Union Square Greenmarket’s Minority Farmers Struggle to Get ‘Organic’ Label

Gorzynski Ornery Farm Stand, Union Square.(Credit: Jillian Magtoto)

Gorzynski Ornery Farm Stand, Union Square.(Credit: Jillian Magtoto)

Minority farmers, who are finally making progress in opening stands at the Union Square Greenmarket, are running up against another hurdle to selling their products: obtaining organic certification to be competitive with other vendors.

GrowNYC, the nonprofit that opened the market in 1976, has provided business assistance to new farmers of color for the last 23 years. The program is now showing results as a few long-standing multigenerational farms retire and the recruitment of new producers picks up. The number of minority-owned companies with stands increased to 13 of the 140 vendors as of 2023, from five minority operators in 2017, according to GrowNYC. Yet, only two of the 25 certified organic farms at Union Square are minority owned.

Organic certification is granted to farmers that meet specific standards for growing, processing and handling products. The methods must be approved and inspected by a certifying agent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some farmers say the process is complex, difficult to navigate and may be influenced by bias.

“It’s hard to get a certificate and I think it’s maybe because of our color,” said Guillermina Trujillo, who manages Grandpa Farms, a Chester, N.Y., property founded five years ago by her Mexican immigrant family. “I have had too many occasions of people changing their ideas about us when they hear our broken English. I don’t know if it’s the same for everybody or just us.”

As early as 1923, a farmer’s market has operated at Union Square, between Broadway and Park Avenue, from East 17th to East 14th Streets. GrowNYC established the current iteration with a few farmers from the region in 1976. It has grown to include cheeses, meats and baked goods, in addition to fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, according to the nonprofit’s website. The market is open along the north and west sides of the park from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., four days a week, serving 60,000 customers. 

Grandpa Farms, located about 60 miles north of New York City, started selling Mexican herbs and vegetables at Union Square in 2020 through GrowNYC’s beginning farmers program after spending a year on a waiting list. The operation, which has grown from one acre to 40 acres, has struggled to get organic certification even though it meets the stringent requirements to obtain the designation. For example, the farm can only use approved chemicals and must plant with organic, genetically unmodified seeds on land that has been rid of prohibited pesticides for at least three years.

“We don’t have a certificate and some people think we are a conventional farm,” said Trujillo said. “But we don’t spray or use chemicals.”

Three years ago, Grandpa Farms called a USDA-authorized certifying agent and was told to wait for an inspection, she said. The family hasn’t heard anything since, according to Trujillo. She said she suspects race is behind the delay.

Trujillo said the path to obtaining certification is complicated and that the USDA should provide someone to better explain the process. 

The Agriculture Department does provide assistance to farmers, according spokesperson for the agency. “USDA recognizes the need to be inclusive and ensure equitable access to all of its services,” the spokesperson said. “The National Organic Program provides resources in Spanish to help support Spanish-speaking producers interested in transitioning to organic production or already farming organically.” The spokesperson didn’t say whether certifying agents or employees who can offer assistance in Spanish.

The Northeast Organic Farmers Association in New York is one of a handful of organizations that administers USDA organic certification to New York farmers. The nonprofit, known as NOFA-NY, is based in Binghamton, N.Y. and receives as many as 1,300 applications per year as the largest organic certifier in the state. The vast majority applicants are approved, according to Bert Olecwiez, the NOFA-NY certification director. While the association doesn’t have a waitlist for new farms, other certification groups may have a backlog of applications, he said.

USDA rules, which prohibit organic certification staff from working directly with farmers, do allow their education departments to help farmers through the process. But NOFA-NY’s education team doesn’t have a multilingual staff that can translate for farmers with language barriers, like Grandpa Farms. Also, all documents must be completed in English, Olecwicz added. 

“We have been working on interviewing more people with second language capabilities,” Samantha Kemnah, NOFA-NY’s membership communications manager, said. 

A 2022 study by the Organic Farmers Research Foundation based in Santa Cruz, California, found that minority farmers encounter organic production challenges at a higher rate than white farmers. Only 3.6% of organic producers in the U.S. identify as non-white, according to the USDA, while 58% farmers of color cited cost as a substantial challenge. The expense for obtaining organic certification may range from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars.

“They want this excessive kind of paperwork no small farmer has,” said Debi Farmer, the manager of BodhiTree Farms, which has been at Union Square Greenmarket for three years. “When you’re a small farm that doesn’t spray, you have to do the weeding yourself, and we just don’t have the time.” She said her stand let go of its organic certification last year.

Some farmers say the level of difficulty in navigating the certification process is not beyond what should be expected. 

“The paperwork is no more difficult for any small business,” said Greg Swartz, manager of Willow Wisp Farms, which sells organic fruits and vegetables in the Greenmarket. “I think anyone who says that is just making an excuse. If people are practicing good farm management, then they should keep records of the work they do anyways.”

Swartz is a former executive director of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, an organization calling for state investment in organic farms. His produce stand is one of the largest at Union Square, with nine tents branded as “organic.”

“Willow Wisp Farms seem to have a consistent line, whereas we have hills and valleys of customers,” said Jessica Balnaves, who works at Amoon Farms, a nearby stand that sells a selection of fruits, vegetables, and flowers. 

Amoon Farms is owned by an Egyptian farmer who started selling in Union Square in 2021. Without organic branding, the farm often has to explain its pesticide-free practices to customers. Balnaves said they use alpaca manure and sea kelp to mineralize their soil, and follow practices that exceed organic standards.

“We care more about soil health than fees and paperwork,” she said.

But it’s undeniable that the organic brand increases revenue. Organic retail sales grow 8% every year, according to the USDA.

“You can get more money for organic certification,” said Syed Ahmad, who works at Lani’s Farm, a non-organic Korean-owned operation. “Organic produce prices are higher and people definitely go towards tents that say organic because the branding is easier for them to digest.”

About the author(s)

Jillian Magtoto is a student at the Columbia Journalism School from Los Angeles, California, specializing in business and agriculture.