Band of farmers cuts ties with groups fighting over market management

A band of farmers is seeking community support for a new producers-only farmers market in downtown Macon, citing a “tiresome and confusing fiasco” at the longstanding Wednesday Mulberry Market in Tattnall Square Park.

The announcement by Middle Georgia Grower’s Co-Op, a collective of a dozen producers, was made as a legal battle over management of the Wednesday market enters its second month.

The Wednesday market has been without management since Aug. 10 when the newly formed Napier Heights Food Co-Op said it was running the market instead of Community Health Works, a move that landed both entities in court.

Even so, a handful of farmers in the co-op continue setting up their tents and selling their harvests at the usual time and place each week.

Tim and Kaye Smith, of Vesterfield Farms, said they have been in touch with customers to let them know Vesterfield Farms is no longer affiliated with Community Health Works or the Napier Co-Op.

“We’re just not being represented, you know,” Tim Smith said. “Both of the nonprofits feel like it’s their market, but the vendors are the market.”

On a Wednesday afternoon in mid October, the Smiths unloaded coolers packed with dozens of bags of homegrown produce from a utility van. The couple was preparing for customers to come by and retrieve some 30 orders placed earlier in the week through the farm’s online pre-order system.

“We’re hanging from a lifeline,” Tim Smith said, adding a core group of customers have helped support the farm through what has been an extended period of uncertainty. “We’re just so thankful for those people. And, you know, we’ve reached out to them and let them know what is going on. And, you know, they’re sending us a lot of love back. You know, they’re saying, ‘Whatever happens, wherever you go, let us know and we’re going with you.’ ”

Vesterfield Farms is part of the grower’s co-op and was among the first farms to join the Mulberry Market when it first started on Mulberry Street in 2009. The market, managed then by Community Health Works, attracted more vendors before it moved to Tattnall Square Park in 2014.

In recent years, farmers have discussed the state of the market including a drop in sales, reduced options for fresh food, declining patronage and what appeared to be diminished efforts to market it. Farmers have also expressed frustration about Community Health Works’ years-old dissolution of a farmer’s advisory board that allowed growers to have a say in the market’s operations.

In July, a dozen farmers signed a letter to the Community Health Works leadership board informing it that “collectively, the vendors have decided to seek other management moving forward, effective Aug. 3,” according to court filings.

The band of farmers had planned to have the newly formed Napier Heights Food Co-Op manage the market. However, several farmers said those prospects soured as the Napier Co-op did not deliver on its promise to farmers of a producers-only market.

“We were adamant that it be a producer only market because that’s very important,” Tim Smith said, adding he saw a man at a recent Napier Co-Op market who was selling produce with the barcode stickers still attached. “What would have happened if you let resellers come in here? So, you got a lady over here who’s making baby clothes, selling and she’s doing real good. Then, all of a sudden, you let somebody that’s got a container from China come over and start selling cheap Chinese made (clothes.) That kind of cheapens the market and then people don’t know.”

The Napier Co-Op’s founder, Andrea Cooke, said she wanted to ensure no seller felt excluded.

“I like the flexibility of being able to have the people who work through this market, who have these microbusinesses through this market to help make the decisions about what we all feel is best and also based on what the community says they need,” Cooke said. “Sometimes even producer-only markets have to make exceptions in order to make sure that there’s enough food.”

In the recent letter to customers, the Growers Co-Op stated that farmers “have the most to lose or gain, the most at risk, and the most stamina to sustain our markets.”

“We want a producer-only farmers market, guided democratically by farmer input,” according to the recent letter from the Growers Co-Op. “We believe we deserve transparency, integrity, and accountability from any organization who positions themselves to facilitate our sales or impact our bottom line. These basic values have not been honored or respected by either organization currently trying to manage the market.”

The Growers Co-Op said its goal is to create a new weekly producers-only farmers market downtown every Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. It is calling for customers and supporters to write letters of endorsement to Macon-Bibb County Commissioners to bolster support for the market it hopes to create downtown in a location that has not been determined.

