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Greenmarkets and Restaurants Cope with Farmers' Rough Harvest

By Mary Johnson | November 7, 2011 7:07am | Updated on November 7, 2011 7:08am

MANHATTAN — Cheryl Rogowski, of Rogowski Farm, lost 80 acres of her 150-acre farm in Pine Island, N.Y., to Hurricane Irene.

“It was like going through a death,” Rogowski said, remembering August's pummelling of rain and wind. “It took me a month to accept it.”

Part of that loss included 15 acres of squashes and 10 acres of potatoes. She wasn’t able to save any of her sweet potatoes or her pumpkins, either.

“We just don’t have the supply to meet the demand,” Rogowski said. “We may lose customers.”

Farmers across the region have suffered devastating losses this season, with severe weather flooding fields of planted crops and ruining seasonal staples like squash and potatoes. August and September in the Northeast were the second wettest on record, with more than two feet of rain falling on New York City.

Dan Kluger, the chef at ABC Kitchen, puts an emphasis on cooking with seasonal foods, from the ever-changing menu to the fall-themed decor.
Dan Kluger, the chef at ABC Kitchen, puts an emphasis on cooking with seasonal foods, from the ever-changing menu to the fall-themed decor.
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DNAinfo/Mary Johnson

That has some calling fall of 2011 one of the worst seasons in the region's history, and prompting producers to seek help from aid organizations and their fellow farmers just to get by.

On a recent day at the Union Square Greenmarket, Rogowski Farm had set up a modest stand with a few sparse bins of squashes, which Rogowski purchased from neighboring farms that weren’t hit so hard.

In better years, she noted, she would have a bigger stand with 10 or 12 kinds of winter squashes, including white and blue pumpkins. This year, her stash included only four different varieties. She recently increased the price on those — from $1.50 to $2 a pound — to help stretch her supplies in a season of high demand.

“The storms happened at a very critical point,” she explained.

Michael Moran, a spokesperson for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, agreed.

Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, which struck the Northeast about two weeks later, hit before many farmers had a chance to harvest their crops already in the ground, he said.

It was also too late in the season to squeeze in another planting before the cold weather came, he added.

“Clearly there was tremendous damage done,” Moran said. “The combination of Irene and Lee together in very close proximity, and really continuing rainy and wet weather a good part of the time since then, has made this one of the worst disasters the state has seen.”

The storm discriminated geographically and topographically, walloping flood-prone areas while largely sparing farms on higher ground. The nature of the farm didn’t matter, sources said, and organic farms weren’t afforded any more of an edge than their non-organic counterparts.

But despite the damage and loss, experts agreed that shoppers should still be able to find all the signature fall foods this year.

“All products that you would hope to find at the Greenmarket for Thanksgiving will absolutely be there,” said Jeanne Hodesh, a spokeswoman for the Union Square Greenmarket.  

Costs for those products vary depending on the vendor, but Hodesh said that she has not seen a marked rise in prices across the board on any one product.

Jeff Williams, manager of governmental relations for the New York Farm Bureau, said that New Yorkers owe that decent supply of seasonal eats in large part to the supportive nature of the local farming community.

As in the case of Rogowski Farm, many farmers are filling the void of lost crops by purchasing those products from farms that were less severely impacted.

“There’s been a very nice collective effort to make people whole,” Williams said.

The arrangements are all made between individual farmers, but Williams said he hasn’t heard of any kind of price gouging taking place. In fact, Governor Andrew Cuomo has freed up state dollars to help farmers purchase crops from neighboring lands to supplement their yield, Williams added.

“New York is one of the biggest agricultural states in the nation,” he noted. “We need to make sure we live to fight another day.”

New York farms feed between 15 to 20 million people, Williams explained. That makes their role vitally important, both for individual shoppers and for the area restaurants that place an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients.

Chef Dan Kluger at ABC Kitchen on East 18th Street, just steps away from the Greenmarket, changes the restaurant’s menu with the seasons, based mostly on what is available from local farmers.

“There are a couple of staples, which we have year round,” Kluger said. “But everything else is very much driven by what we find. The first day that peas come out, we start using peas. The first day we can get sugar snaps, we start using sugar snaps.”

“As soon as we think the quality’s gone down or they just stop [providing],” he added, “that’s when we stop using them.”

Kluger said that he had seen an impact from Hurricane Irene among the farm stands he frequents. For instance, the restaurant’s main carrot supplier (ABC Kitchen goes through roughly 1,000 pounds of the root vegetable every week) lost two fields of the crop this year.

Because of the volatile nature of farming, Kluger said he isn’t loyal to any one farm. His only shopping criteria is that the food he’s buying be at its very best.

Chef Michael Anthony, of the nearby Gramercy Tavern, expressed a similar devotion to local, seasonal foods that are of the highest quality.

“When [you] go places, you want to taste something that’s unique to that place and something that is expressive of the way people have fun there," he said.

"And so that’s how we generate our dishes. While we’re a little bit sad to leave one ingredient behind, there’s the anticipation of looking forward to something else that tastes delicious to cook with.”