. The experience is gut-wrenching and exhausting but ultimately satisfying. The Brooklyn customers can be pushy, boisterous and rambunctious, but in the end they express interest in and appreciation for the job the farmer is doing.

Much of the magic of a Greenmarket takes place when the farmer and customer get to know each other well enough to enjoy their differences and discover how much they have in common. As a first-generation farmer from suburbia, I always felt we had an added point of reference that made the marketplace interaction even more rewarding. Brooklyn brings me back home. It’s like coming in from my old backyard garden with the best vegetables I could find and proudly laying them out on the table for friends and family to enjoy. As I like to tell people who ask what it’s like to be a farmer, with only a little tongue in cheek: “It beats working for a living.”

Bill Maxwell, of Maxwell’s Farm, sells his produce at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket every Saturday.

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