It's 6:30 a.m. While most New Yorkers are still sleeping, farmers - at a sprinter's pace - are turning one of the city's urban parks into a real-life cornucopia.
White-canvas shelters are popping up like mushroom caps. Folding tables snap open, and then, faster than you can say "heirloom tomatoes," the bounty is ready.
There are 18 varieties of onions, yellow carrots, striped beets that have concentric pink rings and a mild taste, and a squash that looks like a medieval trumpet - long, thin, and curling back on itself as if nature had second thoughts about this plant.
Buckets hold flowers so fragrant bees arrive, looking for pollen. In fact, the bees might as well have their own stall, because not far away are jars of New York City honey.
You're right. This is not the produce aisle of your local supermarket. It's a walk on the "wild side" of fruits and vegetables. This is New York's Union Square Greenmarket.
But, this could just as well be the Farmers' Market in Spokane, Wash., where one grower sells 26 varieties of potatoes - without the common russet in sight. Or, the Fondy Market in Milwaukee, where a salad mix can include "pokeweed," that zesty green that helped many families make it through the Great Depression.
For the farmer, it means better prices and no middlemen. For the consumer, the attraction is simple: food so fresh, the morning dew may still be glistening on a chocolate-colored eggplant. And, there's a good chance the farmer or his wife has a special tip on how to keep the basil, often with roots still attached, fresh for the week.
There's usually plenty of time in the market for the chitchat that helps tie neighbor to neighbor, making the market part of the social fabric, not just a series of vegetable stalls.
There must be something about it, because farmers' markets have grown as fast as corn in August. According to the US Department of Agriculture, from 1994 to 2000, the number of markets increased 63 percent. There are now about 2,800 markets with some 19,000 farmers selling their products.
"They are happening on their own, but we are interested in identifying as many opportunities [as possible] for farmers to increase their farm profitability and continue in the farming business," says Errol Bragg, program manager for the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service.
In Seattle, the growth has been phenomenal. In 1997, the markets had $5 million in sales. But, over the past few years, Puget Sounders have fallen in love with their farmers markets, and last year bought $12 million in produce. One market in the University District sells $50,000 worth of produce - a lot for even the largest grocery store - every Saturday. "That's a lot of lettuce," says Zachary Lyons, director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association.
Communities now realize that a farmers' market can be a valuable tool for urban renewal. "They help to stabilize neighborhoods and bring back economic activity," says Nancey Green Leigh, a professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech University in Atlanta.
That's certainly the case in Milwaukee, where farmers' markets have grown from five to 12 markets in the past five years.
One of those markets, the Fondy Market, is in the poorest section of the city. Now, Milwaukee's Hunger Task Force, which organizes the markets, is planning to erect a year-round $5 million market in the predominately African-American neighborhood.
For Fondy residents, the green market means lower prices. "They have been underserved by traditional grocers," says Tim Locke, executive director of the Fondy Food Center. "People are paying way too much for lower-quality food."
However, in the past, neighborhood residents went to the grocery stores because they could use food stamps, which now are delivered via a plastic credit-card type of device. Mr. Locke says his market is working on a pilot program to find ways to allow the use of food stamps at the market.
In recent years, the federal government has also tried to find ways to encourage poor people and seniors to go to the markets. Now, under the Department of Agriculture, low-income families can get WIC funds to buy produce at the markets.
Although it requires some extra effort, farmers can do well at the markets.
In New York's Union Square, Mark Gillman of Cato Corner Farm says he sells 75 percent of his cheeses at farmers' markets. "It's allowed us to expand from six cows to 27 cows in two years," says the Colchester, Conn., dairy farmer.
Mr. Lyons recounts how last year some Washington State apple farmers were losing money selling their produce to the packing houses. However, one farmer started selling his apples at farmers' markets, at basically the full retail price. "He figured if he only sold 10 percent of his crop and let the rest rot on the trees, he would still turn a profit," says Lyons.
The farmers are also quick to catch on to shifts in consumer buying habits. For example, the New York Greenmarket farmers have agreed to a moratorium on using any genetically modified organisms until more information becomes available.
Many farmers at the markets have signs up proclaiming themselves "organic."
And, some of the markets even police their members - that's the case with the New York Greenmarket, which sends out inspectors to be sure farmers aren't buying produce from Mexico or California and calling it their own.
Although farmers' markets continue to pop up in church parking lots and on school playgrounds, the USDA's Mr. Bragg says whether a market is successful depends on such factors as the number of potential customers and the location of the market.
