Lawmakers study new state authority to boost sagging farmers’ markets

Senate study committee members Wednesday focused on ways to better promote agriculture in the Peach State as they toured the Atlanta Farmers Market. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

A new $11 million staging area inside the Atlanta State Farmers Market stands out from the rest of the aging buildings that sit on a 150-acre open air facility that debuted in 1959.

The 72,000 square-foot addition provides Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice more space to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables. The new project is a rarity for this Forest Park farmers’ market that became cramped as it grew into a prime distribution hub for fruits and vegetables headed to wholesalers, school systems, hospitals and hotels throughout the Southeast.

Wednesday afternoon, a tour of the new distribution center followed a state Senate committee meeting focused on ways to better promote agriculture in the Peach State. Those ideas include considering the potential of creating a Georgia Agricultural Marketing Authority to boost financial stability for the state’s farmers markets.

The Atlanta Farmers Market is billed as one of the largest of its kind in the world and is one of nine farmers markets operated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Roughly 100 small businesses, including trucking and recycling companies, wholesalers, processors and more are based at the Atlanta location.

Tenants inside the Atlanta market say they’re pouring money into the maintenance of their older buildings.

 A 2018 state audit determined Georgia’s  farmers’ markets needed a refresh and were in need of repairs and improved infrastructure. That is still largely the case three years later.

“There are things that have been deferred for years and years and are starting to catch up to us,” said David Collins III, president of Phoenix Wholesale.

A new state-level authority could provide some financial independence, said Matthew Kulinski, deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Grown marketing division. It would become easier to issue bonds, raise money for capital and plan for the long haul.

The state will spend about $7.1 million this year to promote Georgia farmers, which includes funding for the state-run farmers markets, the Georgia Grown program and other marketing efforts here and around the globe.

There’s room for economic growth at some of the markets, according to Georgia’s top agricultural official, such as renting space, refrigeration space and enticing more farming businesses.

“Some business structure will get us operating in a way that we can build on sound (business) principles,” Agricultural Commissioner Gary Black said during Wednesday’s committee meeting.

The Atlanta Farmers Market makes up the bulk of the revenue of Georgia’s market program. It netted $3.3 million during the last budget year, which was the overall profit after accounting for results from the other eight locations.

Georgia’s scattered farmers’ markets deliver mixed results from Savannah to Augusta, Macon, Valdosta, Cordele, Moultrie, Thomasville and Cairo. The Macon and Cordele farmers’ markets are money pits, losing a combined $147,000 in fiscal 2019, according to figures from the Senate Research Office.  Meanwhile, farmers’ markets in Valdosta and Thomasville consistently ring up profits.

Proponents say creating an agricultural authority will get more Georgia-based farmers involved. The Atlanta market has become too focused on wholesalers, leaving local growers behind as they deal with tough regulations, some lawmakers and farmers say.

“I would be comfortable if a Georgia farmer is getting a break, but I don’t know if I care that a Florida farmer is getting a break,” committee member and Majority Caucus Vice Chairman Larry Walker III said.

Attention is still focused on helping local farmers, but it is “a completely different universe” from the business model for the Atlanta market compared to several decades ago, Black said.

“Farmers markets are as popular today as they ever have been but they’re different,” he said. “Georgia farms still come in (to the Atlanta market) everyday. It’s just… they work with these businesses for the distribution of their products.”

The next study committee meeting will focus on promoting other areas of agribusiness in Georgia, Walker said.

“The (legislative) bill, at least in my humble opinion, is too important to rush through,” the Perry Republican said.

Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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