On a recent Thursday at the Crown Heights Farmers Market, George Chang is stuffing his shopping bags full of callaloo, a leafy green that comes in big bunches and looks like a cross between spinach and basil.
“It’s a West Indian specialty,” explained Chang, an immigrant from Trinidad who eats as much fresh callaloo as he can, putting it into everything from salad to curried shrimp when it’s in season. “You can’t just get this any place.”
Chang is a devoted follower of the weekly farmers market on Lefferts Avenue, but many people in this Crown Heights neighborhood are not. The crowds that greeted the two-booth market when it debuted last fall dropped precipitously when it reopened this summer.
“Sales have not skyrocketed. We’re pretty much losing money to be here,” said David Faust from Iona Hill Farm, one of the two farms that come weekly to Crown Heights. “If it’s not going to be profitable, I’m not sure how much longer we’re going to be here.”
The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets says the number of farmers markets in New York has more than doubled in recent years, from 235 in 2000 to 521 now, including 138 farmers markets in the city.
But the numbers camouflage the downside to farmers markets — the high rate at which they close.
“The chance of survival in the first five years is 50 percent,” estimated Diane Eggert, executive director of the Farmers Market Federation of New York. “Anything that makes it through that period is usually pretty stable.”
A Market Grows in Brooklyn
The main idea behind the Crown Heights Farmers Market was to improve the produce offerings in the junk-food-filled neighborhood. Nancy Katz, the founder of “Seeds in the Middle” and the principal of nearby P.S. 221, initially developed a weekly market run by kids for kids as a way to provide alternative snacks to what could be found in nearby bodegas.
(Photo: Health snacks are offered at the market. Fred Mogul/WNYC)
Diabetes, obesity and heart disease rates in the neighborhood are among the highest in the city. Katz and other organizers wanted to create a nutritional sanctuary. The idea blossomed into a full-fledged farmers market once a week.
“Parents don’t want to be obese. They don’t want their kids to be obese,” Katz said. “It’s a question of access to resources.”
For her, part of that access includes excepting food stamps, which about 40 percent of the market's shoppers use.
A former investigative reporter for the Daily News, Katz didn’t think starting a market would be easy, but looking back she says she may have been naïve what it would take to build an organization and sustain enthusiasm for the market.
Katz has had trouble getting money from the state and private foundations to support the market. She’s received enough to open and squeak by, but not enough to buy advertising and get the word out. She also hasn’t had luck in staffing the market.
“I like to write. I’m a creator. But this job requires managing people and having very good people skills,” she said.
She admits at times she’s been “a terrible hirer,” taking on well-meaning but inept people she hasn’t been able to train to her standards and then has been reluctant to fire. “I can’t be a philanthropist right now. I need to find competent people who can make this thing grow and work,” she said.
The two biggest groups in the area are Caribbean immigrants and Hasidic Jews. But not enough of either group shop at the market.
Katz said support from the Jewish community has been sporadic.
There are whisperings that some Jewish leaders have withdrawn their endorsement, and on a popular neighborhood website, some Jewish commenters complained about high prices and urged people to “keep their money in the community.”
That may have had some impact, but during a recent visit, there was a steady stream of Orthodox Jews picking up produce for their Sabbath soups and salads. Hilary H., who declined to give her last name because the community is so tight-knit, thinks maybe shoppers are staying away for more secular reasons.
“People like to go to one-stop shops,” she said. “It’s open once a week, so it’s hard. If you have a family, things are going on. You got to get the kids ready, or it’s nap time. You can’t park a car here. It’s hard.”
Farmer Rodrick Brown (pictured above) has also been surprised there aren’t more people from the islands — people like George Chang — snapping up his callaloo.
“I sell 70 percent of it to people from other cultures,” he said.
Hauling Home Too Much
It’s not clear if the Crown Heights market will survive. Katz’s biggest support came from Roy Hildebrant, the New Jersey farmer of Iona Hill. He urged her to take a leap of faith and promised to help her along. But he was diagnosed with cancer this spring and died last weekend.
Brown, the other regular, also wants to keep hauling callaloo and pumpkins and beets to Crown Heights. But he’s been bringing a lot of unsold produce back home to Long Island at the end of the day. He’s started selling callaloo to a wholesaler, something he hopes to do more of. He makes half the profit per box he does selling retail at the greenmarket — and it’s nowhere near as fun as talking to customers and telling them how best to prepare the veg, but it’s good for his bottom line to sell 20 boxes of the leafy greens all at once.
He still has hope for the Crown Heights market, though.
“It has potential. That’s all I can say about it,” said Brown, who came to the school during the off-season to work with the kids on some plantings. “I can’t say it’s going anywhere yet. I love it, man...I don’t want to do anything else.”