Food Issue - A brief history of Atlanta farmers markets

The number of farmers markets has increased exponentially since the mid-90s. A look at how we got here.

Thursday October 16, 2014 04:00 am EDT

Two decades ago, before Michael Pollan had omnivores contemplating dilemmas, before documentaries like Food Inc. set out to unmask the ills of corporate farming, before Barbara Kingsolver endeavored to eat locally for one whole year, the local food movement was relatively foreign to the average American. Unless you lived in the Northeast or on the West Coast, where local food had become a way of life, few consumers cared about local agriculture, let alone that they could feed themselves with it.

But since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking farmers market data in 1994, the number of farmers markets in America has more than quadrupled, from 1,755 to 8,144 in 2013. In 2012, farms across the country sold $1.3 billion in fresh produce directly to consumers through community farmers markets, roadside stands, CSA programs, and more. Ten years ago, there were no more than 20 community farmers markets in the state of Georgia, and five or fewer in Atlanta, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture.

"Imagine San Francisco 30 years ago, I hate to say it but that's where we are," says Celia Barss, 38, the manager and grower at Woodland Gardens Organic farm in Winterville, Ga. Barss and several other farmers, including Charlotte and Wes Swancy of Riverview Farms in Ranger, Ga., and Laurie and Will Moore of Moore Farms and Friends, launched the wildly popular Freedom Farmers Market at the Carter Center in March. Barss spent time farming in Pennsylvania and out west before moving to Atlanta in 2003.

"Both of those areas are very established sustainable farming communities, Barss says. "I got trained in California and there is so much more competition out there."

Atlanta lagged behind regions with larger local food systems like those in the Northeast and in the West, where California's local food crusader Alice Waters had been plugging away since the '70s.

"When I moved to the South I was definitely struck by how much further behind Georgia was in that area. But now," Barss says, "I think there's more opportunity in Atlanta than anywhere in the country."

Over the last 20 years, there has been a nationwide cultural shift in favor of sustainability. The 2008 Farm Bill defines "local" as a product that has traveled "less than 400-miles from its origin," although many people would say the scope is much smaller, falling in the same state or county. In the mid-2000s, Pollan's landmark book The Omnivore's Dilemma got people thinking about where their food was coming from, as well as the social, ethical, and environmental repercussions associated with our modern food system. Public awareness of food production and sourcing soared. Rising obesity rates attracted high-profile advocates for healthier eating such as First Lady Michelle Obama. Food television and shows such as Bravo's "Top Chef" gave chefs an unprecedented level of visibility. The role of the chef shifted from cook to role model, celebrity, educator, and a vital link between the farmers and the eaters of the world.

The robust local food landscape we have in Atlanta was, in many ways, set in motion 20 years ago by a group of trailblazers determined to spread the word of local food. They have made transforming the way Atlantans think about food their life's work.

Morningside Farmers Market, est. 1995

At 10 a.m. on a recent Saturday, the vendors at the Morningside Farmers Market are starting to pack up and load out. The market's founder and one of Atlanta's original local food champions, Ann Brewer, 85, leads me on a stroll from stall to stall and recounts how she and a group of ambitious women came to start Atlanta's first entirely organic community farmers market in 1995.

Brewer retired in the '90s after a 35-year career with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. At the time, she was recently widowed, living in Covington, Ga., and, as she puts it, "looking for something to do."

"Cookbook author Nathalie Dupree was my next-door neighbor and she asked me to help her with one of her cookbooks, Southern Memories. I said I'd be happy to," Brewer says.

Brewer soon met Cynthia Hizer, then AJC food columnist and food stylist for Dupree's book. Hizer had a passion for local food and wrote about it often. She also ran an herb garden in Westside in the late '80s.

"A couple of the old-timey chefs — Scott Peacock was working at the Governor's Mansion, Guenter Seeger was at the Dining Room, and Michael Tuohy Murphy's, Woodfire Grill — they'd go over and leave change in her box for the herbs. They'd just take them and leave the pennies. It was all very honest in those days," Brewer says.

Brewer and Hizer started Georgia Grown Organic Produce, a co-op of about 30 organic farmers based in Brewer's Covington home in 1992. Suddenly, Atlanta chefs were able to work with multiple farms at once, which gave them unprecedented access to the freshest ingredients.

