Athens Farmer’s Market: Two Years Later

by Chari Sutherland

On Tuesday, Roots Farm and Cedar Grove Farm workers were preparing for participation in the Athens Farmer’s Market (AFM) opening on May11.  At Roots, Sara Callaway knelt in moist, black soil, and added lettuce seedlings for red cross lettuce.  At Cedar Grove, a worker used a pitchfork to toss natural compost into the garden where planting will begin.  With the opening of the AFM only seven weeks away, growers are busy tending their gardens. 

“It’s an interesting challenge to have food coming out early spring,” Callaway said, who is manager of the Roots Farm.  “We put a good amount of effort in planting things that grow fast with a 30- to 60-day turnaround.”  She said lettuces, radishes and arugula grow fast.  Onions, planted in the fall, will be ready by the market opening day.  After mid-April frost risk goes down and growers can pretty much plant anything, said Jay Payne, president of the AFM and owner of Cedar Grove Farm in Crawford, Georgia.

Farmer markets have been becoming more and more popular.  The USDA reported in August, 2009 that there were approximately 4,900 farmers markets operating nationwide, this includes 215 new markets added since 2008.

The interest in farmer’s markets is evidenced by the attendance level increases over the last two years that the AFM has been open. 

Payne said, “We had 1200 visitors on average per market last year for over 34,000 total.”  He hopes to see an increase in those numbers this year.  “I would like to think that the 20 farmers will feed at least 2000-3000 customers a week this season.”

Board member, Christy Jenkins, was instrumental in the upstart of the market.  She said when the market began in 2008 the goals were “ to establish a stable market with regular clientele, to establish consistency in presentation of products, and to make it so people are aware of the market in the area.”  

Craig Page of Promoting Local Agriculture and Cultural Experience (PLACE) was also involved in planning the AFM.  “There definitely had a learning curve the first year,” he said.

Payne said, “On our first day, we had 3000 people show up on Saturday.  It was a disaster.  We had this knot of people in one spot.”  Produce sold out in an hour, he said.  That indicated the AFM would be a great success.

Here are some statistics:

  • First year’s weekly patronage averaged 950 people per week
  • Second year’s weekly patronage averaged 1200 a week
  • At peak season, 1500 customers were the average.   
  • In the first year 11 farmers participated.  By the end of that year, there were 16.
  • There were 18 farmers the second year. 
  • This year, 30 farmers have applied.  Only 25 will be chosen for full-time slots and up to six more for part-time. 

“This is not a market where farmers can drop in anytime,” Payne said.  “Many farmers’ markets started and failed because they didn’t have a consistent level of produce.”   Growers must commit to either a “Full Membership” which entitles the grower to participate on all Saturdays.  This level of membership costs $400.  A “Full Membership Plus”, which costs $700, enables the grower to participate on all Saturdays and Tuesdays in the season.  Growers must be

Certified Naturally Grown, have farms must be located within the 26-county area around Athens and must submit to the philosophy, ‘If you don’t grow it, you can’t sell it.’

Callaway said the rates and requirements are reasonable. “If your production size is anything, you’re going to make at least $300 every week,” she said.  “That ends up being about $9000 for the season if its 29 weeks.”

Cutting out the middle man such as transport costs, has had two affects, Payne said.  Farmers are growing more product and the money they make is staying in the community. 

Growers in the AFM are usually small farmers who are cultivating gardens of around two or three acres. There are some with only a half acre and one with about 13 acres.  Because of their small size, most growers in the market tend not to be Certified Organic (a USDA managed program). Certified Naturally Grown is a type of organic or sustainable farming that “follows organic thinking”, Payne said, but costs less.  All growers in the AFM use natural materials or techniques, avoiding any synthetic products.

The market has several changes this year.  Payne said he hopes the Tuesday Downtown Market from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Little Kings Bar parking lot will bring in consumers who can’t normally come Saturday mornings, such as students and downtown workers.

In past years, AFM has only been accepting cash or checks.  This year, they have obtained an Electronic Benefits Transfer device (EBT) that will enable them to sell to  food stamp recipients.  These customers will be able to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) debit cards to purchase food.

Page said parking had been a problem.  After 2009, most of the kinks were worked out, he said.  “An upcoming problem we may face is space,” Craig said.  Payne said he hopes the AFM will acquire its own space in the next few years instead of renting.

As a grower, Callaway’s has found that she has to narrow down the diversity of produce she grows because buyers want the more common items. “People want butter head lettuce, for example.  Not speckled romaine, red romaine, or oak leaf.  They won’t buy them.”  In tomatoes, however, customers seem to like not just the red slicers but also pink and yellow varieties. 

Payne encourages the consumers to think differently about food varieties.  “The farmer’s market has varieties of things you can’t get in a grocery store because they don’t hold up as long.”  For instance, Cedar Grove alone will sell at least four different varieties of kale and three varieties of greens.  At the market there will be growers hawking blueberries, blackberries, kale, brocalli, lettuces, carrots, squashes, and various varieties of potatoes.  Cedar Grove’s most popular item is the purple hull, Texas pink-eye peas. 

Looking ahead, Page is hopeful that state laws will be relaxed to allow local meat and dairy producers to participate in the market.

Payne said he’d like to see the market have twice as many farmers in 10 years, feeding a community with more fresh, local, wholesome food, rather than produce that might travel thousands of miles before the consumer ever sees it.  “My vision was to create something lasting so people would say ‘They have a really great market in Athens’.” 

At the outset of this venture two years ago, Page said he’d hoped that the market would create a social space for the community to come together.  It has become that.  It has also had the effect of helping growers create personal relationships with customers.  “Because the farmers are there, consumers have confidence in our products,” Payne said.  

The Athens Farmer’s Market will run from May 11 to November 20 in Bishop Park at 705 Sunset Drive.  Saturday hours will be 8 to 12.  Tuesday’s Downtown Market hours will be 4 to 7.  See the Farmer’s Market website for more information, http://athensfarmersmarket.net

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