By Martha Woodham
A decline in agricultural income and concern about losing farms to development were the impetus behind the highly successful Union County Farmers Market, a Georgia Grown Gold Member that generated $280,000 in income in 2011 for local growers.
The bustling market in Blairsville now features an average of 63 vendors, of whom 30 are farmers, on Tuesdays and Saturdays during the June to October season. Shoppers not only find homegrown fruits and vegetables, but they also can purchase crafts hand made by local residents.
Market days draw visitors from Union, Towns and Fanning counties in Georgia as well as Clay and Cherokee counties in North Carolina. The market also has become a destination for tourists vacationing in north Georgia.
The Union County Farmers Market joined Georgia Grown as a next step in its outreach to the public, says Market Manager Mickey P. Cummings, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Agent for Union County.
“We want to educate people about the importance of buying and eating locally grown food,” he says. “We want people to understand that this is a location where they can purchase locally grown food that is high quality and safe for their families to eat, and locally made crafts that are equally high quality.”
The market had a modest beginning in 2007 on the grounds of the Union County Courthouse. Two years later, under the leadership of Union County Commission Chairman Lamar Paris and the rest of the commission, voters approved a special purpose local option sales tax to fund a permanent location for the market. The market moved into its new facility — a 50-stall market with two open air pavilions, a community garden and parking — in 2010. Booths are sold out for the season, and the overflow vendors set up in tents onsite.
“We wanted to promote agriculture and increase revenue, and it’s working,” says Paris, whose father decades ago managed federal programs that assisted farmers. “I go down there on Saturday mornings and walk around and people come up to me and say, ‘This is the greatest thing.’”
Many communities have farmers markets, but not many use the markets as an economic development tool. A drop in agriculture income from $60 million a year annually to $20 million sounded an alarm for community leaders, who were also concerned about the loss of family farms and green space to developers. The county did not want to lose its rural identity.
“Once that part of our heritage is gone, it’s gone and you can’t get it back,” says Cummings. “Instead of creating rules and regulations, we decided the best thing was to stimulate the [agricultural] market, which is what we did with the Union County Farmers Market. Now local farmers don’t have to go to Atlanta to market their vegetables — they can do it here.”
Cummings is looking to the Georgia Grown marketing program to help with one of his goals for the Union County Farmers Market: becoming a co-op for local farmers and restaurants. He envisions the market as a site where restaurant owners can contract with farmers for locally grown produce to serve in their establishments.
But first, the Union County Farmers Market plans to open a community canning kitchen, where local residents can “put up” the fruits and vegetables they buy at the market or grow themselves. The new facility will replace one built in the 1940s, when families depended on what they grew to get them through the winter.
“One man told me he went to the old canning kitchen with his mother and grandmother,” says Cummings. “Now he plans to go with his children and grandchildren.”
Not only is canning their own food a cost savings for families during difficult economic times, Cummings says, but it’s also another economic stimulus for the local economy. Several local residents plan to use the commercial-grade kitchen to produce food products for sale at the market. The facility will be able to process 92 jars at a time compared to just eight in a home pressure cooker.
The farmers market has become more than just an economic boost for Union County. It’s become the Saturday morning gathering place that draws the community together. Cummings made sure the new facility had benches “where people can sit around and tell tales.”
“I don’t know how you can put an economic value on that,” he adds.
To find out more, please visit www.georgiagrown.com.
Want to go?
Union County Farmers Market, 148 Old Smokey Rd., Blairsville, Ga.
- Hours: 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. every Saturday; 4 to 8 p.m. on Tuesdays evenings or, as the web site says: “until the farmers plum run out of goods to sell, whichever comes first!”
- A Trash and Treasures Flea Market is held from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays.
- Check the website, www.ucfarmersmarket.com, for festivals and other special events hosted by the market.