"The farmers would call around 7 and 8 and 9 in the morning and the restaurants would call at 10 and 11 and 12 at night. I'd get all the farmers to send me availability lists and they would bring their produce to my house twice a week," Brewer says. "We'd do it on Tuesdays and Thursdays because most of the restaurants were closed Monday, and they'd get their fresh food on Tuesday and then on Thursday for the weekend. ... Mr. Tom Murphy from Murphy's restaurant had a refrigerated truck and he gave it to us and that was our first truck."

Atlanta's most celebrated chef at the time, Guenter Seeger, quickly became the co-op's biggest customer.

The Swiss-trained chef, 66, hails from Baden-Baden, "the fruit garden of Germany," he says. "In Germany, we would go to these auctions and basically be very close to the producers and the farmers and the land basically. So I got introduced to that very early on."

Seeger came to Atlanta in 1985 and transformed the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead into a world-class dining destination. Seeger struck out on his own in 1997, opening Seeger's in Buckhead. There he cemented his reputation as a visionary in the culinary arts. For Seeger, the Georgia Grown Cooperative was a game changer.

"Ann would bring in people who had these small chicken farms with eggs and then mushroom guys came in, so the variety grew tremendously," Seeger says. "In the beginning, when I came to Atlanta in 1985, I had to reach out to California and Florida because these markets were not developed. Soon, there was a huge network we put together, from fish to produce to meats to poultry and cheeses and dairies. All these products we needed to do the kind of food we wanted to do."

Seeger urged the women of Georgia Grown to use their connections with the local growers to develop a farmers market.

"Seeger said you have to see and feel produce to know if you wanted to serve it in your restaurant. He said, 'You have to start a farmers market. I want the farmers to bring this stuff some place where I can go get it locally and see what it all looks like,'" Brewer says.

On the morning of the first market Brewer, Hizer, and fellow co-op workers Margaret Putnam and Kathy Radford loaded up Brewer's paneled station wagon with extra produce they had requested from some of their growers.

They parked in the lot at 1393 N. Highland Ave., where the Morningside market is still held today. At the time, the adjacent space currently occupied by Ron Eyester's Rosebud, was chef Dan Cosgrove's restaurant Indigo Coastal Grill.

"Dan owned this whole parking lot and had the insurance on it. He let us use the lot and helped us promote our market through his restaurant," Brewer says.

Brewer and company sold everything they had in about an hour.

"The second week we told the growers to bring twice as much, and we were probably there an hour and half," Brewer says. "And then we thought, in order to get some good attendance, we should get somebody like Guenter to come, because otherwise, in order to see him, they'd have to pay $100 to go eat at his restaurant. So we'd get Guenter right in the middle of the parking lot, he'd go out and start cooking, and people would just pack in because they could come and see him and touch him. And he'd do a recipe and he'd autograph it to them and we thought, 'Well, that worked.'"

The Morningside market will celebrate its 20th birthday next year. It is still the state's only all-organic market.

"Brewer was the captain to pull all that together. She was the coach, she had the power and she had the integrity to really put local food in Atlanta where it is today," Seeger says.

Chef-sustained growth, late '90s-early 2000s

"Georgia has always been a large commercial agricultural state — but large farms were not growing for small independent restaurants, and small independent restaurants were not looking for product. That all changed in the mid '90s," says Anne Quatrano, founder of Bacchanalia, one of Atlanta's earliest farm-to-table restaurants.

Quatrano, 55, moved in 1992 to Atlanta from New York, where she had grown accustomed to having access to fresh produce to cook with.

"She just made a commitment to supporting farms, and she bought everything we grew for a number of years. Guenter didn't have the buying power that Anne had because she started so many restaurants, so she could really buy a lot and really help build our farm," Barss says.

Hamstrung by a lack of growers and the lack of public awareness, the few farms in the game such as Crystal Organics, Ashland Farms, and eventually Woodland Gardens mostly sold to the city's first farm-to-table restaurants, including Seeger's, Watershed, and Bacchanalia.

"I always said it was a chef-driven scene in Atlanta, that's really the way it felt when I got here," Barss says.

Decatur Farmers Market, est. 2000; Piedmont Park Green Market, est. 2003; East Atlanta Village Farmers Market, est. 2006

Advocates such as Holly Hollingsworth, who managed the Piedmont Park Green Market from 2004 to 2011, remember what a challenge it was to get shoppers to embrace the local food movement.

"It took a lot to get people to come out to markets, because they didn't understand why. They thought it was going to be more expensive and ... there just wasn't the whole connection between reducing your carbon footprint to when the food was harvested. ... We had to help change patterns on how they purchase food. It took a lot of education," she says.

