At a time when farmers’ markets were unheard of and the Union Square area was a nest of drug activity, Ron Binaghi and Ron Binaghi, Jr. loaded up their truck, parked it in Union Square, and sold out of their produce within hours. Stokes Farm had joined together with 11 other farms to become the founding farmers at the first Union Square Greenmarket in 1976.
Ron Binaghi, Jr. was 16 in 1976. Today, 34 years later, Stokes Farm remains a family operation. Ron Jr. and his son, Ron III, co-own Stokes Farm, and other family members are in charge of retail sales, web design, marketing, and the greenhouse.
Isaiah Stokes, Ron Jr.’s, great-great-grandfather, founded Stokes Farm in 1873. According to Ron Jr., the farm originally grew five acres of five things: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries, and plum tomatoes. In the 1950s, Ron Jr.’s father, Ron, took over the farm and he and his wife fostered a successful farm stand. As the decades rolled on and one-stop grocery stores became the norm, farmers’ markets ceased to exist.
In the 1970s, two New Yorkers decided that this needed to change. Ron Jr., recounts his father being approached by Bob Lewis and Barry Benepe, founders of the NYC Greenmarket system.
“Bob Lewis got a map and went out and tried to find farms. He [then] came here and asked my father. It was the early 70s, when we had an oil shortage. OPEC was having an embargo and oil prices were really high. Sales were down; the economy was slow. My father said ‘alright’. It was a fortunate day—a very busy day—we came home with nothing.”
The Binaghi family is six generations deep into farming and their spirit and enthusiasm appears undampened. Each of my summer visits for different farm profiles have rejuvenated and inspired me, but none have left me feeling as positive and refreshed as my visit with Ron Jr., Ron III, and Ron III’s wife, Christina. At Stokes Farm, the beauty of the food and land is directly related to the care and energy put in by the Binaghis: what you see is what you get. And what I saw was 17 acres of zinnias, basil, peppers, tomatoes, herbs, squash, eggplant growing on rolling hills, surrounded by a boundary of trees. What I got was a warm welcome, an enthusiastic tour on the back of a tractor, and frank conversations about what it takes to be an effective, successful, productive farm in 2010.
Since 1976, Stokes Farm has become a significant fixture in New Yorkers’ personal and restaurant kitchens. Customers rely on Stokes Farm’s presence at the market. I have no doubt that a quick conversation with one of the Binaghis could brighten up even the worst day. According to Ron Jr., customers have a genuine, comfortable repartee with him and his family, whether it’s a regular customer who gets free tomatoes if Ron Jr. laughs at his joke or it’s a customer who calls to check on Christina when she doesn’t come to the market.
The reliance is mutual. Ron Jr. is quick to point out that “we really depend on [our customers]; I don’t know if they realize how much we depend on them.”
On the day I visited Stokes Farm, the heat that’s been plaguing the New York area this summer had abated. After being amiably greeted by Ron III, he and his wife, Christina, took me on a tour of the property. Throughout my tour, Christina and Ron happily played off of each other’s quips:
Christina: You have people you only see during heirloom tomato season. I don’t know what they eat the rest of the year!
Ron: They buy like a box a week. It’s like their hedge fund.
When I visited the farm, Christina was 28 weeks pregnant with Stokes Farm’s 7th generation farmer. Christina laughingly explained that she and Ron had met through their mothers and that she “never imagined marrying a farmer and doing this kind of stuff, but I love it so much.”
Christina may have grown up in an urban area but she was just as knowledgeable about the farm as anyone I talked to. Since marrying Ron, Christina has streamlined Stokes Farm’s branding and internet presence, handling the majority of the farm’s marketing. In addition to designing their cute tomato logo, she also created and continues to update the farm’s website and Twitter account.
At 27, Ron co-owns Stokes Farm with his father. His enthusiasm for food and farming is infectious—I’d hazard to say that if you spent a full day with him, you might be inclined to leave your job and start farming. Often when he stopped the tractor to talk about an aspect of the farm, he’d leap from his seat and bring back something for me to smell. Later that night when I emptied out my camera bag, I found 5 herb sprigs at the bottom, along with a pepper.
If you eat their products, you’ll quickly understand what makes the Binaghis so enthusiastic. Their delight in their food is justified. I came home with a bag full of eggplants, heirloom tomatoes, and husk tomatoes, each ripe with flavor. I was half-tempted to stay up all night to find worthy recipes for each product. The quality of Stokes products—70 in all—is so high that all of their restaurant deals have come unsolicited. Today, they source to the likes of Gramercy Tavern, Mercer Kitchen, and Telepan. (See a full list on their website.) Both father and son shared that they were most proud of their tomatoes and herbs, especially rosemary: “they’re our thing”.
