'It's a living:' State Farmer's Market continues to showcase a ripe atmosphere

By Tamara Boatwright

For nearly 35 summers the Eslinger brothers have been making a daily five-hour round trip from their farm in Ringgold in northwest Georgia to sell their tomatoes, squash, peppers and eggplant at the State Farmer's Market in Forest Park.

They are among the hundreds of farmers who sell their wares from the stalls at the market year ?round.

"It's a living," shrugs Steve Eslinger, the quieter of the two, as he sits in a lawn chair next to his brother, Dale.

The brothers carry on a business their late father started many, many years ago. They arise well before dawn every day during the growing season to make the two and a half hour trek to the market. Once they get the vegetables displayed it's pretty much a wait and see business.

"You wait and see if anyone is going to buy what you have," Steve said.

Around 3 in the afternoon they begin to break down the display and head home to pick vegetables and tend to their 20-acre garden. They eat supper, get some sleep and start all over again.

"Some people are friendly, some are not so friendly," says Dale, who is mildly retarded and the most outgoing of the two. "But most are really friendly."

A few stalls away, Kathy Fuller is picking through crowder peas as they tumble out of the Roto-Fingers pea/bean sheller, a machine she is most grateful for.

"Oh it beats having to shell by hand," she says never missing a beat with her picking. "And it's better than the old type of sheller that you had to feed one by one."

As she picks through the freshly shelled peas, her sons, Gerald, 13, and Kerry, 16 help their father, Jerry, sell the watermelons they grow on their farm.

Markets are special to the Fullers. Jerry met Kathy at one 26 years ago in Columbus near where they live.

"My father and her father had stalls next to each other and we met there," Jerry said.

Their boys grew up helping on the farm and traveling to the market with their produce every summer.

"That one there," Jerry says pointing to Gerald, "fell off the dock here when he was 3. He was playing on some bushels of peas. It like to have scared us to death but he got right back up and started playing."

Jerry shrugs when asked if his sons will carry on the farm and market business.

"That one might," he says pointing to his eldest son. "But I don't know. They're both smart and can do anything they set their mind to."

As their father dumps a bushel of peas into the sheller, Kerry sorts through the watermelons to show a customer what to look for in a good one.

"You see, you thump it and it makes a tinging sound," he says thumping a dark green orb several times. "You look for a yellow spot on the bottom too."

Joan Pittman of Marietta bought three Black Diamond watermelons from the Fullers while her peas were being shelled.

"These are the best flavored," she said patting one as the others were loaded into her pickup truck. "I just love them."

Across the way Eutis Morris waits patiently for someone to take a look at his yellow field corn for sale.

A retired brick mason from Senoia, Morris grows about five acres of corn "as a hobby."

"I certainly don't make any money at it," he says as he leans on his walking cane. "This has been a good year for the corn because the Lord sent the rain just like I needed it. I asked him and he sent me just enough."

Morris likes to give buyers a little something extra, he says, and puts an extra ear or two in each bag.

"A baker's dozen," he says with a smile.

Perched on a lawn chair, her Marlboro lights and lighter on an empty wire spool serving as a table, Stockbridge resident Kassy Holcomb, 20, studies for her General Education Diploma as she waits for buyers of the watermelons she watches over.

"It's good money and gives me a chance to study," she said. "Business isn't so bad, I sold 100 watermelons today and someone is coming by this afternoon to buy 50 more."

Ask Jimmy Higgenbothem what kind of peaches he is selling and he replies with a smile, "stomp down good ones."

Actually they are Harvesters, are sold by the case and the 84-year-old Higginbothem clucks over them like a mother hen.

"I've been selling at the market for 65 or 70 years," he says. "Back when the market was downtown on Courtland Avenue and then when it was on Murphy Avenue. I've been here since it opened."