Organizations like Georgia Organics, which was founded in 1997, played a major role in amassing institutional knowledge of organic farming practices, sustainability, and local foodways that both growers and consumers could access.

"I think we've been a convener and I think the publication of our local food guide, now called the Good Food Guide, has been crucial for the coalescence of the local food movement," says Michael Wall, Georgia Organics' director of programs.

Interest in local food went from a trickle to a flood starting around 2006.

"With the publication of the Local Food Guide, we were able to hand you a chef, a list of all the farms in his neck of the woods. Before the first guide was published in 2007 there wasn't a resource for that. So I think the production of that product has helped the whole state in allowing people to find out where to get food from a real farmer. And it's gotten bigger and bigger over the years. More farmers, more farmers markets, more restaurants, more businesses."

Today, there are more than 142 community farmers markets in Georgia and 26 community farmers markets within a 20-mile radius of Downtown Atlanta. East Atlanta Village Farmers Market founder Jonathan Tescher, 34, moved to Atlanta in 2003. Among other things, Tescher has been a market manager, Georgia Organics staffer, and a mushroom farmer.

"You had all these individuals who, for whatever reason, chose to be in Atlanta, as opposed to other places, who really wanted to create something here. ... You have a small group of people who work real hard and are passionate about something. And that attracts more people, and then at some point, there's a tipping point where it blows up and you have exponential growth," Tescher says.

Tescher launched the EAVFM in 2006, while working on his MBA at Georgia State University. For the first two years, the market was located in the parking lot next door to what was formerly the East Atlanta Art and Antique Bazaar, current day Argosy. There were five or six farmers selling at the market, and Dynamic Dish chef/owner David Sweeney, 45, a dedicated supporter of local sourcing, would come by and sell prepared foods.

"I'd just opened Dynamic Dish, and realized that I wasn't getting customers to come to Edgewood Avenue, so I had to go to the farmers market. And you know, I went to them initially because I was going to buy produce, and then realized, my gosh, I may as well set up here, because there wasn't anybody selling prepared foods, and I was using the ingredients mostly from the farmers anyway, and I had all this great biodegradable packaging," Sweeney says.

The EAVFM grew thanks to grants and sponsorships from businesses in the neighborhood. Tescher worked with the Department of Agriculture to become the first Georgia farmers market to accept EBT in 2008. The following year, Wholesome Wave Georgia, a nonprofit that doubles the value of the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) dollars at participating farmers markets, was founded. Judith Winfrey, 40, current president of Wholesome Wave Georgia's and of PeachDish meal delivery service, and co-owner of Love is Love Farm, who had spent the last 10 years entrenched in the local food scene as a farmer and organizer, took over management of Wholesome Wave and the EAVFM in 2010.

Peachtree Road Farmers Market, est. 2007 & East Lake Farmers Market, est. 2009

In 2007, Restaurant Eugene owner Linton Hopkins, 48, was tired of braving Atlanta traffic just to get to the nearest farmers market.

"That's why I founded the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, that's my neighborhood. ... I used to go to Morningside all the time, but I'm lazy and I didn't want to drive everywhere, and I like staying in my neighborhood. Atlanta commuting is tough," Hopkins says.

That spring, Hopkins was giving a talk at his mother's garden club about how he had fallen in love with farmers markets as a young chef in D.C. He mentioned that he and his wife, Gina, made it to the farmers market every Saturday and how great it would be to have a farmers market in the neighborhood.

"Later a woman came up to me and said, 'You know Sam Candler is the Dean at St. Phillips Cathedral and he's been talking about wanting a farmers market for a long time, too. Maybe you two can get together.' ... So I gave Sam a call, and Sam knows my dad, and I said, 'You know, we could build a farmers market here. We buy from a lot of farms at my restaurants and we could put it in the parking lot.' And he said we could use the parking lot for free. ... And then boom — within three months of that talk at the garden club we had a farmers market that summer. And now it's what it is today."

Lauren Carey, 35, has managed the Peachtree Road Farmers Market since 2009.

"When I began running the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, we had about 25 vendors and a much shorter season. It was like the market wasn't able to financially sustain itself as it was. We had a lot of passion, but it was really a challenge to be self-sustaining," Carey says. "Now in the market's eighth season, we have about 76 vendors in rotation, 50-52 every week along with a weekly chef demo, weekly community activities, and lots of wonderful partnerships with other nonprofits in the area. It's grown amazingly."

