When Melissa Ennen decided to open The Commons, a community and educational center in Boerum Hill, she didn’t just want to host classes and workshops. She wanted to find a way to bring good, sustainably-produced local food into the neighborhood. But she didn’t want to just sell food – she wanted to find a way for locals to meet the people growing and making that food, to learn about how they produce it, and to encourage discussion about the complexities and challenges of trying to create a new local and people-based food system.
What better way to do that than by opening a farmers market? Melissa and her crew launched The Foodshed Market, at weekly market featuring local farmers and makers, at The Commons in September. We sat down with Melissa to talk about the short history of her market, the long history of her building, and her twenty year love affair with the borough of Brooklyn.
So Melissa, what inspired you to open the market?
Well, I own the building. I had rented all three floors out to commercial tenants for the last ten years. A year and a half ago, when the leases were all up, I had a choice. I could either renew them or do what I’d always hoped to do with the building at some point in my life – create a community center to serve and support community-oriented groups and individuals here in Boerum Hill. I wasn’t quite ready for the change, but I did it anyway. I didn’t renew the commercial leases. I took the building back over and opened The Commons.
Now we rent out office space to several community groups: The Brooklyn Young Mothers Collective; Changer, which works with people who are fighting foreclosures; and the Brooklyn Food Coalition, which is a consortium of neighborhood food groups. They’re all on the third floor.
I let community-oriented groups use the first floor, where we hold the market every Sunday, for various events. If it’s not being used during the week I’ll let people use it for meetings and that sort of thing. We also do lots of classes on things like gardening, rooftop gardening, DIY solar power, permaculture, beekeeping…things like that.
The problem that arose was that we needed to find a way to cover our expenses without charging normal commercial rents. We needed to find a way to sustain the building and The Commons.
So we started thinking about having something once a week that would bring in people and revenue while leaving the space open for other uses during the week. So what to do? We had a lot of events that help people get to know each other. More face to face time is what I’m after here. Everybody knows that food creates community… Ah! A farmers market! Perfect! So that’s how Foodshed came to be.
Tell me a little more about the market itself. What types of vendors and producers do you seek out?
We really want to bring local, sustainable farmers and artisanal producers in – to introduce them to our community here in Boerum Hill, and to give our community better access to good, sustainably and locally produced foods. We try to find as many organic or NOFA certified (that’s Northeastern Organic Farming Association – they call it the grassroots alternative to certified organic) producers as we can.
We don’t require that all of our artisanal makers use organic ingredients, but we ask them what is and isn’t organic so we can tell the customers. One of our main themes at Foodshed is honesty and transparency about food and the food system. It’s so complex. We post signs for each of our vendors telling customers who they are, where they’re from, and how they grow or make their food. We let everyone know what’s organic or what’s not, and encourage our customers to get to know our farmers and vendors and to talk about it with them.
Downstairs on the first floor we have our farmers and artisanal makers. Do Re Mi, and Healthway Farms, Orwashers Bakery, Hudson Valley Duck, Hoosic Farm brings all kinds of great meats, Mosefund Farm has very special pork. We have Joseph Fisheries from Montauk – extremely fresh fish. I’m a lady angler and I fish a lot, and I can tell you that their fish is very good. We have Brooklyn Cured’s wonderful cured meats, The Stand NY’s naturally-produced syrups and preserves, several cheesemakers…lots of wonderful stuff.
We recently expanded the market to the second floor, where we have prepared foods. Luke’s Lobster is here with their Lobster Rolls. National Crab with their crabcakes and crab soup. Meredith Farms – an organic quickbreads and muffins. And it continues to grow and change.
Food is a really good way to get people to talk about things. A market like this is definitely in line with the idea of creating more community and promoting transparency and debate about all those ethical questions that come up when trying to create a new food system. So we hope that it won’t just be a place for buying good healthy food, and for giving local vendors a chance to market their products, but that it will also be a place where you can keep up with all the challenges and controversies inherent in the food system. It’s tricky. Some people consider all that too much information, but if you want to learn about it and talk about it, we want this to be a place where you can do that. If you just want to shop for good food, we want you to be able to do that too.
How did you come up with the name of the market? ‘Foodshed’ What does it mean?
The term Foodshed was proposed as a concept back in 1929. Later, in the 50’s, someone wrote an essay about it that pushed it further into the public consciousness. It’s not a well defined term – the idea behind it is to think of the flow of food into and out of urban centers the same way we think of water flowing. Watershed is a very clear ecological concept. The idea of transposing that onto a food system is one that has a lot of appeal to people trying to envision a new type of food system.
It just helps you to think of the flow of food. Where is it coming from? How is it consumed? What are all the nodal points in between? It definitely makes you focus on people and place in the context of food, unlike the well-established global food system which is totally divorced from the idea of the producer and consumer having any relationship whatsoever.
