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Though there’s ‘no room to grow but up,’ Atlanta State Farmers Market remains vital to Georgia produce


FOREST PARK, GA — On first glance, a visitor from 1958 would instantly recognize the Atlanta State Farmer’s Market – the physical dimensions have not changed much since it opened in that year.

But peer a little deeper into how the market actually works and it’s clear that time did not stand still.

The market is limited physically by its boundaries, 150 acres of prime real estate in an industrial district sandwiched just minutes between downtown Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Rail lines frame one border, while Interstate 75 marks another (multiple Atlanta interstates heading in all directions are accessible from the market in a matter of minutes).

Since opening, the market has become a hub of commerce and transportation so busy it has its own supermarket, restaurants, visitors center, gift shop and police force. From a produce business standpoint, it’s perfectly situated: There’s no better place for Peach State produce providers and purveyors to do business.

The first Atlanta Farmers Market was built in the 1920s on Central Avenue. By the 1940s, a new market had opened on Murphy Street in Atlanta. By the 1950s, it had become clear air traffic and the coming interstate system would play a major role in the transport of produce and the current location was secured. Construction began in 1958 and the market opened a year later.

It once seemed improbable that the full 150 acres could ever be utilized.

Built on a long sloping hillside, viewed from the top the market looks like a military-industrial complex, complete with high-security fences and manned entry gates. At least 100 trucks pay to load or unload each day, not including the dozens that operate for the Market’s tenants. A steady stream of cars and pickups enter and exit.

General line, specialty houses, vegetable houses, pre-cut packaging, packers, repackers, purveyors, processors, egg and poultry purveyors, wholesale grocers and vendors, meat marketers, floral, hamper house and trucking companies occupy almost 900,000 square feet of climate-controlled space, half of that refrigerated and another 16,500 square feet dedicated to freezer space. Big companies and mom-and-pop suppliers operate side-by-side from sprawling distribution warehouses and outdoor sheds with hundreds of stalls featuring produce from truck farmers, consignment sellers and an ever-growing number of ethnic purveyors.

“We’re out of space,” says market manager Paul Thompson. “The only direction we have to grow is up.”

And that may well happen, Thompson said. Already there are current plans to convert some of the outdoor shed space to other uses, but the market is looking to innovative tenants to come up with new ideas as well.

One such is the Nickey Gregory Co., which has expanded numerous times since its founding at the bottom of the hill in 2000. The Gregory Co. has grown to the point that its tomato repack operation was located off the market – there was simply no room at HQ. Working with state officials, the company found some room to grow – an old weights and measure building was flattened to make way for Gregory’s latest expansion, which will increase storage space and docks by half again.

“They’ve really gone out of their way to work with us and make it easy for us to keep our Georgia operations (there’s also a second warehouse in Miami, FL) here on the market,” said Nickey Gregory Vice President of Marketing and Business Development Andrew Scott. “We did some re-racking that created a lot more pallet space; the expansion gives us room for the tomato repack and to add more refrigerated space and docks.”

Some companies, like General Produce, a Castellini Co.-owned distributor atop the hill and a tenant for 50 years, simply can’t find a solution for growth. The company recently opened a sparkling new mammoth retail distribution and Club Chef center nearby. Wholesale operations will remain on the market.

“They really do a great job here, there just wasn’t any more room for us to grow,” said General’s Executive Vice President and General Manager Randy Lineberger. “We moved our retail operation offsite out of necessity, but for everything else, we’ll be here for the long haul.”

Combined, Georgia’s state farmers markets are home to more than 150 companies employing 3,700 farmers, packers, retailers, receivers, and staff with an estimated payroll over $75 million. The Atlanta market is home to 85 percent of those businesses and last year they moved almost $1 billion worth of product.

The Atlanta Market employs about 50 full-time staffers, plus part-timers, including a 12-member inspections department, an 11-man maintenance crew and a police force of 17. Like the city it serves, the Atlanta Market is the showcase for the rest of the state. Open to the public around the clock every day save Christmas, more than 4,000 people visit in a typical 24-hour span.

“We’re looking at different ways to utilize the entire market and make it more useful for everyone,” Thompson said. “I’m still learning things every day and we’re all striving to make this place more efficient and more useful for everyone involved. We’re definitely working to make some difference and make this place better than it is now — and it’s a great place now.”

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