Grant Park Farmers Market and Community Farmers Markets, est. 2011

By the time Winfrey was named EAVFM manager, Tescher had become the go-to resource for anyone that wanted to start a farmers market in Atlanta. About a mile away, neighbors in Grant Park were voicing their desire to start a market in the historic park. Once they reached out to the EAVFM for guidance, Tescher and Winfrey began to explore ways for two markets within a mile of each other to not only succeed, but also thrive.

For Tescher, the answer was employing at least one full-time staff member and starting an overarching organization to manage the interests of both markets.

Katie Hayes was up to the task.

"At some point Hayes came to EAVFM to be a peanut vendor, and I got to know her background," Tescher says. "I knew she had grant experience, and I knew that she grew up in the Atlanta philanthropic community, so I was like, man, she's the perfect person. I was like, 'Hey, are you interested in creating a job for yourself? I have a bit of budget and I can pay you to run East Atlanta Farmers Market and get Grant Park going. We can build that into a full-time job.' And she said she was into that."

The day before Grant Park Farmers Market's inaugural opening day, Hayes and a handful of volunteers and organizers were stressing.

"We were so worried that the market wouldn't be a success, or that no one had heard of it, that the Friday night before the market opened, we were all dressed up as vegetables, going door to door in the neighborhood, going, 'The farmers market is opening on Sunday!' And everyone was like, 'Yeah ... we know. You crazy people dressed as strawberries.' And we're like, 'OK ... just making sure!" Hayes says.

Around 1,800 people showed up for Grant Park's first opening day. The market continues to serve around 2,000 shoppers every Sunday during market season.

As the planning for the Grant Park market began, Tescher, Hayes, and Winfrey, along with Carey of Peachtree Road Farmers Market and other local food advocates, started Community Farmers Markets, a nonprofit "that leverages efficiencies in farmers market management in order to celebrate local food and farmers while working to emphasize community involvement and empowerment and stimulating the local economy. CFM is part business incubator, part event management and part grass-roots activism," Winfrey said in an email.

Hayes is executive director of CFM, which was modeled after organizations such as Market Umbrella in New Orleans, Greenmarket farmers markets in New York City, and Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture in San Francisco. Each of these organizations employs a small, full-time staff to manage networks of neighborhood farmers markets.

"Jonathan, Katie, and I had the opportunity to help start the Grant Park Market because those very passionate neighbors came to us for help. We saw that as an opportunity to create an umbrella organization that would really help celebrate not just local food and farmers, but also work to emphasize the community empowerment that comes up around a farmers market," Winfrey says.

Freedom Farmers Market, est. 2014

The success of the Freedom Farmers Market is a barometer for how far Atlanta has come in the last decade. Since its launch in spring 2014, the Freedom Market has maintained consistently high attendance. Barss attributes a lot of the market's early success to location (the market is located at the Carter Center near the intersection of the Beltline's Eastside Trail and the Freedom Parkway Trail), but she and Freedom Market's other founders took many factors into consideration in the planning stages.

"I did a lot of research into so many farmers markets ... like how do you maintain that integrity of the farmers in the farmers market? We have a 60 percent farmer base and the rest is prepared foods and that kind of thing," Barss says. "Another big thing for me was shade because of how hot it is in Atlanta. You don't want to be on the asphalt in the blazing sun. It's not an enjoyable shopping experience. The other thing was having the space for community gathering, and that means having food for them to buy, to eat. They want to buy pastries and have a coffee and sit down and have a chat after they do their shopping, or before they do their shopping. We were looking for a space where we could come and create that atmosphere. Having music — you have to create the ambiance just like any other businesses are thinking about."

Earlier this year, Seeger returned to Atlanta for a private event. While he was here, he stopped to visit with Brewer at the Morningside Market.

"The market is very small, but all the produce was so pristine. It beats New York. I go to [http://www.grownyc.org/greenmarket/manhattan-union-square-m|Union Square Greenmarket] probably twice a week, and of course it's so much bigger, and it's four days a week. I would say maybe only three or four out of these many vendors are doing some really spectacular and pristine product. But what our people in Atlanta do I think is far beyond what these guys do in New York City," Seeger says.

The number of farmers markets opening both nationally and in Atlanta seems to have plateaued, according to the USDA. The next phase for local food advocates will be sustaining this growth. Critics argue that the scene has reached its saturation point; that the markets are now leeching business from each other. Though 2014 had a hugely successful market take off in the Freedom Market, the East Lake Farmers Market was the first Atlanta market to close for good this fall.

"Now we need to figure out a way to support local foods as lifestyle rituals and habits, and not just a fun thing to do," Hayes says.

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