Closing Time


NORTHEAST GEORGIA - This past Saturday, the Bishop Park Farmers Market closed up shop for the 2009 season. It was a brisk and sunny fall day, perfect for the UGA football fans who were already pouring into town when the market opened for business at 8:00 a.m.

For the past seven months, the market has been a magnet for Athens area residents seeking fresh, sustainable foods in a festival-like setting.

This summer, the volunteer who clicks off new arrivals at the gate has counted 1,300 to 1,400 shoppers most weekends – though fewer come when it rains.

Vendors display their goods in the shelter of small white tents, each bearing the name of a local business, on the basketball court in Julius F. Bishop Park. Purveyors of juice, coffee and breakfast pastries cluster near the entrance. Farm stands ring the perimeter, and sellers of soaps, flowers, and crafts such as necklaces made from small gourds are on the inside track. Different local bands provide a soundtrack as patrons move from tent to tent perusing the goods.

For some shoppers, the farmers market is more than a place to buy seasonal fruits and vegetables.

"The other bit is meeting friends, meeting my folks," said Peter Norris. Norris is one of many regulars who come every week and have their own routines. "I've got to have my Righteous Juice, breads, and some vegetables, he says."

The market bustles with people coming and going: children dart around slow moving adults, mothers cram bags of beans into pouches hanging off strollers, and seniors fill wheeled carts as they make their rounds. A small knot of fans fill battered lawn chairs in front of the band tent, tapping their feet and adding offerings of money or food to the open guitar case.

About 20 growers sell locally grown produce and meats at the market on a typical Saturday. One of the best known is the Mills Farm, whose owners Tim and Alice Mills are famous for their Red Mule grits, cornmeal, porridge and Polenta de Georgia. They grow corn and their products are ground by the patient plodding of Luke, their faithful red mule.

Red Mule products are also sold through stores, including the Daily Co-op and Big City Breads in Athens, and served in upscale dining establishments. But the farmers market, where retailers and buyers chat with one another week after week, offers benefits that others sales pipelines do not.

"I think our main objective at the farmers market is trying to educate people on eating healthier and eating local," says Alice Mills, who owns the farm along with husband Tim. "We'd like people to know that we have people out there that are striving to have products that are chemical free, pesticide free, and herbicide free."

Mills hopes that home gardeners will be inspired to do more gardening on their own, following the example of the working farmers who sell them okra and tomatoes on summer Saturdays.

"I haven't grown anything more complicated than a few tomatoes and some basil," says Athens resident Patricia Thomas, who comes to the market every week. "But I have certainly enjoyed the variety of wonderful produce available over the summer: from garlic in the spring, summer tomatoes, and now the fall beets, it's all been great."

The winter closing of the Bishop Park Farmers Market doesn't mean that fresh, locally grown produce will be inaccessible. Many of these local farmers have hoop houses that allow them to grow during the colder months, and their goods are still accessible through The outdoor market at Bishop Park will reopen in May 2010.

To learn more about the vendors at the market or other organic and sustainable growers please visit Athens Farmers Market or Georgia Organics.

Report by Jordan Sarver

This article and video were originally published on the WNEG-TV web site on Thursday, 19 November 2009.

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From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway
From L-R: Katie Smith, Jordan Sarver, James Hataway

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