A visit to Bushwick Farmers’ Market

Under a red tent just outside Maria Hernandez park, Travis Tench hovered over a couple of tables that displayed the bounty of the tri-state area’s late summer harvest. Tench was managing operations at Saturday’s Bushwick Farmers’ Market. It was an active job, and he was multitasking as we spoke: pouring a market-goer’s second helping of ice-cold apple cider; making change for a vendor out of a 20 dollar bill — a service Tench was happy to provide while throwing in a free lesson on detecting counterfeits. “Travis is also the bank,” he quipped.

Travis Tench, BFM’s Director of Markets

But primarily, Tench is the Director of Markets at EcoStation:NY, a Bushwick, Brooklyn-based non-profit organization that runs Bushwick Farmers’ Market (BFM). Bushwick, the neighborhood I happen to call home, covers a large area on the northeastern edge of Brooklyn that for many years was synonymous with urban decay. Although in the last decade the area has seen renewed investment and gentrification, poverty rates remain high: as high as 38%, according to EcoStation:NY’s website. BFM is in its fourth season, and Tench has been around “since the beginning,” when the project consisted of just one market with a few tables open once a week.  It has grown substantially since then, and now runs markets Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at three primary sites and three smaller, satellite “farmstands”. On market days, one primary location and one satellite location will be open for business.

The scene at the Maria Hernandez market midday Saturday was as dynamic as I had ever seen it. In addition to the tables manned by Tench and his volunteers, which were stocked with bushels of fresh fruits and vegetables and not affiliated with any particular farm, there were several independent vendors and farmstands present that day. Altogether, the market stretched about a third of the block along the park’s western edge.

Where does all this good stuff come from? “Small, regional farms in upstate New York, Pennsylvania–”

“Goshen!” interjected Isabel Rodriguez. Her family’s farm, Rancho La Baraja of Goshen (pronounce it GOH-shen, not GAH-shen, lest you elicit a stern correction), New York, had one of the larger stands at the market. Rodriguez’s father, Pedro Rodriguez, founded the farm in 2004. The farm’s fruits and vegetables are “grown natural”, as the stenciling on their farm truck proclaims, using no chemical fertilizers or pesticides in accordance with traditional practices in the family’s native Mexico.

Isabel Rodriguez (at right) attends to her family’s farmstand

Although the vast majority of the produce available at the market comes from farms like La Baraja, a small percentage (rather tentatively, Tench estimated 10 to 15 percent) is Bushwick-grown. EcoStation:NY runs two urban farming projects in the neighborhood that contribute to the market’s supply of produce: Bushwick Campus Farm and Farm In The Sky. Tench informed me that crops destined for that day’s market were being harvested as we spoke at Farm In The Sky, a year-old rooftop farm that experiments with new production techniques suitable to NYC’s rooftop environments. While these late arrivals would certainly claim the distinction of freshest at the market, most of the products are harvested the same day they are brought to market, or usually at least as recently as the night before.

The farmstands were receiving a steady flow of customers, but the largest of the crowds was buzzing around a white tent at the end of the block where a cooking demonstration was underway. Neighborhood residents of all ages huddled in close under the shade of the tent to watch two instructors lead a presentation on beans (their virtues, methods of preparation) in English and Spanish tag-team. Meanwhile, an assistant prepared the ingredients for the recipe demonstration that followed. I was witnessing the work of Stellar Farmers’ Markets, an initiative of the NYC Department of Health.

Market-goers huddle in close for the Stellar Farmers’ Markets demonstration

After the cooking demonstration, which incorporated as much seasonally available produce as possible, participants could receive vouchers redeemable for six dollars’ worth of fruits or vegetables at the market. And they could enjoy the fresh tomato salsa prepared in the demonstration. As I concluded my trip to the market, tomatoes that began their day in a farm field miles away from the city culminated their journey in the mouths of an appreciative crowd among the gritty asphalt and concrete grid of Bushwick.

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