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Atlanta Farmers Market working to become more user-friendly

The Atlanta State Farmers Market had its origins in Atlanta’s West End in 1939 before moving to the current facility in 1959. In the intervening decades it has sprawled into a 150-acre hub of commerce and transportation so busy it has its own supermarket, restaurants, visitors’ center, gift shop and police force.

Operated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture Markets Division, the market was founded more than 70 years ago 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.

Combined, Georgia’s state Market-1The visitors’ center and the Oak Room restaurant, which serves produce fresh from the marketplace, are staples on the Atlanta Farmers Market. (Photos by Chip Carter)farmers 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 85 percent of those businesses. In 2009, Georgia’s dozen markets brought in receipts totaling almost $1 billion. The Atlanta market brought in more than half that amount and operates in the black with revenues of almost $6 million last year. No wonder it is often called “The World’s Largest Roadside Fruit and Vegetable Stand.”

But these days, the Georgia Department of Agriculture is working hard to repurpose the market not only as a hub of commerce but as a recreational destination for the five million residents of the city of Atlanta and its suburbs.

Given today’s focus on locally grown products, the Georgia Department of Agriculture under the leadership of Commissioner Gary Black has realized that the market represents a potential gold mine for the marketing of Georgia produce — as well as a public relations bonanza. Like most states, Georgia has launched an initiative to draw focus to locally produced products — the “Georgia Grown” program.

In recent months, the department has begun staging open-to-the-public events at the Market in an attempt to maximize the impact of one of Georgia’s great produce resources. Weekend festivals and a focus on drawing families to the market have yielded excellent results.

“The ‘Georgia Grown’ program has been a huge focus of Commissioner Black,” Market Manager Paul Thompson told The Produce News in mid-September, just days before a weekend fall festival that was expected to draw thousands of attendees. “This is our third event of the season and they’re grown really well and been received really well. This was an opportunity to bring a retail presence back to the market and give the public an opportunity to come back and enjoy it. We’re giving people — the general public —an opportunity, a reason to come back to the market.”

Built on a long sloping hillside, viewed from the top the Market looks like a military-industrial 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. Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is less than two miles away. Ever-busy Interstate 75 is just a couple of blocks away and Interstates 85 and 20 are just beyond, connecting the Market to the entire Southeastern United States.

At the highpoint of the hill is the Market’s largest wholesaler, General Produce, which continues to grow, acquiring several new properties on the market in the last 12 months alone. There is also a 25,000-square-foot wholesale supermarket 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 the market’s popular restaurants, the Oakwood Café (which gets all of its vegetables on the market) and the Mexican-themed Taco Rancho.

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. Everywhere, the babble of people doing business in a dozen different tongues spices the air.

Georgia is working hard to capitalize on the market’s power to move local product and fresh produce from around the globe.

“We’re looking at different ways to utilize the entire market and make it more useful for everyone,” Mr. Thompson said. “I feel like I’m still learning things every day and we’re all striving to make this place more efficient and more useful for everyone involved. We’re definitely working to make some difference and make this place better than it is now — and it’s a great place now.”