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Georgia farmers return to state farmers market

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Customers kept stopping at Jimmy Williams produce stand at the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park on Thursday afternoon with the same question on their minds.

"Is someone cooking fish?" they would ask Williams.

Williams would then point across the aisle, toward Wendell and Martha Kight's Vidalia onions stand, and joke "Yeah, they are. They've gotten so bored, they've started cooking fish to pass the time."

The truth is the Kight's were cooking fish for all of the farmers in shed's 11 and 12 at the market. The farmers, all from Georgia, come to the market every year. But they go several months without seeing each other because they've been away at their farms, getting ready for summer sales.

By the end of this month, market officials said they expect Georgia farmers will occupy most, if not all, of the stands in sheds 11-14. The farmers sell everything from squash to corn; Vidalia onions to peaches; tomatoes to watermelons.

"A lot of us know each other pretty well, so I enjoy it when we're all back here," said Wendell Kight, 67, who has been selling at the market for 12 years. "It's a big get-together."

Mary Baty, who sells peaches for Fort Valley-based Dickey Farms, with her husband, Junior, put it a different way when she said the annual arrival of the Georgia farmers at the market is like "a family reunion."

"Somebody is usually boiling peanuts or cooking fish for everybody else in the shed," Mary Baty said.

Junior Baty, 66, who has been selling at the market for 34 years, said it is like a second home for him because of the friendly relationships the farmers have developed with each other over the years. "It'll be a whole lot better when all of the farmers get out here, because everybody grows different things," he said. "[Customers have] got more variety to choose from."

Market Manager Craig Nelson said he believes the Georgia farmers' sheds will be filled later this month because farmers are now beginning to harvest their watermelon crops. Market inspector records show 10 farmers are already selling their products at the market.

"We're open [now] and the farmers' sheds are starting to fill up, but once the watermelons are ready, that's when things will really get busy," Nelson said.

Statesboro farmer, J.R. Lott, 44, a fifth-generation farmer, said the market serves a practical purpose for farmers who choose to sell their produce in large volumes, while the food is still fresh.

Lott arrived at the market Thursday morning to sell Garrison Yellow Sweet Corn and Super Sweet Bi-Colored Corn. He said he picked the corn Wednesday and brought it to the market to sell it quickly. If it goes several days without being eaten, then it will have to be put in a cooler to prevent it from going bad.

"When you've got 50-60 bushels of corn that you need to move in a day, you come here," Lott said. "There's just a lot more traffic coming through here."

Williams said freshness is one reason why he believes the products grown by Georgia farmers are superior to the produce that is shipped in from farms in places like South Carolina and Florida.

"Georgia stuff is just starting to show up, and our stuff will arrive fresh every day," Williams said. "It's definitely going to be the freshest produce here."

A few customers and market employees said they agreed with Williams' sentiments on the freshness of Georgia-grown produce. "I get excited whenever the Georgia farmers come here," said Marsha Thomas, the manager of the market's visitor's center. "Just knowing it's Georgia-grown is what I like, but then again, that may be just some of my home-state pride."

As several farmers hung out at Wendell and Martha Kight's Vidalia onions stand, eating fish and telling jokes, the occasional customer came by to see what was for sale. Newnan resident, Eugene Jones, said he and his family stop buy the market whenever they are in the area to see what's being sold by the Georgia farmers, as opposed to food sold at the warehouses that are in the market, but closer to Forest Parkway.

"We just like the freshness," Jones said. "[Georgia-grown produce] tastes a lot better than [items from] the warehouses. We know it's going to be fresh, if it's grown in Georgia."