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Atlanta State Farmers Market celebrates 50 years as commerce hub

by Chip Carter | October 18, 2009
FOREST PARK, GA -- Often called "the world's largest roadside fruit and vegetable stand," the Atlanta State Farmers Market is actually a sprawling 150-acre hub of commerce and transportation so busy that it has its own supermarket, restaurant, visitors center, gift shop and police force.

Operated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture's Markets Division, the market was founded in 1939 on a 16-acre tract in Atlanta's West End under a directive from the state general assembly. In 1959, the market moved to its present location in a middle-class industrial district sandwiched just minutes between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

There are a dozen Georgia farmers markets, but the Atlanta State Farmers Market is by far the largest. Combined, the state markets are home to more than 150 companies employing 3,700 farmers, packers, retailers, receivers and staff with an estimated payroll over $75 million. The Atlanta market is home to 126 of those businesses. In FY2009, Georgia's dozen markets brought in receipts totaling almost $1 billion, and the Atlanta market brought in over half of that amount. The state's markets generated actual revenues to the state of more than $6.9 million ($5.7 million in Atlanta alone) in FY2009 against expenses of just under $5 million.

The Atlanta market employs 44 full-time staffers, plus part-timers, including a 12-member inspections department, an 11-person maintenance crew and a police force of 17 individuals.

Like the city it serves, the Atlanta market is the showcase for the rest of the state. Open to the public around the clock every day except Christmas, more than 4,000 people visit the site in a typical 24-hour timeframe.

"You can find almost any type of produce at the Atlanta farmers market," a spokesperson for the Georgia Department of Agriculture told The Produce News. "Most restaurants in Atlanta receive their produce from the market because our wholesalers are able to acquire the freshest produce from around the world."

General line, specialty houses, vegetable houses, pre-cut packaging, packers, re-packers, purveyors, processors, egg and poultry purveyors, wholesale grocers and vendors, meat marketers, floral, hamper house, and trucking companies occupy 870,799 square feet of climate-controlled space, 450,616 of which is cooler space and another 16,431 is freezer space. There are acres and acres of outdoor sheds with hundreds of stalls featuring produce from truck farmers, consignment sellers and mom-and-pop operators.

Built on a long sloping hillside, viewed from the top, the market looks like a military complex, complete with high security fences and manned entry gates. At least 100 trucks pay to load or unload each day, not including the dozens that operate for the market's tenants. A steady stream of cars and pickups enter and exit. Rail lines crisscross the property. Ever-busy Interstate 75 is just a couple of blocks away.

At the highpoint of the hill are the market's largest wholesaler, General Produce, and a 25,000-square-foot wholesale supermarket, Market Grocery Co., that draws shoppers from across metropolitan Atlanta. The middle portion of the slope is occupied by most of the Market's 37 wholesale vendors. At the bottom are acres of open-air stalls, maintenance and laboratory facilities, a 26,000-square-foot exhibition hall, and an administrative center featuring offices, a gift shop, a visitors center and a restaurant, the Oakwood Caf?. Manager Dwayne Robinson said that the Oakwood draws dozens of devoted diners daily who make the trip to the market just for the down-home fare, which always prominently features farm-fresh produce.

Across from the administrative building are 18 open-sided concrete docks, built in rows several football fields long and topped with peaked roofs to fend off the Georgia sun. Divided into 576 stalls, they serve as headquarters for an international army of small vendors. Arrays of multi-hued produce line the docks like so many open boxes of crayons. Volkswagen-sized pumpkins disembark from tractor-trailers. Everywhere, the babble of people doing business in a dozen different tongues spice the air.

While the Atlanta market focuses on Georgia-grown products when possible, demand in the nation's eighth-largest metropolitan area means variety. In FY2009, the market moved more than $41 million worth of in-state-grown products and another $475 million worth of imports from the rest of the country and around the world.

Many of the operators at the open-air stalls are like Jimmy Gray, who for eight years has brought goods to the market on consignment for neighborhood gardeners and small-scale farmers. Semi-retired due to back problems, he sells bushels of peas, baskets of scuppernongs, watermelons -- whatever happens to be in season. What started as a hobby to "give me something to do" has turned into a steady business. A year ago, he leased additional space on the dock. "This is what I grew up around," said Mr. Gray, who farmed with his family in Butler, GA. "And this is the way they used to do it. I'm not like one of the big companies, but anything you contribute, you help the whole market."

At the far end of the complex are eight sheds with 88,000 square feet of space devoted to floral and nursery stock, and the gleaming new offices and warehouse of the Nickey Gregory Co. Inc., the market's second-largest wholesaler. Having outgrown older facilities, the Nickey Gregory now stands at the bottom of the hill like a bookend sentinel to General Produce at the top.

As Mr. Gray wiled away his day shelling peas and conversing with customers, things inside the Gregory Co. were moving a mile a minute. A long command center just inside the front door was manned by sales staff on both sides who simultaneously peered at computer terminals and talked, tweeted and texted on phones. The most visible spot is occupied by company President Nickey Gregory, who prefers not to be sequestered in an office, though there is plenty of room in the new space. The new warehouse is a state-of-the-art maze of cold rooms and storage facilities, including some with automated elevators to maximize space and rotation of product.

The juxtaposition between Mr. Gray's produce stall and the space-age Nickey Gregory Co. provides a perfect example that captures the contrasts that define Atlanta and its farmers market - old meets new, classic meets modern, country mouse meets city mouse. By all accounts, it is a successful model. Even in dour economic times, the market is prosperous; sales for FY2009 were $517.8 million. By contrast, FY2006 sales were $498.7 million.

"The market has weathered the current economic downturn very well, and its future looks very bright," said a Georgia Department of Agriculture spokesperson.

Renovations since 2007 have set the stage for continued success. General improvements were made to the facilities, the wholesale supermarket was expanded, a cut lettuce and coleslaw operation grew to 50,000 square feet, 23,000 square feet of cooler space was added, and the Market Exhibit Hall was completely renovated. The renovation also provided a home for the Georgia Grown Visitors Center, which is operated by the Atlanta Produce Dealers Association.

The renovations were paid for via bond issues, and more improvements are planned. The market recently received $1.2 million in American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus money to install more efficient lighting that will save the market and its tenants more than $200,000 a year in energy costs.

(For more on Atlanta, see the Oct. 19, 2009, issue of The Produce News.)