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Push to Give Midsize Farms a Hub at a Bronx Market
April 26, 2012
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Reprinted from The New York Times

Frank Dagele Jr., with his son Chris, at the family farm in the village of Florida in Orange County, N.Y.

Frank Dagele Jr., with his son Chris, at the family farm in the village of Florida in Orange County, N.Y.

Produce from across the country and Mexico at the Hunts Point produce market in the South Bronx.

By MIREYA NAVARRO
Published: April 25, 2012

Decades after the slow-food movement began championing the benefits of locally grown fruits and vegetables, pressure is mounting for New York City to stand up to big vendors and make room for the region’s midsize farms at the Hunts Point wholesale produce market in the South Bronx.

The region has no big wholesale hub for local produce, and advocates of local food and farmers argue that this is the logical time to make it happen. The city is deep in lease negotiations with the cooperative that owns the 45-year-old market, which stretches across 105 acres of city land, and is exploring how to pay for much-needed renovations there.

Complicating matters, New Jersey is hoping to lure the cooperative and its 3,000 jobs across the Hudson River, which gives the city less leverage in pushing for change. And the cooperative’s owners are wary of competition from the smaller farmers, whose costs do not include expensive labor contracts.

Proponents of adding a wholesale farmers’ market at Hunts Point say that even as the Bloomberg administration supports sustainability, only 4 percent of the $2.3 billion worth of food sold annually at Hunts Point comes from New York State, and only 8 percent from New Jersey. The rest is brought in from 49 states and an estimated 55 countries, according to the cooperative.

“It is critical that state and city officials seize this opportunity,” said Mark A. Izeman, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which advocates for farmland preservation in New York State and the environmental benefits of growing food locally. He said it was “crazy” that New York had not created a central wholesale hub for local food as cities like Paris and Toronto have.

In an interview in his office at the terminal, the co-op’s co-president, Matthew D’Arrigo, said the issue of including midsize regional growers had not come up in negotiations with the city, but “it’s there.”

Mr. D’Arrigo said he was concerned that oversupply problems could worsen if midsize farmers were admitted. And New York State’s limited growing season, about five months of the year, might not make the hub as successful as its supporters predict in any case, he added.

The city and the cooperative, which pays about $4.5 million a year in rent, are in exclusive negotiations on a new lease with the goal of reaching an accord by June 29. If they do not, New Jersey officials say, they are ready to reopen talks.

Local farm supporters want the city to insist that a new lease include year-round indoor space for New York growers that are modest in size yet too large to profit from the small green markets in the New York area’s parks and streets. Such farms are typically under 300 acres in the Hudson Valley, on Long Island and in the upstate areas that can supply the city, according to studies.

Pressed on the issue, city officials would say only that their first priority is reaching an accord on the lease and on resolving nagging storage, refrigeration and traffic issues.

“Our current focus is on securing a long-term lease with the market co-op and creating a larger, modernized market,” said Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s office. So far, the city and state have committed to shouldering $137 million of an anticipated $350 million in renovation costs.

Advocates of a local presence say that a local wholesale hub would help keep struggling farms afloat while helping to satisfy the demand from New York institutions and grocery stores for fresh local food.

Andrew Rigie, an executive vice president of the New York State Restaurant Association, pointed out that more restaurants were promoting the freshness of their ingredients and local sourcing. Creating an attractive, convenient hub to buy those ingredients in bulk, he said, would give restaurants access to more quantity and variety of produce.

Other potential buyers, like Rhys W. Powell, president of Red Rabbit, a farm-fresh and organic food provider that serves about 10,000 meals a day in New York City schools, said that such an outlet would simplify his currently frenzied buying routine. “It’s like shopping at 12 different grocery stores,” he said.

The 150 or so New York farmers selling through Hunts Point now, state agricultural experts said, are mostly large-scale growers of state staples like onions and apples that sell enough volume to absorb the 12 percent to 15 percent commissions set by the cooperative’s wholesalers.

At the other end of the growing spectrum are small-scale farmers that can profitably sell directly to customers at retail farmers’ markets like the one in Union Square.

But most upstate farmers fall into the middle, and they say they are falling through the cracks in the distribution system.

GrowNYC, the agency that runs a network of 57 retail green markets with 240 small-scale farmers, has proposed a $12 million center at or near the Hunts Point terminal. It would have indoor space providing refrigeration and storage for 80 farmers and space for complementary businesses like makers of local cheeses and preserves. The plan also envisions an outdoor site for an additional 50 farmers.

Marcel Van Ooyen, the agency’s executive director, said that such a hub would allow farmers to set their own prices, sell directly to wholesale customers and keep more money in their pockets, just as the small farmers do. “We think this is a huge game changer,” he said.

Frank Dagele Jr., a fourth-generation farmer with Dagele Brothers Produce, 60 miles north of the city in the Orange County village of Florida, said his dream was to introduce his family’s artichokes to the Hunts Point market. “When people think of artichokes,” he said with regret, “they think of California.”

Mr. Dagele, 53, sells 5 percent of his 40 varieties of vegetables in the New York metropolitan area through various channels, including direct purchases by Whole Foods and sales to a Hunts Point wholesaler under the commission system. The bulk of his production goes to upstate supermarkets.

If he could sell directly from a year-round wholesale market, he said, he could plant an extra 50 acres on his farm, ramp up his fledgling greenhouse production and quadruple his sales in New York City.

The idea for the local hub has long been talked up by officials from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. More recently, it has drawn support from Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, who has said that her office is pushing for it, and from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who last year outlined how it could benefit the upstate economy.

Whether the tight-knit cooperative of 38 companies at Hunts Point will ever agree to it remains unclear.

Mr. D’Arrigo, the co-op’s president, said some members were worried about being outflanked by farmers with advantages like potential city subsidies and not being required to hire unionized labor. If the midsize farms are to sell there, he added, he would agree only to their selling outdoors.

But that would fall short of what advocates of local food have in mind.

“We call New York the restaurant capital of the world,” Mr. Rigie said of the industry association, “and we should have the most cutting-edge, accessible market in the world for local produce.”