He also says one hindrance in some places is finding enough farmers who want to participate. "What we've been seeing is a shortage of farmers," he says. However, a spokesman for the department stresses that most markets are very successful.
But there's no shortage of farmers at the grand eggplant of them all, the Union Square Park in New York.
Four days of the week, anywhere up to 75 farmers from around the region arrive at dawn with their truckloads of produce. Practically before she can plug in her cash register, Suzi Dare of Cherry Lane Farms of Bridgeton, N.J., has a customer. It's Stephen Strumza, purchasing manager for Ilo, a new three-star restaurant.
"We have to support the East Coast farmers," he says as he buys a large bag of lima beans.
Not long after the farmers have set up their tents, Joel Patraker, assistant director of the Greenmarket, arrives with his two-way radio, cellphone, and vast knowledge of what makes the market tick.
Yes, the restaurant business is important here - perhaps representing 10 to 15 percent of the sales - he says.
In fact, it's not hard to see the evidence of that. Just outside of Alex Paffenroth's truck are large plastic bags filled with vegetables. On the bags are the names of some of New York's tonier eateries: JUdson Grill, Grammercy Tavern, and Tabla.
By 9 in the morning, Bill Telepan, the chef at JUdson Grill, has purchased all of the black kale. He pulls some out of a bag.
"Look at those holes in the leaves," he says. "Those are from bugs, and that means it hasn't been sprayed," he explains in a manner that indicates this is a good sign. Mr. Telepan starts pulling vegetables out of his bags: There are long green dandelion leaves, which will be used with skate and chanterelles; purple kohlrabi that will go raw into a salad; fennel that will end up with an octopus vinaigrette.
He pulls out some white beets and talks about how he uses the tops as well. "It's like free product," he says with a grin.
"Not anymore," replies Paffenroth. "I'm charging for the tops as well."
The give and take is one of the reasons the chefs enjoy the market. They can also find out in advance what's coming out of the ground and adjust their menus.
Not far from the market, the City Bakery has a menu that is dominated by food purchased at the Greenmarket. Chef Ilen Rosen says she has located the popular restaurant in the area just to be near the market. "It's greatly appreciated - it's what I live for," she says.
But, as Patraker is quick to point out, the Greenmarket is for everyone - no matter what his or her economic status or culinary skill. That's one of the reasons it has now expanded to 27 sites in the city.
On a typical summer or fall Saturday, he says there could be 50,000 to 75,000 people walking through the Union Square stalls. That market is now included in tour books, so it's not unusual to see groups watching the way New Yorkers react to farm produce.
"We don't have a village green in New York," Patraker says, "so there is a lack of people coming together. The Greenmarket fills that role. There are more smiles per square foot than anywhere else."
That's the case for Margaret Morth. She grew up in North Dakota, where her family had a garden. Now, she lives in Brooklyn and has a fire escape on which she grows plants. As she buys a pepper plant for her urban version of a garden, she says, "I come here on my lunch hour - it's the way I commune with nature."
Yes, the food is right off the farm. But, can you really tell the difference between a peach that came off a tree in New Jersey and one that came off a grocery-store shelf?
To try to answer that question, my wife and I visited the Union Square Greenmarket located on West 77th Street in Manhattan and the Food Emporium, an upscale grocery store about five blocks away. We bought tomatoes, peaches, plums, and strawberries. Here's our unscientific review:
Visual observations: The fruit and vegetables from the Greenmarket have a brightness that is not apparent in the grocery-store produce. The Food Emporium peach is kind of gray looking. The strawberries, even though they are Driscolls - top of the line California berries - look more orange than red. The two tomatoes look comparable. The plum from the Greenmarket is smaller and less evenly shaped.
The taste test: The tomato from the grocer is an import from Holland. It has a tough skin but good acidity. The farmer's tomato has a mix of sweetness and acidity. It makes the Dutch version seem like an imposter. The skin is nonexistent compared to the Dutch tomato, which is bred to travel.
My wife thinks the grocery plum could be almost any fruit, perhaps a tart apple. The Greenmarket plum is tart enough to bring tears to the eyes.
The peach from Food Emporium is mealy. Kathy says it has a "remote" peach flavor. The Greenmarket peach drips with juice as soon as it is sliced open. Kathy's only comment is "Mmm."
The Driscoll berries have a kind of "white wall" around the stem, but they do taste like strawberries. But, up against the local berries, there is no comparison. I can't stop eating them. "Stop, Ron, stop!"
Prices: Strawberries, plums, and peaches were cheaper at Food Emporium. Tomatoes were less expensive at the Greenmarket.