By Linda Looney-Bond
After 50 years in operation, the Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park still offers much to see and do, according to market administrators.
Market Manager Craig Nielsen said now is a good time for Georgia residents and tourists to rediscover the home-grown marketplace, which opened in 1959.
"In the old days, they had watermelon day and salad day," said Nielsen.
Displays of old photos on the walls of the visitors center are evidence of a time when visitors packed the farmers' market for events ranging from watermelon-eating contests to concerts.
Most of the activity today is merchant-related, with sales to some grocery store chains and other retailers driving a bustling wholesale business. More than 90 tractor-trailer loads per day are brought to the market, located at 16 Forest Parkway, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Nielsen said the amount of this type of traffic on a daily basis has led to the shift from a community- and event-focused environment.
"We still try to provide an experience for everybody. We have gun shows, bird shows ... ceramic doll shows. A lot of ethnic diversity as well," said Nielsen.
"I grew up around here," said Stephanie Butler, Nielsen's secretary, who has worked at the farmers' market in Forest Park for almost a year.
She said she has worked a total of seven years for the Department of Agriculture.
Butler, 35, said she recalls a time when the Forest Park market was the place where many, like herself, went to get a driver's license.
"It was a month after I turned 16. We had to stand outside in a line. Everybody got to watch you taking your driving test. You had to parallel park. It was almost like a road test," she said.
The Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles moved from the farmers' market more than 15 years ago, according to Nielsen, and relocated just up the road on Ga. Highway 85.
Today, the Forest Park market is the world's largest roadside fruit and vegetable stand, according to the Department of Agriculture.
"We are a traditional farmers' market. We're more like farmers' markets used to be, with open air markets," said Nielsen, who pointed out that today many other farmers' markets are housed in buildings similar to grocery stores.
"We have the freshest produce over the summer when the farmers come in. Actual farmers work here and bring produce," said Nielsen.
The Oakwood Cafe, the market's on-site restaurant, takes full advantage of the fresh produce literally in its own back yard.
"All of our produce comes from right here in the farmers' market. We pick fresh produce from the sheds," said Dwayne Robinson, the restaurant's manager.
Visitors can also stop by the gift shop and welcome center located next-door to the restaurant.
Tours of the farmers' market on the Fresh Express Trolley are also available to groups. Many schools and churches participate in the tours, according to Marsha Thomas, manager of the welcome center and gift shop.
Nielsen said despite a sour economy, the Atlanta State Farmers Market has managed to survive.
While there is a hiring freeze, Nielsen said none of the 47 state employees at the market have been let go.
More than 3,700 people are employed at the market, including state workers and employees of vendors who lease space at the facility, according to Nielsen.
He said recent droughts have affected farmers' crops, but agriculture officials are hoping things will improve this year and keep the market bustling.
"Mid April is when the Vidalias will be coming in and that's sort of what kicks off the farmers, then the watermelons. So we just have to wait and see," Nielsen said.
"There's been some turnover in our retail area," due to the economy, Nielsen said.
"We thank everybody for 50 years in business here, and hopefully we'll be around for many, many more to come," he said.