A group of farmers seek community support for a new farmers-only market in downtown Macon after a ‘tedious and confusing fiasco’ with Mulberry Market
MACON, Ga. – A group of farmers are seeking community support for a new farmers’ market only in downtown Macon, citing a “tedious and confusing fiasco” at the longtime Wednesday Mulberry Market in Tattnall Square Park.
The announcement by Middle Georgia Grower’s Co-Op, a collective of a dozen growers, came as a legal battle over the management of the Wednesday market enters its second month.
The Wednesday Market has been unmanaged since August 10, when the new Napier Heights Food Cooperative said it was running the market instead of Community Health Works, a decision that landed the two entities in court.
Even so, a handful of farmers in the cooperative continue to set up their tents and sell their crops at their usual time and place each week.
Tim and Kaye Smith of Vesterfield Farms said they have been in contact with customers to let them know Vesterfield Farms is no longer affiliated with Community Health Works or Napier Co-Op.
“We’re just not represented, you know,” Tim Smith said. “Both nonprofits feel like it’s their market, but the vendors are the market.”
On a Wednesday afternoon in mid-October, the Smiths unloaded coolers filled with dozens of bags of local produce from a utility van. The couple were preparing for customers to pick up around 30 orders placed earlier in the week through the farm’s online pre-order system.
“We’re hanging on a lifeline,” said Tim Smith, adding that a core group of customers have helped sustain the farm during what has been a long period of uncertainty. “We are so grateful to these people. And, you know, we contacted them and let them know what was going on. And, you know, they send a lot of love back to us. You know, they say, “Whatever happens, wherever you go, let us know and we’ll go with you.” ”
Vesterfield Farms is part of the Growers Cooperative and was among the first farms to join Mulberry Market when it started on Mulberry Street in 2009. The market, then run by Community Health Works, attracted more vendors before moving at Tattnall Square. Park in 2014.
Over the past few years, farmers have discussed the state of the market, including declining sales, reduced options for fresh food, declining customer base and what appeared to be diminished efforts to market it. Farmers have also expressed frustration over the dissolution, years ago, by Community Health Works of a farmers’ advisory council that gave growers a say in market operations.
In July, a dozen farmers signed a letter to the Community Health Works board of directors advising that “collectively, vendors have decided to seek an alternate direction in the future, beginning August 3,” according to court documents.
The group of farmers had planned to hand over the management of the market to the new Napier Heights food cooperative. However, several farmers said that outlook has deteriorated as the Napier Cooperative failed to deliver on its promise to farmers of a growers-only market.
“We were adamant that it was a growers only market because that’s very important,” said Tim Smith, adding that he saw a man at a recent Napier Co-Op market selling produce with the stickers at barcode still attached. “What would have happened if you had let the dealers in here? So you have a lady here who makes baby clothes, sells them, and does really well. Then all of a sudden you let someone who has a container from China come in and start selling cheap Chinese (clothes). It depreciates the market and people don’t know.
Napier Co-Op founder Andrea Cooke said she wanted to make sure no seller felt left out.
“I like the flexibility of being able to have the people who work in this market, who have these micro businesses in this market to help make decisions about what we all think is best and also based on what the community says they need,” Cooke said. “Sometimes even farmers’ markets have to make exceptions to make sure there’s enough food.”
In the recent letter to customers, the Growers Co-Op said farmers “have the most to lose or gain, the most at risk and the most stamina to support our markets”.
“We want a farmers-only market, democratically guided by farmer input,” according to the recent Growers Co-Op letter. “We believe we deserve transparency, integrity and accountability from any organization that positions itself to facilitate our sales or impact our bottom line. These core values have not been honored or respected by any of the organizations currently trying to run the market.
The Growers Co-Op said its goal is to create a new weekly farmers’ market downtown every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. She’s calling on patrons and supporters to write letters of endorsement to Macon-Bibb County commissioners to build support for the market she hopes to start downtown at an undetermined location.
