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,

Athens food bank operating above board

by Chari Sutherland

There was a bevy of activity at the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia last Wednesday- a busy day at the food bank since mid-week is usually the time food pantries restock their shelves, said Tonya Pass, Programs Coordinator.

The parking lot was full of vans and trucks, all from agencies that provide services in the community, such as emergency shelters or food pantries.  Large, hand trucks piled high with boxes of food were being loaded into vans.  Inside the warehouse, other “shoppers” (representatives from the agencies) were picking out food from bins and lower levels of the warehouse shelves. 

The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia is non-profit and serves a 14-county area.  It is located in Athens on Newton Bridge Road.  It is one of nine food banks in Georgia according to the Department of Human Resources website.  In total, the food bank supplies food to 240 partner agencies, all of which are nonprofit.  Sixty-five of those agencies are within the Athens-Clarke County area, including the Salvation Army and the Athens Homeless Shelter.  Documents and interviews indicated the food bank is operating well in the area they serve, with some minor problems.

Some findings were:

  • About 12% of  partner agencies are not completing required reports to the food bank in timely fashion
  • The food bank’s 2008 tax report was not accessible to the public
  • Oversight agencies and the food bank itself weren’t forthcoming with reports, sighting confidentiality or being unaware of compliance reports requested

Depending on the product, the food bank reports the use of the product and how many families served.  The food bank sends required monthly reports to the Department of Human Resources of the State of Georgia, the USDA and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).  By doing so, they are able to get more food items. 

Regarding the required monthly reports partner agencies have to give the food bank, George McGrady, Agency Relations Coordinator, said via email that reports are required by these government agencies to show who receives the food (income levels, age of recipients, employed/unemployed, etc).  Also, a temperature log is required to show prevention in loss of food and food safety.  Agencies must also keep a monthly meal calendar to help keep track of how many meals they served and which meals contained USDA products. 

McGrady said about 88% of the partner agencies are reporting on time and about another 5% are doing things properly and according to regulations.  There are a few agencies that are not complying by sending in their reports.  “We are trying to weed (them) out,” McGrady said. “We’re trying to find out if they want to continue to remain active and if so to make sure they get everything in order and keep it that way.”

Pass said the food bank reports to Feeding America, a national agency which oversees food banks, shelters and pantries that disburse food.  Calls to that agency for more information were unsuccessful.  The Feeding America communications representative, Keisha Miller, responded to queries via email that Feeding America could not comment on the operations of Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.   She wrote, “Feeding America’s information in regard to food bank ratings is confidential.”

Feeding America’ website did provide some information on numbers served, counties served and the like.  This information, however, was similar to all the information in the food bank’s 2009 annual report.  The pounds of food and the numbers of persons served are the same as listed in their tax report. 

The 2007 income tax statement was the most recent posted to the food bank’s website.  It lists their direct public support as over $7 million, government contributions (which includes grants) at over $34 thousand and total revenue at a little over $8 million.

The food bank has a regular staff of 18.   The number of Volunteers vary at the food bank.  Cynthia Griffith, Checkout Manager, said, “We could have at least 20 to 30 in a day.” 

Griffith, who has worked at the food bank for six years, said the food bank is able to help feed people who are in need at a better price.  They are able to shop for less money, she said.  As example, she pulled out a purchase order completed that morning.  The agency (unnamed for confidentiality) bought 97 pounds of food at a retail price of $145, but  only paid $14.22.  That was a savings of $131.28. 

In the smaller warehouse, connected to the main building which houses the administration offices, as well, shoppers come in to “shop”.  The food donated is sorted in the salvage room by category and expiration dates.  Then it is moved to the small warehouse in bins and boxes.  Representatives from agencies such as homeless shelters or food pantries come in any day from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.   If they have a large order or don’t have time to pick out the food, agencies can order food online.  Online orders are processed in the large warehouse.  Orders must be picked up within 24 hours of the order being placed. 

The food bank also has special food programs offered to the community.  Food 2 Kids benefits school children.  “Counselors work with us, giving us the names of kids in need,” Griffith said.  “Every Thursday, volunteers come pack bags of food—enough for three meals.  The bags are given to the kids on Friday at school.”  In 2009, this program distributed 44,098 pounds of food.

The Brown Bag Program is for senior citizens.  Seniors can come in and sign up for this program.  It allows them one large, brown paper bag of food per week.  Senior participants can come pick the food up, or have it delivered to them by volunteers.  This program reportedly distributed 49,663 pounds of food. 

The food bank’s 2009 annual report states that 2,267,709 pounds of food was distributed (including total meals of 1,757,914) in Clarke County at a value of over three million dollars.  Their community outreach increased by 1.1 million pounds of food over the last year. 

Lisa Gillespie, of New Beginnings Ministry, praised the food bank.  “I don’t know how we would do it without them.”  New Beginnings feeds and shelters 60 women in Martin, Georgia.  “They have our order ready on time and it’s accurate with very little spoilage.”  Gillespie said the only problem she’s seen is the food bank’s ability to provide food in the winter.  “They hardly have anything and this seems to be consistent.”

Pastor Earl Delmarter of Healing Place in Athens, a men’s shelter, also feels the food bank does a good job.  “They authentically want to see hunger removed from our community,” he said.  He said the food bank’s training on how to distribute food is helpful.  The food bank helps Healing Place feed dozens of men throughout the year, Delmarter said.