As a young man, Claudio Gonzalez dreamed of a different life, not farming the family's land in the Sierra Madre mountains in Puebla, Mexico.
He came to New York at age 20 and worked inside the dark factories upstate, where he began to "miss the freedom to be under the sun and to see daylight naturally unfold," he said in Spanish as he stood behind his farm stand in the South Bronx this week.
The sun, the earth and the seasons beckoned Gonzalez to return to the land. Twenty-seven years later, he owns his own farm in Pine Island in Orange County, and South Bronx residents have come to rely on him for fresh fruit and vegetables not available in their neighborhood grocery stores.
"To farm is to create life," said Gonzalez, who was selling cauliflower, eggplant, cabbage and green tomatoes this week.
"I am very grateful to be back in the sun and with the earth," he said as several customers wished him luck with his next harvest. "If no one cultivates the land, there is no life," he said.
Nine years ago, Gonzalez first hauled his fruit and vegetables to the South Bronx in his car. Today, he fills two trucks with fruits and vegetables twice a week to sell at a farmers market in Tremont Park.
The farmers market was started by neighborhood community garden volunteers, who persuaded Long Island and upstate farmers that it would be worth their time and money to haul produce to the South Bronx. The volunteers helped farmers cut through red tape so they could accept WIC (Women, Infants and Children) coupons and food stamps.
Since then, the market has evolved with an ethnic twist that caters to Jamaican and Mexican palates. Gonzalez offers specialty jalapeños and other peppers, while farmer David Haughton sells callaloo, a collard green indigenous to Jamaica.
"It has a strong taste and is rich in vitamin C," said Haughton, adding customers like to juice the callaloo greens.
Haughton came to the United States from Jamaica in 1988 and picked apples upstate.
"I love farming," he said. "I grew up in Jamaica. We planted watermelon, scallions, thyme, sweet corn. . . . Now I own a 30-acre farm" in Ulster County, he said proudly.
Karen Washington, who launched the volunteer group City Farms Market, with her neighbors, was in her glory this week when old friends stopped by to say hello and reminisce about the pioneer days when they grew food in their backyards and vacant lots, and endeavored to get farmers to come to their neighborhoods.
"I had some dirt and I could have cemented over it, or put in a lawn," she said, laughing. "Instead I grew food for me and my two children," she said, happily showing off the community garden's cucumbers and collard greens.
Terry White, mother of two, was using her WIC coupons to buy beans and cauliflower. "I cook everything -- cabbage, collard greens, carrots. I like coming here because the food is always fresh and good. You can even eat it raw," she said.