To do this, the Growers Co-Op will look for special housing in the county. These demands, according to the letter, include: a partial or full waiver of permit fees; Free street parking for three hours every Wednesday for vendors and customers; A permanent license valid all year round; An exception to a county rule that would allow food trucks to participate as market vendors.
The Growers Co-Op is working to collect letters of support and plans to approach the county with the idea and endorsements by Nov. 15.
MELEE MARKET MANAGER
In August, the group of a dozen farmers expected Napier Co-Op to take over running the Wednesday market. However, at the time of this transition, Napier Co-Op had not yet successfully negotiated with Community Health Works.
Cooke said she had exchanged a few emails with Community Health Works in which the possibility of sharing or changing market management was discussed. But after a while, she said Community Health Works stopped responding to her.
The July letter signed by the farmers to inform Community Health Works of the leadership change was never delivered to the nonprofit’s office on Mulberry Street.
The tension came to a head on August 10 when the Community Health Works market manager went to set up a table in the park and was greeted by representatives from the Napier Co-Op, who said they were the new market managers, according to the complaint filed in Bibb County Superior Court.
Since then, the two organizations – which both say improving access to food is their mission – have become parties to a growing legal battle that has effectively eliminated any market run in the park on Wednesdays. Trademark infringement and tortious interference with contracts are among the allegations in the lawsuit filed Aug. 22.
A temporary protective order filed by a Community Health Works attorney prevents Napier Co-Op from using the park on Wednesday. So the Napier Co-Op opened a new market at the same location on Thursday and also booked the park on Wednesday so Community Health Works could no longer officially be there.
Willie Gorman Sr. lives in the St. Paul Apartments and walks to Tattnall Park on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Gorman, 73, said he enjoys meeting new people the most at the market. On a recent Thursday, Gorman looked for products but saw none.
“I just buy them once in a while,” Gorman said of the fresh produce normally sold at the park. “When I want vegetables, I go to Walmart, Kroger, something like that. But I just come here to support people.
Macon baker Shirley King was at the park on Wednesday and Thursday. King retired from running a school cafeteria at Warner Robins and now makes candies and other baked goodies. She is among the vendors who signed the July letter to Community Health Works notifying the nonprofit of the vendor group’s intention to seek another market manager.
When asked if back-to-back market days had a positive impact on his business, King said, “It could be if we could support him and find a way to get people to come.”
“It’s a bit slow today,” King said Thursday. “But, you know, if the right people come. Some people I usually see on Wednesdays. I don’t see them again on Thursdays. It’s kind of broken.
Jeweler Carolyn Brown, owner of Jams, Jellies, Jewelry & More, hadn’t been selling at the park for about a month but returned on a recent Wednesday. She was among about a dozen providers to sign the July letter to Community Health Works seeking new direction, a case that is now part of court records.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Brown said as she packed up her tent after her first Wednesday back since the market kerfuffle in August. “It wasn’t as many people or as many vendors as I thought, but the people who came out actually bought things from us… The comments I’ve heard more than anything, most people are happy to have us twice a week.
Rag & Frass Farm’s Lena White is one of a handful of farmers who continued to show up at the usual place and time on Wednesdays.
“What we’ve learned in all of this is that we have, like, the best customers,” White said. “We communicate directly with many of our customers. So we can get up with them and they can communicate with us and we have pre-orders. … It’s like the diamond in the rough is that we can always see our customers at the end.
Family therapist Pam Davis was among White’s clients that Wednesday. Davis bought head lettuce, arugula and sweet potatoes. “The way the food shortage is unfolding and the climate crisis is unfolding…people are acting in a very cavalier way not to honor our farmers,” Davis said. “I want to do everything I can to keep them… If we let them slip through our fingers, we’ll live to regret it.”
To read the full letter from the Middle Georgia Growers Co-Op, click here.
To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email Corley_le@mercer.edu.
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