Like I said, the concept of a foodshed is not well defined, and we welcome that. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. We welcome the discussion. What is local? What is sustainable? What’s the relationship between this and that?
To me, foodshed is a concept, based on watershed, that’s useful in helping us to think about how to build a new regional food system that’s based on a better understanding of the role of people and places…the personal and economic relationships between food producers and consumers. We want to help people to better understand where their food is coming from, how it’s produced, who’s producing it, and to have a chance to get to know those producers personally.
Elizabeth Knafo, who has helped with the creation of the market, came up with the term, and it seemed like a perfect fit!
So did you have any past experience setting up a market like this? How have things gone to date? What have you learned?
I have shopped at farmers markets many times, but I knew absolutely nothing about running one! We came up with the idea in July and launched it in September. I had no idea what I was in for.
When we first started I hired Linda McGrath, who had helped found Rick’s Picks. I asked her to help me find some vendors since I knew nothing about the food business. We went out to other markets to try to find people who were already coming into the city on Sundays – we assumed it would be more financially viable for them if they were already going to be in Brooklyn. And we got a few very quickly. That part wasn’t hard. The hard part was getting the word out and bringing in customers. We did a lot of old-fashioned publicity like printing up postcards and putting them in mailboxes. Word is getting out and people in the community are happy we’re here.
We don’t yet know what’s all going to happen here. The market is open every Sunday. We’re hoping we can find a way to make it viable financially. We’re working out the model by the seat of our pants! So far it seems to be OK, but we do have to find a way to cover our expenses some day!
I’ve certainly learned a lot. I would not have even guessed the degree of complexity around all these ethical questions about sustainable food. We learned a really unfortunate lesson a few weeks ago about the tradeoffs you have to make to make a market like this work.
When we first started, the very first week, we had a farmer come out who had this amazing spread of vegetables. Unbelievable spread. But I realized pretty quickly that it was not all organic. Lots of pesticides had been used on the produce, and I didn’t want that. I want all our produce and dairy to be organic or NOFA certified.
So I quickly found another farmer. A wonderful farmer named Cheryl Rogowski, who uses a totally 100% natural approach. We visited her farm and it was absolutely wonderful. She didn’t have a lot of produce, but everything she did have was perfectly seasonal and sustainably grown. Couldn’t be healthier stuff. But once we got deeper into the fall, she had a dwindling supply each week. That’s what naturally happens in the Northeast if you’re growing totally naturally as the weather starts to get cold. She doesn’t use any fossil fuels to heat her greenhouses or hoops, so she didn’t have broccoli or cauliflower or carrots as it started getting colder.
I certainly didn’t have a problem with it, but I started getting a lot of complaints from the customers that we didn’t have enough produce. From their perspective, it’s a farmers market and a farmers market is expected to have produce, and lots of it. So I made the decision to bring another farmer, Do Re Mi Farms into the market. They are organic, but they do use fossil fuels to heat their greenhouses and hoops. And the customers loved it! He had this big panoply of beautiful produce each week. The sad part of the story is that Cheryl Rogowski left the market as a result. She couldn’t compete. It wasn’t worth her while to come down when everyone was buying the beautiful stuff from the heated greenhouses.
That’s a really tough tradeoff for me. Of course I’d like to do whatever I can to support a farmer like Cheryl who grows her produce in the most sustainable way possible. But if I don’t provide what the customers want, the market won’t survive!
I don’t know enough yet…I don’t know if anyone knows enough yet…to envision the transition whereby in winter in New York we could have a sustainable array of vegetables that would satisfy your New York consumer enough that they’d support a market that had limited choices reflecting the natural local supply at that time of year. I don’t think a market could survive right now with that approach, but I hope that day will come!
There was a great article in Edible Brooklyn recently about how hard it is to be a food entrepreneur. There are all these new small vendors who lots of people know about who are barely making it. It’s not all lovey-dovey or glamorous by any means. But the idea that so many of us have decided that we don’t want a boss, and that we want the ability to be more creative about what we do, and we want to contribute to this new system and approach to food is wonderful. But it doesn’t mean it’s easy or even fun even half the time! It’s really hard work.
The idea that Brooklyn is the new hot spot in New York when it comes to food is only one part of it. The Brooklyn Food Coalition here has a lot of groups in food desert neighborhoods trying to improve their access to good food. So we’re kind of at the forefront of good food on the glamorous side of things, and in terms of movement towards food sovereignty and justice and accessibility. Detroit is really the leader, but we’re doing a good job here in Brooklyn too.
The fact that we’re in Boerum Hill – in the 11217 zip code, makes the market project even more interesting. The latest census data reports that this neighborhood has the greatest income disparity of all census tracts in the entire United States. I didn’t find that all that surprising. I live here. We have a lot of very wealthy people and a lot of people with very very little disposable income. So we’re trying to create a market to serve this really diverse community. We have to make good healthy food available to people with really limited resources, and we have to have really snazzy cheeses and that sort of thing too. This neighborhood is a sort of microcosm of the city, and not just the city, but the whole planet at this point because there’s such a disparity of income.
