Each time I travel to or from Atlanta there’s a sign on the east side of Interstate 75 that always catches my eye, not because it’s fancy, flashy, or particularly unique, but because of what it says: “State Farmers Market”. Unfortunately I usually seem to be passing through the area on some sort of timeframe…either trying to get a good start heading home before traffic gets bad, or heading to Atlanta for a particular reason. Sometimes, I haven’t been in a hurry but it happened to be later in the evening, later than one would expect anyone to be selling produce.
Today I was heading back to Savannah from Atlanta and like the Siren’s call, I felt it tugging at me. As I merged from I-285 to I-75 the sign read “State Farmer’s Market 3/4 mile”, almost as though it were a purposeful taunt, teasing me because I’ve always wanted to stop but have never quite felt like I had time. “What the heck?” I thought as I steered toward the interstate exit. Sure it would delay my return home but why be in a hurry to return to what I knew awaited me? The sense of adventure and excitement as I make new food discoveries certainly outweighs the known quantity of getting home at an earlier time just for the sake of being home. For six years I’d been making excuses as to why I couldn’t stop, it was now time to take action!
Located in Forest Park, GA, about 12 miles south of downtown Atlanta, the State Farmers market is located at Forest Parkway, just south of the I-285 interchange. As you exit the interstate and head toward the market you’ll be quickly enveloped by trucks ranging from big rig trailers to smaller box trucks that are moving to and from the market. Follow the signs to the market and to your left as you pull down into the area with the open sheds designated for various types of vendors. As you pull in it will be very easy to feel overwhelmed. One of the reasons I hesitated to stop this time was simply the fact that it’s January and there isn’t a whole lot in season. I figured I’d probably pull in, take a quick overview and quickly be on my way…or so I thought. The market occupies over 150 acres and features areas for truck farmers, re-sellers that are getting produce from the bigger wholesalers, an exhibition hall, garden center, and even a wholesale grocery company that’s open to the public.
After wandering up and down the sheds of the re-sellers for awhile I decided to check out the “Georgia Grown” Visitor Center located right near the entrance and parking area.
It was here that I met Marsha Thomas who is the director of the Georgia Grown Welcome Center and the Executive Director of the Georgia Grower’s Produce Association. I’m certain I would have enjoyed my visit and been impressed with the farmer’s market but I wouldn’t appreciate it nearly as much without the treasure trove of information that Marsha proved to be.
I immediately knew she’d have stories to tell when she mentioned that she’s been hanging around this market since it opened in 1959. As it turns out, Marsha is a second-generation “caretaker” of the State Farmer’s Market. Her father Gabriel Lee Thomas was responsible for starting the Atlanta Produce Dealer’s Association in 1947 when the state farmer’s market was located near Murphy street closer to the center of Atlanta. Having outgrown that space, the market was moved to its present location where it has been operating since 1959. Marsha isn’t the only one that’s been calling the market home since its relocation. Sutherland Foodservice, The Market Grocery, and Po Boy’s Greenhouse were all here in the beginning and are still operated by their founding families today. Discussing the market and its vendors with Marsha it becomes readily apparent that there is a true familial feeling among those that have been there through the years. Her own father, who rarely spent more than a few days away from the market at a time continued to be involved with the market up until the age of 85. Marsha reveled in stories of the many celebrations that have been held at the market throughout the years such as the annual Fourth of July celebration which typically featured a watermelon eating contest and various entertainers. It was at one of these events that a teenage Dolly Parton made her debut along with Porter Wagner. Unfortunately the success of those events also seemed to be their undoing. As the popularity increased, the crowds became too large for the space and they had to discontinue the festivities. She’s hopeful that they’ll be able to bring back smaller scale events as a means of reviving the seasonal celebrations.
As one of the largest produce markets on the east coast, the Georgia State Farmer’s market is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Of course it stands to reason that the major foodservice suppliers would be running such schedules but the smaller truck vendors are said to usually sleep out in the stalls and keep someone on hand to take care of those late night produce needs. The busiest time is the early morning when Atlanta area chefs and smaller produce suppliers are shopping the market to make their daily selections. If you want to see it in it’s full-tilt operation, Marsha suggests visiting between 4am and 8am. While open 24 hours it usually slows down significantly by 6pm.
If You Visit:
I suggest starting with a visit to the Georgia Grown visitor’s center for a map of the market and explanation of what you’ll find where.
There are specific stalls set aside for Georgia farmer’s, farmers from out of state (usually SC/NC) and the re-sellers that are buying from the bigger companies. Knowing what’s what will help you get fresher produce and better deals.
Don’t buy from the first vendors you visit. Scope out the market to see who has what. Many of the vendors will have the same things so you’ll want to compare quality, minimum purchase quantity (some may require large volume purchases), and of course price.
Don’t be afraid to haggle. It’s expected.
The Oakwood Café located next to the Georgia Grown visitor’s center is a busy bustling restaurant featuring homestyle cooking that changes each day. With a variety of meat and vegetable offerings to choose from there’s likely to be something for everyone.
Groups can arrange for tours highlighting various areas of the market. Tours must be arranged in advance by contacting Marsha Thomas at: 404-366-8767
Georgia State Farmer’s Market
Forest Parkway – Exit 237 off I-75
Forest Park, GA