To do that, the Growers Co-Op will seek special accommodations from the county. Those requests, according to the letter, include: A partial or full waiver of the permitting fee; Free street parking for three hours each Wednesday for vendors and customers; A year-round, standing permit; An exception to a county rule that would allow for food trucks to participate as market vendors.

The Growers Co-Op is working to collect letters of support and plans to approach the county with the idea and endorsements by Nov. 15.

MARKET MANAGER MELEE 

In August, The band of a dozen farmers expected the Napier Co-Op would take over management of the Wednesday market. However, when the time came for that transition, the Napier Co-Op had not yet successfully negotiated with Community Health Works.

Cooke said she had exchanged a few emails with Community Health Works in which the possibility of sharing or changing management of the market was discussed. But after some time, she said Community Health Works stopped replying to her.

The July letter farmers signed to notify Community Health Works about the change in management never made it to the nonprofit’s office on Mulberry Street.

Tension came to a head Aug. 10 when the market manager for Community Health Works went to set up a table at the park and was met by representatives of the Napier Co-Op, who said they were the new managers of the market, according to the complaint filed in Bibb County Superior Court.

Since then, the two organizations – which both say increasing food access is their mission – have become parties to an escalating legal battle that has effectively eliminated any managed market at the park on Wednesdays. Trademark infringement and tortious interference with contracts are among allegations in the lawsuit filed Aug. 22.

A temporary protective order filed by a lawyer for Community Health Works prevents the Napier Co-Op from using the park on Wednesdays. So the Napier Co-Op started a new market in the same spot on Thursdays and also reserved the park on Wednesdays so Community Health Works could no longer officially be there.

THE PEOPLE

Willie Gorman Sr. lives in St. Paul Apartments and walks to Tattnall park on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Gorman, 73, said he most enjoys meeting new people at the market. On a recent Thursday, Gorman looked for produce but didn’t see any.

“I just buy them every once in a while,” Gorman said of fresh produce normally sold in the park. “When I want some vegetables, I go to the Walmart, Kroger, something like that. But I just come out here to support people.”

Macon baker Shirley King was at the park on both that Wednesday and Thursday. King retired from managing a school cafeteria in Warner Robins and now makes sweets and other baked treats. She is among vendors who signed the July letter to Community Health Works notifying the nonprofit of the vendor group’s intention to seek another market manager.

Asked if the back-to-back market days had a positive impact on her business, King said, “it could be if we could support it and find a way to get people to come.”

“It’s kind of slow today,” King said that Thursday. “But, you know, if the right people come by. Some people I usually see on Wednesdays. I don’t see them again on Thursdays. It’s kind of broken up.”

Jewelry Maker Carolyn Brown, owner of Jams, Jellies, Jewelry & More, had not been to sell at the park in about a month but returned one recent Wednesday. She was among the dozen or so vendors to sign the July letter to Community Health Works seeking new management, a record that is now part of court filings.

“I was pleasantly surprised,” Brown said as she packed up her tent after her first Wednesday back since the market kerfuffle in August. “It wasn’t as many people or as many vendors as I thought might come out, but the people that came out actually purchased things from us … The comments that I have heard more than anything, most people are glad to have us out twice a week.

Lena White of Rag & Frass Farm is among a handful of farmers who has continued showing up at the usual place and time on Wednesdays.

“What we’ve learned in this whole thing is we have, like, the best customers,” White said. “We have direct communication with many of our customers. So we can get up with them and they can communicate with us and we have pre orders. … That’s been like the diamond in the rough of this is our getting able to still see our customers in the end.”

Family therapist Pam Davis was among White’s customers that Wednesday. Davis bought some butterhead lettuce, arugula and sweet potatoes. “The way food scarcity is going and the way climate crisis is going … people are acting very cavalierly to not honor our farmers,” Davis said. “I want to do all I can to keep them … If we let them slip through our fingers, we will live to regret it.”

To read the full letter from the Middle Georgia Growers Co-Op, click here.

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