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Small grant pays off big for farmers, shoppers

By Gwen Roland
University of Georgia

Few Georgia counties have more farms than Carroll County -- 702 in 1997. With much of Atlanta only an hour away, though, the county's agriculture was fast losing ground to urban sprawl.

In 2002, the Carroll County Farmland and Rural Preservation Partners started looking for ways to reverse the trend. They believed a farmers' market might connect farmers with the community and highlight the county's rural character.

The group got a $23,000 grant from the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program run by the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University.

A little money = startling results

SARE usually provides major funding for large-scale scientific research. "But there are situations where a little money put directly into the hands of people close to a problem can produce startling and immediate results," said Jeff Jordan, director of Southern Region SARE at the UGA Griffin, Ga., campus.

The small grant to the Carroll Partners did just that. The group conducted workshops to help growers choose high-demand crops, grow quality produce, set competitive prices, create attractive market displays and develop customer relationships.

In the first season, 28 vendors sold more than $150,000 worth of fruits, vegetables, cut flowers, grass-finished beef, honey, preserves, baked goods, landscape plants and a few traditional, handmade crafts.

In 2003, the market added 10 more vendors. It expanded into a subscription market at the end of the season.

And it didn't end there. A group of shoppers and growers from Pike County started attending the Carroll County workshops. They decided to launch Pike County's Market on the Square a few weeks after the Cotton Mill Market opened.

A model for others to follow

They used the Carroll County market as a model. They even borrowed the bylaws and vendor regulations as a starting point for their own documents.

Market on the Square was an immediate hit, averaging 10 vendors in 2002 and 25 in 2003. The president of a local bank was so impressed he offered the market free use of the bank's shaded lot next to the town square.

Besides boosting retail sales of fresh produce, Market on the Square has helped launch several new businesses in Pike County.

* A rose grower saw the potential of all those Saturday morning customers and built a small, inspected kitchen to sell baked goods along with fresh-cut roses.

* A beef producer set up a new customer base by hawking his transition to pastured beef on market mornings.

* A senior citizen who had been making quilts as a hobby brought some for a special market event and found a new generation of customers.

Downtown market opens in Upson County

And that's not the end of the success story. Upson County Extension Agent Wes Smith watched Market on the Square's success for a season. Then in 2003, he organized the Downtown Market in Thomaston, building on the bylaws and rules passed along to Pike County from Carroll County.

The Downtown Market started out on Wednesday mornings. It soon expanded into Monday evenings, too.

"The Downtown Market has definitely been a success," Smith said. "Our first season provided a retail outlet for 30 farmers and brought shoppers downtown."

With 24 market days, the growers had about $20,000 in sales. The market will start the 2004 season with both the Monday and Wednesday market days.

Jordan wasn't surprised. "While it's exciting that all this activity in Carroll, Pike and Upson counties started with a modest amount of grant money from Southern SARE, it's not unique to Georgia," he said.

"We're seeing this kind of ripple effect throughout the South," he said. "It's exactly what we envisioned when we started this grant program: many new opportunities springing from each success."

(Gwen Roland is University of Georgia information specialist with the Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.)

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