Black Dirt, Big Bounty
The Morgiewicz family grows great produce in one of North America’s most fertile regions—just an hour from one of the world’s largest cities.
By Des Keller | Photos By Des Keller and Greg M. Cooper
Despite intermittent rain this August morning, throngs of customers press against tables covered with onions, radishes, carrots and eggplants of various hues. We’re in the heart of the Bronx, in New York City, and the office buildings, apartments and traffic are squeezed together as tightly as the throngs jostling for sweet corn. Still, the produce displayed offers a real sense of nature’s bounty.
This is the Morgiewicz Produce stand in the shaded green oasis that is Claremont Park. From May to November, once a week the daylong Harvest Home Mt. Eden Farmers’ Market puts fresh, local produce in the hands of residents whose access to such fare is limited, at best.
There is virtually no English being spoken among the myriad customers, but Dan Morgiewicz, who is running the stand, knows well what they want. “We have to parcel out the sweet corn so we have a supply throughout the day,” says the burly farmer, rivulets of sweat running down his temple. When a new container of corn is dumped onto the table, Dan and his cohorts have to referee how many ears a given customer can pull aside and sift through in search of the choicest ears.
But it’s not just the sweet corn. Every year, Dan, his brothers Joe and David, and other family members, grow up to 40 different types of produce—from artichokes to scallions to eggplants. The sheer variety, quality and bulk of their labors make them marquee attractions. This farmers’ market is just one of 11 around the city at which they sell in a typical year. Wholesalers also buy their produce for sale to restaurants and other markets, in The Big Apple.
The Morgiewicz family coaxes all of their crops from 150 acres in what is known as The Black Dirt Region. The area, which is located about an hour outside the city, covers approximately 26,000 acres of Orange County, N.Y., and Sussex County, N.J., and is the remnant of what was once the bottom of an ancient glacial lake. Outside of the Florida Everglades, this is one of the largest concentrations of so-called “muck” soils in the United States.
“Over the course of time—thousands of years—constantly decaying vegetation left these peat-like soils,” says Joe. “In some areas here, the soil is more than 100 feet deep and consists of 100% organic matter.” Compare that to some of this country’s prime crop areas that have soils with just 3% to 5% organic matter.
Despite being so close to New York City, the region’s frequent flooding by the Wallkill River and dark, poorly drained soils deterred the area’s development for anything but farming. Still, it wasn’t until a drainage canal was built in 1835 and an influx of Polish and German farmers familiar with such soils arrived that vegetable production became firmly established.