Feature Interview With Liz Carollo, GrowNYC

Paperhouses talks to GrowNYC Director of Publicity, Liz Carollo, on the outreach, education and inspections initiatives for one of the country's most important green farmers market programs.

Paperhouses: Can you tell us what’s been developing for Greenmarkets NYC lately? New programs or initiatives? What are you excited about?

Every year Greenmarket develops new initiatives and programming to better support our producers, promote our local food system and educate our customers. Two particularly exciting initiatives are Greenmarket Co., our wholesale program that distributes fresh produce, grains, eggs and honey from medium-size growers in the region to bodegas, grocery stores and restaurants throughout the five boroughs. The other initiative is FARMroots, Greenmarket’s technical assistance program that has the dual function of recruiting and training beginning farmers, while also providing a range of technical assistance offerings to our existing producers.

Ph: Between inspection protocols and community-building, what do you think is the more important change Greenmarkets can make--the improvement of farming standards or the growth of the farming community?

The most important role Greenmarket takes on is educating customers. Effectively communicating Greenmarket’s mission of supporting small family farms and providing all New Yorkers access to fresh local food is crucial to building a knowledgeable and loyal customer base. By providing growers in our region access to a savvy urban market, we are successfully keeping those farms viable for future generations and creating healthier communities, upstate and down.   

How involved is Greenmarkets in local politics and how is the organization helped or hindered by politics?

Greenmarket is just one program of the non-profit umbrella organization, GrowNYC. We function as a private non-profit, but of course work closely with a number of city agencies and other non-profits to increase food access and address health disparities in the city. As a non-profit focused on education and programming, we are unable to lobby or address legislation.

Volunteers helped build Melrose Community Garden, Bronx NY

What are some trends you see in farming, in terms of produce? There was one season for example I was seeing a ton of ramps. What is "the ramp" of 2014?

I don’t think we’ll find out until spring or even summer. A lot of it depends on what the chefs are asking for and what the farmers are interested in trying to grow. Value-added products such as pickles, jams, salsas, hot sauce, and even charcuterie and vegetables and fruit that have been flash frozen in the summer and sold throughout the winter have gained in popularity over the last few years, as well as farmers extending their seasons with the assistance of greenhouses and hoophouses. Our best guess, though, is that local grains will take the spotlight. The Greenmarket Regional Grains Project has been working over the last few years to promote the renaissance of grain growing in the Northeast, with incredible results. Customers and chefs have responded positively to the texture and incomparable taste that heritage grain varieties provide and the connections happening between growers, processors, bakers, brewers, distillers, and home and professional chefs have only strengthened the initiative.

How do you think Greenmarkets has been the model for other produce markets in other cities? Conversely, who have Greenmarkets been influenced by or take learnings from? Is there a larger collective of farmer’s markets governance in the region or country?

Aside from our staff visiting markets while traveling and Greenmarket providing tours for other market operators visiting New York, we are regularly in contact with markets throughout the US and other countries, learning from our peers and colleagues and sharing ideas. I believe we have had an influence on markets deciding to be producer-only and require on-farm inspections. The value of the transparency and accountability is priceless to our producers and customers and I think a lot of market operators around the world recognize that. We’ve also been one of the leaders in EBT/Food Stamp sales since piloting our own EBT/Food Stamp project in 2001, and are frequently providing other market operators with resources and advice on accepting EBT and reaching out to low-income communities.

What do you think are the biggest threats to quality farming? There are numerous documentaries and cautionary tales about commercial farming and GMOs, but is it looking better or worse for contemporary farmers?

The #1 and #2 threats to quality farming are agriculture subsidies and corporate advertising dollars, that is what we are competing against. In America alone, we lose more than one acre of farm and ranch land every minute. Development, severe weather events, GMOs, and bad policy decisions can sometimes make it seem as though small family farms are not getting the support they need and deserve. Despite these incredible hurdles, we remain optimistic. Conversations are taking place that weren’t just a few years ago and universities are providing programs focused on sustainable agriculture. The growth of farmers markets, CSA’s and newly emerging food hubs give small farms the opportunity to sell directly to their customer base and stay viable, making the outlook good for us and them. Through FARMroots we help to train beginning farmers and connect them with land and other opportunities to ensure that the agricultural community in our region stays strong.

Sample "Winter Box" from a CSA

What has been the biggest encouragement for quality farming?

The biggest encouragement is by far customer demand for food that is grown and raised sustainably and locally. By shopping at a Greenmarket, customers are “voting with their forks” on a daily basis. That commitment to purchasing fresh produce, meat, cheese, honey, flowers, etc. directly from the person who grew or raised it is the one thing that will keep small farms who care for the health of their land and water, welfare of their animals, and integrity of their communities in business for generations to come.

How has Greenmarkets been affected by computer and internet technology? To the extent it has any influence, have the principles of Open Source or Creative Sharing been part of Greenmarkets growth?

Social media has been absolutely incredible for us. Getting the word out about market openings, upcoming events, and general information is great, but mostly being able to receive feedback from customers in such a positive way has been a amazing, eye-opening experience. It seems as though all of the sudden every single customer is posting photos of the market and what they are buying and cooking. It’s thrilling for us to see the markets through the eyes of the shoppers and use that information to further our mission and reach our constituents. The farmers have also taken advantage of social media and, the ones who have embraced it, have had very positive results. We have also been developing an Open Source market app that will allow customers to see what farmers and products are in first thing the morning of the market. We hope to launch that app this Spring.Technology has also allowed us to mobilize our customers quickly, whether it’s a disaster response to hurricanes and flooding or an advocacy strategy around funding for food access. Social media and other work online has allowed us to be nimble and responsive to the agricultural community’s needs.

You got any favorite foods right now?

Although winters in the Northeast don’t allow for the abundance of fresh produce we see available come summer, twenty-three of our markets stay open year round and are still bustling. I personally love the earthy bitterness of a roasted rutabaga (in my opinion, the most underestimated and delicious of all the root vegetables), a market chili made with fresh ground beef and dried beans, hoophouse-grown leafy greens and herbs, watermelon radishes on all salads, and some delicious hard cider to wash it all down.

Bon appetit!

Find out more about GrowNYC and find your local NYC market schedule here.

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