Inside New York's bustling, lock-tight produce trading hub

June 30 , 2014

If you happen to operate a produce market that sells more than US$2.4 billion worth of fruit and vegetables every year, be sure to let us know, but until then the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market in New York will continue to claim the world-leading title. Supplying 9% of the U.S. population and moving 230 million boxes annually, the distribution hub in the Bronx only gets six hours of respite a day for cleaning. At www.freshfruitportal.com we had the opportunity to visit this monster of a market, guided by the cooperative’s executive director Myra Gordon.

The Hunts Point administrators run a tight ship, and this has especially been the case since 9/11 to avoid threats to the food supply. It has more patrol officers per square foot than the City of New York, so those mangoes or grapes picked up from a street stand in Manhattan were probably safer than you were at one point in time.

“You’ve always got to be two steps ahead. This is the biggest fruit and vegetable market in the world, so you’ve got to protect it,” one police officer tells www.freshfruitportal.com.

This means no photos, so readers, all we have for you visually is the cooperative’s logo. However, Gordon is generous to explain what it means to work there and what keeps wholesalers in the game. Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative Association - panorama

“We like to say every day is not gravy day here and we work on an average, and at the end of the year hopefully you’ve made enough money to stay in business,” she says.

“Obviously that is the case because many of the companies in here are now in their fourth generation of ownership.

“You really need family here because we work at night, and you need family eyes to see what’s going on.”

And this is not just the case for the family-run companies that sell the fruit; as www.freshfruitportal.com leaves the premises after the tour, the peace officer guiding us waves to family members and old school colleagues working among the boxes of fruit or driving the forklifts.

Gordon clarifies there are currently 40 companies selling produce at the market, and in doing so they are all automatically members of the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Cooperative Association. Each company manages its own business affairs, but contributes funds to the administrative and other tasks of the cooperative, which leases the property from the City.

Land in demand

And aside from the refrigeration for the fruits and veggies, it is very hot property indeed. Space is a luxury and Gordon comments that whenever companies go up for sale, it tends to be existing merchants that bid for them.

“If you are not an existing merchant and you are coming to us new, it’s a very difficult business for someone who doesn’t know it and hasn’t grown up in it to be successful,” she says.

There have been ongoing discussions for upgrades for about 10 years, but she says the cost of a rebuild would be more than merchants could afford on a monthly payback basis, even with financial support from the Federal, State and City governments.

“It’s a number that’s still not affordable, so we’re talking and we’ll see what happens as we move along.”

The land’s value has also become apparent through the fact many coop members have gone into the delivery business to make services more convenient for customers.

“Many customers who used to park in here years ago don’t want the hassle of the parking spaces, and would rather you bring the product to them and they’re willing to pay whatever that may be, so long as it’s reasonable.

“Some of the merchants have as many as 100 trucks, and deliver as far north as Canada, as far south as Florida, as far west as Chicago, and without handling the product here ourselves, we can make arrangements through our shippers but we take the title to it to ship it to Western Europe and the Caribbean Basin every day.”

Gordon’s views on the industry

When asked what has been the biggest change in the produce world, Gordon points to three: the advent of tropicals and more exotic produce, demand for organic, and the demand for ‘local’.

“Around 25 years ago I think the biggest change was the advent of tropical product, when you had a large influx of people from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Central and South America,” she says.

“The only thing you can bring with you when you leave your foreign country is your taste buds, and people want to eat what they remember from home.

“When I first started in the business we never had yucca, yautia, ñame, sugarcane, coconut, they just weren’t here. Now they are.”

She mentions another trend of products previously seen as more exotic now well and truly in the mainstream, such as avocados, pineapples and garlic.

“And although mango is the number one fruit in the world, it’s now becoming more readily consumed in the United States in all of its iterations, coming from all over.”

In terms of the organics, while Hunts Point is not “big” on them because of their shorter shelf life and difficulty in handling, Gordon says the category grown in leaps and bounds.

“The consumer will go into their local store and look for organic…people are fickle, and they tend to buy into a mantra.

“It is the younger generation that has bought into organics, and they don’t really care about price. It tends to be a more upscale community; not across the board but by in large.”

And while supermarkets are showing greater interest in organic fruit and vegetables, Gordon personally has not bought into it.

“I feel we would not be living longer, healthier, more productive lives if everything that we were doing, including what we eat, was bad for us.

“I think I’ve never eaten an organic product – you eat carefully, you take care of yourself, and just because you’re eating organic that doesn’t mean you’re going to be healthier.

“There are a lot of other things you have to do in life – if you’re putting all of your effort thinking eating organic alone is going to keep you alive longer, it’s not.”

The latest mantra in Gordon’s view is ‘locavore’, which can be complicated at times.

“This of the year we have a short growing season – what’s local to us would be available to us in a good year, and this wasn’t one; from April 15 for early lettuce until the first frost. In the wintertime, through the first frost you can grow Brussels sprouts, cabbage, onions, potatoes,” she says.

“It’s interesting. I have traveled on weekends to the farmers’ markets, and the biggest one in Manhattan is the Union Square Market. Underneath the tables there’ll be boxes out of this market, because they don’t have enough that has been grown to sell on their own, so the consumer is being duped a little bit and think they’re buying green pepper that’s grown in upstate New York when it probably has come from Georgia, Florida or California.”

“And as the season begins to dwindle, the farmer will again be buying in here to supplement whatever he is able to still glean from his own crops.”

Prepare for higher prices

Gordon discusses some of the factors behind what has been a difficult produce season in general for the United States, with concerns chiefly on the “next oil” for the world – water.

“There is not enough water, even through irrigation, so a lot of crops have not been planted to the same degree this year as they have been in prior years. As a result there will be a shortage of product and the price will be very high,” she says.

“The consumer is going to have to pay through the nose this year, for both meat and produce.

“But luckily enough, every state grows tomatoes so there should be no shortage of them; every state will grow string beans, green squash, yellow squash, eggplant, green peppers and these days maybe red and yellow peppers.

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