In many New York City neighborhoods, the only foodstuffs available are from the corner bodega or chain store. Most food is processed and laden with additives, and produce has been grown in the industrial model with absent nutrients and abundant chemicals.
In East Harlem (traditionally known as Spanish Harlem due to its primarily Puerto Rican constituency), however, things are changing, thanks to the efforts of Vermont’s Holton Farms. Suddenly, fresh healthy ingredients, many of them certified organic, are available right in East Harlem’s traditional La Marqueta marketplace—at prices the local residents can actually pay.
If Holton Farms has their way, East Harlem is only the beginning. “The main philosophy behind Holton Farms’ operation is to get our wonderful farm-fresh produce, along with fresh produce and farm products from our partner companies, to people who can’t necessarily afford a Whole Foods or a specialty market,” Adam Foreman, co-director of Holton Farms, told Organic Connections. “These are people who don’t know about farm-fresh products, who aren’t educated about them, and who aren’t educated regarding healthy eating and healthy lifestyles. Our goal is to help create easier access to these products at an affordable rate and to give everybody sort of a Whole Foods experience but without them having to fear they won’t be able to pay their rent or afford things for their families.”
La Marqueta has a history behind it. Located under the elevated Metro North railway tracks between 111th Street and 116th Street on Park Avenue, its heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s when over 500 vendors operated there. It was an important social and economic venue for Hispanic New York. It has since dwindled—but Holton Farms is changing that.
“Within the last 50 years, La Marqueta has really become kind of a ghost town,” Foreman said. “One of the reasons we moved into the space was to help revitalize it. And now people are coming in there, and they don’t really expect to see us or to be able to get such tasty, great products and are pleasantly surprised. Everybody’s very friendly; everybody welcomes us to the neighborhood, and the Saturday market has become quite popular. There’s a little Spanish festival that goes on across the street, and we’ve really generated a lot of traffic into La Marqueta with our farm stand.”
Holton Farms is able to support this effort through their own CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program—which itself is unique. In the traditional CSA program, people subscribe and regularly receive a boxed shipment from the farm containing whatever the farm is harvesting at that particular time. “We decided to change that model because we didn’t want people to be stuck with whatever we wanted to give them,” Foreman explained. “New Yorkers, in particular, travel a lot in the summertime and aren’t really around to get that box. So rather than buying a share, a customer purchases a farm credit that is theirs to spend for anything in our entire inventory—from us and our partners—whenever they want.”
Where Holton’s CSA customers spend their farm credits is where it becomes fun. A large converted Snap-on tools truck, with a bright logo on the side proclaiming Holton Farms, Good earth, Good eats, makes its way around the city seven days a week, through 25 regular stops. Customers then buy whatever they like from the well-stocked truck, much as they would from one of the regular (far less nutritious) food trucks roaming the New York City streets. Holton Farms now also has a retail license, which means that non-customers can wander by and purchase goods too.
“All through New York we’ve been received extremely well,” remarked Foreman. “I think that people are genuinely impressed with the fact that we took a truck and rather than turning it into a big greasy cooking machine, we’re selling whole fresh produce and farm products. It’s been a great advertising magnet for us, and people really like our service, our products and the vibe around the truck.”
As Holton Farms expands their operation, this truck and more like it will be making their way into economically depressed areas—in addition to East Harlem—as well as servicing CSA clients, thus helping to fulfill their larger goal.
Eventually, Holton Farms would like to open a permanent large shopping area. “One of the things we’d also very much like to have is a store or co-op of our own where we would sell the majority of our products and then partner with other farmers and allow them shelf space to highlight their goods,” Foreman said. “Within our supermarket, they could tell a little bit about their farms and the hard work and the time and the energy spent on their wonderful produce. And people wouldn’t feel like they couldn’t pay their rent or couldn’t afford something in our store. We’d want everybody to have that great shopping experience.”
It could very well be that Holton Farms is helping to make a badly needed change to the overall farming paradigm of the last 50 years—something that will benefit everyone.
To find out more about Holton Farms, visit their website at www.holtonfarms.com.