Originally created 05/07/00

Area farmers market evolves



There's more for sale at Augusta's state farmers market than just Georgia peaches and Vidalia onions.

The decades-old complex off Fourth Street has become a hot zone for a handful of wholesale distributors who lease space at the state facility to sell everything from adult diapers to genetically engineered hormones for dairy cows.

Combined, the companies generate annual sales of $160 million to $200 million, according to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which manages the six-acre Augusta site and a dozen others throughout the state.

"We're shipping to UPS every day," said Donna Arrington, supervisor of Carole Fabrics' product sample distribution center, one of the Augusta market's largest nonagricultural tenants.

The custom fabric maker uses the facility to send product sample books to interior decorators and designers around the world.

Just east of the Carole Fabrics facility are the offices of Mtek Inc., an information technology consulting firm.

To the north is Federal Medical Supply, an Augusta-based wholesaler that supplies area nursing homes and assisted-living centers with medical supplies.

And at the south end lies the Richmond County vehicle tag office.

How agricultural is that?

"We don't have the farmers we use to have," explains state Agricultural Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "Our first interest is trying to accommodate agriculture and agribusiness. If no agricultural source is available, we will rent it to another tenant. It doesn't make sense to let a good piece of property stand vacant."

Companies don't mind being located in a farmers market because the leases are very affordable (warehouse space leases at around $4 a square foot, well below the market average) and the location is secure.

"They have people out here at night," said Mike Huff, Federal Medical's operations manager. "We don't have to worry about people breaking into our trucks and things like that."

Not all of the market's tenants are nonagricultural. One of the largest agribusiness companies at the complex is regional meat supplier Shapiro Packing Co., which runs a 24-hour packaging and distribution facility for hamburger and other beef products processed at its slaughterhouse on New Savannah Road.

The market's third-largest tenant, life sciences giant Monsanto Co., uses the site to distribute the company's new bovine hormone Posilac, which increases milk production in dairy cows.

On-site officials for the company, which recently merged with Pharmacia Upjohn, declined to comment on the operations. However, Tim Reece, senior manager for Augusta's farmers market, acknowledged Posilac is the single most valuable product sold at the facility.

Statewide, farmers market sales reach into the billions.

Atlanta, whose farmers market serves as a regional distribution center, is home to several big-name tenants, such as national food service giant Sysco Corp., which ships hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products every year.

Such numbers were unthinkable 50 years ago when the markets were dominated by small growers selling crops to a populace who never knew Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie.

"Today, the market is more involved in wholesale and large vendor activity," Mr. Irvin said. "You don't see many people selling melons off the tailgate anymore."

Farmer-to-consumer commerce began dying out in the 1950s and '60s as increasingly mechanized producers started catering to modern grocery store chains.

Americans began buying more canned and frozen vegetables, then bought premade meals, then reduced their cooking altogether.

"They used to sell ducks and geese, back when people would dress 'em, but they don't know how to anymore," said 74-year-old Milo Smith, who has shopped at the Augusta market since the 1940s.

The Warren County native operates three roadside produce stands and still purchases all of his goods from various wholesalers at the six-acre complex.

Among his regular suppliers are CSRA Produce Inc., whose owner, Tony Onate, operates several Mexican restaurants in Augusta, including Vallarta and Teresa's.

Pete Naomi is another wholesaler at the Augusta market with a restaurant background. His company, Pete's Produce, supplies several Augusta eateries with everything from potatoes to oranges.

In most cases, he buys produce directly from growers throughout Georgia, and from California, Florida and Idaho. But he must purchase certain seasonal or exotic items from larger wholesalers who have broader supply networks.

In many ways, commerce at the Augusta market is a small reflection of what is going on in the agricultural industry around the world. Shoppers can spot Mexico-grown tomatoes, which sell for about $3 a case less than domestic ones because of cheap labor costs.

Changes are occurring in the food service industry, too, wholesalers say. Consolidation is making competition fierce.

"The little guy is getting squeezed," Mr. Naomi said. "The larger companies can afford to sell at a loss just to get the contracts, then they raise their prices."

The health movement that started in the 1980s has created a resurgence in the popularity of fresh fruits and vegetables, but the vast majority of agricultural trade is still brokered between large grower cooperatives and corporations.

"Companies will make an offer for a whole field," Mr. Reece said. "A lot is grown on contract -- it's sold while it's still in the ground."

Such contract buying has caused a number of smaller state market facilities to close during the years, including one in Waynesboro.

Mr. Irvin said most of the defunct facilities have been leased to municipalities for use as festival grounds.

Of the six major farmers markets in Georgia, the Thomasville facility is known as the "purest" market.

"It's still like an old-style market," Mr. Irvin said.

Although Augusta's farmers market facility is used primarily for warehousing and distribution, some elements of the traditional open-air marketplace still exist.

About 220 farmers from a 120-mile radius sell their products "under the shed" in the center of the compound. Sweet corn, butter beans and cantaloupe draw wholesalers from as far away North Carolina, and dozens of area residents can sometimes be found waiting outside when the gates open at 5 a.m. Monday through Friday.

"When peach season starts, that's when everything kicks off," Mr. Reece said.

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486.