Because I visited at the end of July, the 16 greenhouses were mostly empty, but nearly everything else was in full swing. I saw eggplant, squash, 1,000 rosemary plants, rows of basil, acres of tomatoes and peppers, and more herbs than I could name. Certain plants, like lavender, mint, chives, and asparagus, come back each year, while others, like tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and basil, have to be planted at the start of each season.
The Binaghis are savvy about balancing what they plant with consumer demand. They cited examples of products that they assumed would sell that didn’t. Ron III notes:
“We found that people aren’t big on eggplant. People don’t want that big large black one; they want that one Japanese eggplant to dice up and put in their stir fry. People don’t know what to do with them. When you say anything about baking or cooking, like what about eggplant parmesan?, they go ‘oh no, I don’t want to cook!’. People like tomatoes, you can eat them right away.”
Stokes take customer requests and needs seriously, all the while accurately tracking what sells and what doesn’t. And they try to make their products appeal to everyone, so even though they now know that there’s a demand for smaller eggplant, they still grow a few plants of the larger eggplant, knowing that there are still customers who want to cook with them.
Stokes Farm recognizes its unique position: they are a small farm located in an extremely affluent county, 50 miles outside of Manhattan.
Ron Jr. observes:
“We’re so close to the city; I think we have our finger on it more than maybe the average farmer. [We know] more of what’s going on in the food world and in technology world, because we’re so close, we have to be. It’s like thrown on us. We’re under the microscope because it’s an oddity to be a farm this close to the city. Some people think we’re stupid because we haven’t sold and retired…We just like what we do.”
Stokes Farm clearly has ‘their finger’ on the needs of the consumer. If they debut a new or unusual product, Christina creates and prints recipes for it. They offer Stokes Farm re-usable bags to their customers. They sell cut flowers along with their plethora of vegetables. “People like cut flowers. It’s a simple thing,” Ron III says. “It brightens up our stand and it brightens up their place.” The farm recognizes that while growing heirloom tomatoes is more labor intensive and less productive (they can only sell about 50% of what they grow), the demand for the tomatoes is high. “People start asking us in May for heirlooms!,” Christina told me.
While Stokes Farm is very open about their dependence on, and fondness for, their regular customers, they also pointed out how frustrating customer ignorance can sometimes be. You won’t meet friendlier people than the Binaghis. Coupled with that friendliness is a fierce pride in their products and growing methods. Yet it’s fairly common for them to have customers come up to their stands and squeeze their products (especially tomatoes), sniff their products, haggle with them over pricing, and then leave without buying anything! The Binaghis were quick to point out that the majority of their customers are respectful and loyal, but it’s a slow re-education process for others.
Here are a few common myths and comments that Stokes hoped they could clarify — feel free to share these with others!
—They do not go to Florida for the Winter months. In January they go to trade shows; in February they’re already planting their annuals; in March they are gearing up for another market season.
—Contrary to what some farmers’ market lists tell you, there is not a discount at the end of the day. As Ron said, if customers think that every day at 4 pm, everything becomes half price, the customers aren’t going to show up until 4 pm! Stokes wants their customers to see how good their produce looks every day. They may be under a tent, sometimes next to an artisan market, but they are not a flea market. Please do not try to negotiate down the price of an item.
—They do not grow, nor sell, bananas, avocados, or pineapples. Unless global warming “really kicks in”, as Ron III joked, they will never grow or sell these products. (If you want REALLY local avocados, pick up the Frankies Spuntino cookbook, where they discuss growing avocados in your apartment!)
—You can’t tell the ripeness or smell of a tomato by squeezing it or smelling it. If a tomato is soft, it’s because the 10 people before you have squeezed it. You can tell the ripest of a tomato simply from the color (or just trust in the fact that Stokes will be selling ripe tomatoes). The fruit of a tomato carries no smell. What you might smell is the stem, not the actual tomato.
To help dispel some of these myths and actions, Stokes created helpful signs such as “This is how you choose” and “Please do not squeeze or husk, etc” for their farm stand and farmers markets.
As Stokes looks towards the future, the farm remains firmly grounded in the present. At the time of my visit, they were in week 19 of their 40 week market season. Ron Jr. shared that they’re holding their own.
“We’re a recession proof business. People need food. People are starting to understand the connection between the land here and the city. If you don’t shop at our stand, how many farms will be sold? If you do support all those growers, you’re [helping to] keep this land. The upstate land is the city’s watershed.”
Stokes Farm continues to pursue new opportunities. They’re hoping to sell to more neighboring New Jersey restaurants and recently supplied Danny Meyer’s latest restaurant, Maialino, with 800 pounds of soil for its rooftop garden. They remain grateful to their customers, dedicated to the quality of the food they’re growing, and grounded in reality.
“It’s like a big stage and we’re all part of the cast. The customers are the audience. They come. We all have our food. At 7:15, the curtain opens, you have to be on with a game face until 6 pm.”
Find Stokes at these Farmers Markets
Check out their website for even more information!