Five of the state’s farmers markets would close under a proposal to cut costs after the COVID-19 outbreak caused state revenues to plummet.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black told state senators Tuesday that he intended to close the markets as part of his plan to curtail his agency’s spending by $5.6 million. All state agencies have been ordered to cut 14% of their spending in next year’s budget, which takes effect July 1.
The plan would close state-run markets in Cordele, Thomasville, Savannah, Macon and Augusta, cutting 25 positions from the agency’s payroll. The closures would save about $780,000.
“This may be one of the big shockers and certainly it’s one of the less comfortable things to even begin to talk about, given our history and the importance of our marketing division,” Black said during Tuesday’s Senate Appropriations Committee.
The state has been operating farmers markets since 1935 and currently runs nine, with the largest and most profitable located just south of Atlanta.
The five markets on the chopping block now are considered regional markets that serve as a venue for both retail and wholesale dealers. The Cordele market has been considered a major sales and distribution point for watermelons in the summer.
“Watermelons are not sold the way they were 30 years ago,” Black said. “They’re packed largely on the farms. They don’t go to the Cordele market. The brokers for Walmart and Kroger are not there.
“So, Cordele is a matter of how do you lose less? I don’t have a business plan to figure out how we make money at Cordele because it’s real good about 10 weeks out of the year and the rest of the year it’s extremely difficult,” he said.
Black said the facilities are available for local governments and agencies to lease or take over, should anyone offer.
The state’s farmers markets were the focus of a critical state audit in 2018, which first raised the possibility of closing some markets that were in sore need of repair and modernization.
At the time, the audit said that the markets generated about $6.8 million in revenue from leases, gate tickets and truck scale fees and cost about $4 million. The more industry-focused Atlanta market was responsible for about 84% of the cash coming in from the network of markets and about 64% of the total costs.
Black said his department also plans to skip the Georgia National Fair in Perry and the SunBelt Ag Expo in Moultrie this year – arguably the two signature annual events in Georgia agriculture.
Black said he plans to cut vacant and part-time positions. Those in some full-time roles that would be eliminated are to be reassigned duties with the agency. He said 70 people will be affected by his plan, with cuts hitting every program except meat inspection. He said he plans to avoid furloughs.
“It is unrealistic to suggest that this plan will not impact services,” he said.
And his agency would also no longer inspect farms for the state Environmental Protection Division, which is proposing to end the arrangement to cut its own costs.
The division, which currently issues permits for cattle producers and other animal feeding operations, would send out one of its own inspectors instead.
Richard Dunn, the division’s director, said his employees have become increasingly involved in the inspections of farms anyway. It would save the division about $170,000.
But at least one state senator seemed cool to the idea of an EPD employee replacing a Department of Agriculture inspector in a farm setting.
“There’s a little bit different of a view from a farmer’s perspective when that happens,” said Sen. Tyler Harper, an Ocilla Republican and farmer.