Food Fight: Lawsuit imperils future of Wednesday farmers market

Tattnall Square Park had for years been a bustling place in the afternoons on Wednesdays as Middle Georgia farmers unloaded hauls of homegrown vegetables, fruits and flowers to sell from the shades of their tents at the weekly farmers market.

The jovial setting apparently soured Aug. 10 when the market manager for Community Health Works, the nonprofit that has managed Mulberry Market for more than a decade, arrived at the park to find another group, the Napier Heights Food Co-Op, had already set up a table of its own.

According to court records, the Co-Op claimed it was the new market manager.

Since then, the two organizations – which both say increasing food access is their mission – have become parties to an escalating legal battle that has confused patrons and created precarious financial uncertainty for farmers whose livelihoods depend on the mid-week market.

As it stands, neither Community Health Works, CHW, or the Napier Co-Op planned to operate markets on Wednesdays until a court can help the parties come to an agreement.

“The only thing I feel like we could say in a casual way is like both organizations have failed to consult or even value the input of farmers whose livelihoods are at stake,” said Julia Asherman, owner of Rag & Frass Farm in Twiggs County. “And that is fundamentally wrong to a farmers market.”

The saga of how the market’s future became imperiled is laid out in court records that include a 160-page Temporary Restraining Order CHW’s lawyers filed in Bibb County Superior Court in late August.

The purpose of the court order was to stop the Napier Co-Op, led by community organizer Andrea Cooke, from what a CHW lawyer described as “the public charity analogue of a coup d’etat.”

In the lawsuit, CHW alleges two of its former employees, Lacy Resch and Paige Reeves, along with Cooke, “took actions to usurp control of the Mulberry Market by claiming to be its new managers.”

However, Cooke said her intent was not to take it over but to save what vendors and patrons perceived as a less lively market. Some farmers had complained about the lack of marketing on social media and the proliferation of vendors who do not sell homegrown food.

“If this was something that was potentially going to go away, we wanted to save it,” Cooke said. “And it wasn’t about any vitriol or anger. It wasn’t about anything except saving the market.”

Resch, who managed the Mulberry Market for CHW for more than eight years until resigning last year, said she believed CHW did not value the market. The market has had a few different managers since Resch’s resignation.

“I genuinely thought because they had threatened to close it so many times … that they would maybe just be happy to have it off their plate,” Resch said of Mulberry Market. “It was an annoyance to them when, in fact, it’s the only thing they were known for. And they weren’t even known for it. I was known for it.”

CHW also alleges in the lawsuit that the Napier Co-Op infringed on its registered trademark for “Mulberry Market” and the court order was meant to “prevent the ongoing and anticipated tortious interference with contract” as a result of actions by Cooke, the Napier Co-Op and Reeves.

The Co-Op posted on its website Aug. 9 that it was the new manager of the Mulberry Market, a trademark CHW registered in 2016 with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

After the lawsuit was filed Aug. 22, the Napier Co-Op willingly removed all references to Mulberry Market and stopped using the name.

“We took that off of everything because it wasn’t our intent to take over something, it was our intent to continue something,” Cooke said.

Stalemate

The court order CHW filed prohibits the Co-Op from operating a market near the park on Wednesdays. However, the Co-Op’s response to the order also makes it challenging for Community Health Works to continue operating the market there on Wednesdays too.

On Sept. 2, more than a week after the initial filing, Cooke used the county’s online park reservation system and reserved that same area of the park every Wednesday remaining in 2022 from noon – 8 p.m. The cost was $100 per day for a total of $1,700, court records show.

Though it had been operating in the park since 2014, CHW did not have a formal agreement to use the space and had never paid a reservation fee for it, CEO Fred Ammons said. CHW had a verbal agreement with the parks department.

Ammons said he was advised by his lawyer that CHW should not use the park space on Wednesdays until a judge decides who can lawfully use it.

Until then, the market on Wednesdays is being called off to avoid a kerfuffle between the groups.

Even so, a few farmers set up tents to sell Wednesday without any market manager.

Last week, Cooke managed the Napier Co-Op market in the park on a Thursday and plans to continue.

Background

Court records show Cooke emailed the chief operating officer at CHW in May to propose a partnership with or transfer of management to the Napier Co-Op. The CHW employee responded with questions about how that might work and Cooke replied they would not need funding and could take on the operations but would need some time to be able to offer EBT and SNAP benefits.

The CHW employee did not reply to Cooke and also did not reply to a follow up email Cooke sent in early June, court records show.

Ammons said that was because many at CHW were out with COVID for more than a week and Cooke’s proposal “got pushed to the back of the stove” and was “not any sort of deliberate ghosting.”

When CHW Market Manager Shelby Ryals went to set up the administration table at the park Aug. 10, Resch and Reeves handed her a letter signed by about a dozen vendors that stated they collectively “decided to seek other management moving forward, effective August 3.”

The letter was dated July 22 but Reeves told Ryals it was one they had “tried to send weeks ago,” according to court documents.

Ryals, “not willing to cause a scene at the market,” left, court records show.

Ammons said CHW was “blindsided” by the Napier Co-Op on Aug. 10 and the letter signed by the Farmers came as “an absolute shock.”

While the market had a downturn amid the pandemic, Ammons said the perception that the market was struggling to continue was “gossip.”

Cooke and Ammons have both said their organizations are still willing to sit down and work it out, but in the meantime farmers will have to find another way to supplement their incomes and patrons will have to shop elsewhere for locally produced food.

A lawyer for CHW said he expects a judge will issue a decision on the matter any day now.

To read CHW’s motion for a temporary restraining order, click here. Please note some exhibits containing farmers’ personal information has been redacted from this document.

To read the Napier Heights Food Co-Op’s response, click here.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email her at [email protected]