At Roots Farm
, farm manager Sara Callaway kneels in moist, black soil, tending red cross lettuce seedlings. At Cedar Grove Farm
, a worker is spreading natural compost into soil as strawberries, sugar snap peas and salad greens are coming up — at just the right time. The Athens Farmers Market's
opening day is only days away— it begins its second season on May 11.
The Athens market will run from May 11 to Nov. 20. A Tuesday afternoon market has been added this year to be held from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Little Kings Bar parking lot at the corner of Hull and Hancock streets in downtown Athens. The Saturday morning market will continue in Bishop Park at 705 Sunset Drive from 8 a.m. to noon. Jay Payne, president of the Athens Farmers Market, hopes the Tuesday market will bring in customers who can't normally come Saturday mornings, such as students and downtown workers.
Fans of fresh
Farmers markets are becoming more and more popular. The USDA reported in August 2009 that there were about 4,900 farmers markets operating nationwide, including 215 new markets added since 2008.
The interest in the Athens Farmers Market is evidenced by the attendance level increases over the last two years the market has been open.
"We had 1,200 visitors on average per market last year for over 34,000 total," says Payne. He hopes to see an increase in those numbers this year. "I would like to think that the 20 farmers will feed at least 2,000-3,000 customers a week this season."
Craig Page of Promoting Local Agriculture and Cultural Experience (PLACE
), involved in planning the Athens market, says, "There definitely was a learning curve the first year."
On the first day, 3,000 people showed up. The produce sold out in an hour. "It was a disaster," Page says. It ultimately was a successful year.
To show the market's progress, here are some statistics:
- In its first year, the market saw an average of 950 people per week
- Second year's weekly patronage averaged 1,200 a week
- At peak season, the market saw an average of 1,500 customers per week
- 11 farmers signed up to participate at the outset; by the end of the season, 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 says. "Many farmers markets started and failed because they didn't have a consistent level of produce." Growers must commit to a membership fee, must be Certified Naturally Grown
, have farms 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."
Growers participating in the Athens market are usually small farmers who are cultivating gardens of about two or three acres. Because of their small size, most growers in the market are not Certified Organic (a USDA managed program). Payne says Certified Naturally Grown is a type of organic or sustainable farming that follows organic principles but costs the growers less. All growers in the Athens market use natural materials or techniques, avoiding any synthetic products.
Payne encourages consumers to think differently about food varieties. "The farmers 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 other growers hawking blueberries, blackberries, broccoli, lettuces, carrots, squashes and various varieties of potatoes. Cedar Grove's most popular item is the purple hull, Texas pink-eye peas. With tomatoes, Roots Farm has found that customers seem to like the pink and yellow varieties as well as the more common red slicers.
The Athens Farmers Market has become a place where people can come together and socialize, Page beams. It also has helped growers create personal relationships with customers. "Because the farmers are there, consumers have confidence in our products," says Payne.
Photo: Jill Clardy/Flickr