By Elsa Säätelä
Standing behind the neatly stacked rows of freshly baked cookies and breads at the Hawthorne Valley farm stand at the Union Square farmers market, Ben Borkowiz recalled some of the more unusual incidents he had faced while working at the market – from rainy storm days to strange customer requests. “There is no typical week at the farmers market,” said Borkowiz, a green market program director for the farm. “Strangest was an Indian artist who paid us $50 to bring him a bucket of cow manure so he could do his art with it.”
Wearing a brown hoodie and worn-out jeans, Borkowiz, 42, may not look like a stereotypical farmer, though his muddy shoes gave away that his morning had not been spent strolling around the streets of Manhattan. After a quick sip from his big Starbucks coffee, he smiled and shook his head. “Oh yeah,” he said. “We also once had a woman who asked if we sell chickens – live chickens. She wanted to give one to her daughter for Easter. That was pretty weird.”
Unique customers and strange requests are to be expected at the city’s oldest and biggest green market. Farmers markets were established in New York by the nonprofit organization GrowNYC, as an initiative to promote regional agriculture by providing small farms the opportunity to sell their products directly to consumers, and to ensure that New Yorkers had access to fresh, locally grown food. The farmers market at Union Square in Manhattan started out in 1976 as a small green market with just a few farmers. Over the past 30 years it has grown enormously, and of the 54 markets in the city, the Union Square location is one of the most visited and well known. According to the GrowNYC website, 140 regional farmers attend Union Square in peak season.
Hawthorne Valley’s farm stand is set up at Union Square each Wednesday and Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, the day starts as early as 3 a.m. for the people driving the truck down from the farm, and the drive back takes place 15 hours later.
Working at a farm stand is quite a demanding job, especially since the over 10-hour day is spent standing, sometimes in uncomfortable weather conditions. “Worst experience was about eight years ago. We were driving down from the farm just to realize that it was so windy that we couldn’t even set up, and we had to drive home in the storm and unload everything. Lots of time and work for no payoff – not fun!” Borkowiz said, shaking his head. “Fortunately, that’s only happened once in 10 years.”
Hawthorn Valley, located approximately two and a half hours north of New York City, has been attending the farmers market since 1980, selling certified organic produce, meat, dairy, baked goods and lacto-fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut. All the products are made fresh, and the meat and dairy comes from grass-fed and free-range animals at the farm. “Our most popular product is the yogurt, and recently the fermented products such as sauerkraut and kvass” – a fermented vegetable drink – “have become very popular as well,” Borkowiz said.
Borkowiz, who has been selling at the farm stand since 2000, said the growing popularity in organic and local food had been a very positive thing, though the competition is tougher today than it was 10 years ago. “A lot more places carry local items now, and organic has exploded. When we started, there was no Whole Foods in Union Square, nor was there a Trader Joe’s,” Borkowiz explained. “I think it’s good that customers have more choices; it forces us to continue to excel and keep improving in order to prosper.”
Although the competition has grown tougher among farm stands, markets and grocery stores that offer local products, Borkowiz said there was not much competition among vendors at the farmers market. “Other stands are run by people in very similar situations to ours, and I always want to be friends with other vendors. Usually the feeling is mutual,” Borkowiz said.
For Borkowiz, the life as a farmers market salesman was not always a clear career choice. With a degree in civil engineering, he pursued a career in that field before he followed his heart to work with food and agriculture. Before finding Hawthorne Valley, he did everything from growing crops at different farms to cooking and teaching about organic and natural foods. “I love farmers markets and good fresh food, and I loved Hawthorne Valley from the first time I discovered it,” Borkowiz said. “There are a lot of excellent synergies here – healthy, conscious people – and wonderful things happening!”
Borkowiz, now in his 40s, lives in Chatham, about 15 minutes north of the Hawthorne Valley farm, with his wife Sarah, a former vegetable grower, and their 2-year-old daughter, Hannah Yael. They started co-managing the farmers market program at Hawthorne Valley in 2003, but after their daughter was born, Sarah took a back seat.
As a farm director, Borkowiz has many responsibilities. “I do whatever is necessary to keep things going,” he said with a laugh. “Everything from making sure our trucks are operating properly to doing paperwork and watching finances.” Borkowiz does not always attend the farmers market in New York City and spends much of his time planning with other people at the farm, shopping for products and coordinating how much of each item to bring to each market or how to adjust according to weather and demand.
Borkowiz said that he believed that the green market system in Manhattan had been a big blessing for Hawthorne Valley, though the commute down to the city can be tiring. “Clearly there are days when I wish I could wake up to have breakfast with my wife and daughter, rather than getting up in the middle of the night to drive down to the market,” Borkowiz said. “But I don’t want to complain. Our farm would be structured very differently if it weren’t for the green markets, and I feel a lot of gratitude that I’ve been able to be a part of this aspect of Hawthorne Valley Farm.”