I’m curious to know more about the building? What’s your history with it? When did you come to own it?
I came to Brooklyn 20 years ago to settle. I moved around a lot for most of my life. My family moved back and forth between the North and South. I lived in Charlotte, Nashville, Detroit, Cleveland. I came up North to go to college. I lived in China for nine years. I was sick of bouncing around and I decided that I wanted to put down roots and I really meant it.
When I came to New York, I lived in Manhattan briefly but there was no way I would have stayed there. I had to have a garden. I’ve always been a gardener despite moving around all the time. So I needed a place for a garden, and of course one day I discovered Brooklyn…like Columbus discovered America! I found a place right here by the Gowanus Canal where I could have a big garden. I’ve stayed ever since and I’m so happy to have been here all these years.
I never really had one career. I taught for many years. In China I studied and taught international economics. I had thought I’d end up teaching about the transition from planned to market economics, but I ended up not liking the academic world. So I decided in 1992 to start a magazine. It was called Brooklyn Bridge Magazine, and I sustained it, barely, until 2000. It was a lot of fun and it made me love Brooklyn even more. We did our best and we did quite well, actually. Our readers liked us but we had to close it down in 2000. We had big parties for three weekends. We invited our readers to say goodbye and that was it. We shut down the office here in this building and I started renting it out for commercial space.
Anyway, I got the building for the magazine. We ran Brooklyn Bridge Magazine from right here.
This building used to be a factory. It was the Cast Iron Coin Counting Machine factory from 1917 to 1988. They left their safe behind, so I have all of their accounting books from the beginning. All these little bank records, handwritten…they made machines for counting currencies all over the world – in the British Emprire, the French Empire, all of Latin America, almost all of the United States. When digital technology hit and made them obsolete, they went out of business almost overnight in 1988. I got the building at a bankruptcy auction.
It’s so sad! But it does mean that we have a very very strong building. These were very heavy machines. That allows us to do a lot of rooftop gardening here. The roof is strong enough to support all our kiddie pools full of vegetables up there, and our bee hives and everything.
Who does your beekeeping? Do you do it yourselves?
Yes, I’m the beekeeper. Supposedly. I have a mentor, Michael Hegedus, of the Brooklyn Beekeepers Club. I’m a true novice. It’s my first year. I have a hive here and a hive at home and I’m just looking to learn more.
They just legalized beekeeping in the city, you know, last St. Patricks Day. We had a big party here to celebrate.
Beekeeping is just fascinating. The division of labor in the hive just makes you kind of rethink your own humanness in some way!
As someone who’s been here for twenty years, what are your thoughts about the whole revitalization of the food world in Brooklyn?
It’s amazing what’s happened to food in Brooklyn. I live on Douglass near the canal. When I moved in, 20 years ago, when we finished unloading the Ryder truck, we went out – we were exhausted and wanted to get something to eat. We went up and down Smith Street and there was not even a takeout joint. There was one Spanish food place. There wasn’t a single other place. Even ten years ago there was very little. Patois opened on Smith Street in ’98 and that was the start of it. Now it’s not just restaurants- there’s that whole additional factor of young people and people of all sorts opening all kinds of food businesses.
There’s always been tremendous entrepreneurship in Brooklyn. Not just because of the immigrant population – there’s just a resourcefulness here. It’s always been true of this borough, even before it was a borough. Many many people come here and start businesses, many of which are food-related. So this new thing isn’t really that new- it’s that we’re all paying attention to it.
I recall seeing an article in New York magazine last year, and other articles in lots of places, all giving the impression that the entire food thing that’s happening in Brooklyn is driven by these young hipsters. And it’s wonderful that those young hipsters are getting attention, but there are a lot of other people who have been doing this for quite some time.
There are community gardens that have been around Brooklyn for decades. Since the 60s or even earlier in some cases. And all of a sudden it’s being portrayed as though urban agriculture is this totally new thing. It’s great that it’s growing, but let us give some credit to the elders who’ve been around for a while!
There’s always been a tension in Brooklyn. There was too much nostalgia for too many years. Everyone wanted to look back to the ‘golden age’ of the 50s and there was just heavy heavy nostalgia for the Dodgers and the Brooklyn Eagle and all that. Now we’ve gone to the other extreme and we’re focused only on what’s new. We’re forgetting the history. There’s a difference between nostalgia and history and we have a very rich history. I just hope that there’ll be some acknowledgement that there’s a lot to be learned from people who’ve been growing food and making food here for a really long time!
Foodshed Market is open every Sunday from 11am to 5pm at The Commons – 388 Atlantic Ave., between Hoyt and Bond.