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 All in a day’s work

 

A vendor’s loves and laments about the Atlanta State Farmers Market

Story by Jardena Robinson

Photos by Rachel McBride

 

 

January 27, 2022

  The Forest Park Issue

How we reported this story:  Canopy Atlanta trains and pays community members to learn reporting skills to better serve their community. Jardena Robinson, a Canopy Atlanta Fellow, previously covered who the Atlanta State Farmers Market really serves, for our Forest Park Issue. As a follow up, she has written an essay which has emerged from the Fellows’ coursework and reporting. Rachel McBride, the photographer for this story, is also a Canopy Atlanta Fellow. Support our community-powered work today.

Suzanne Collins still sits at the same desk her father, Curtis Collins, once used when she orders seasonal produce and tackles the needs of each day. Shelves built by her brothers still display the Amish jams and preserves that are for sale. The coolers that the brothers installed at the stand—one of the few at the farmers market that sits at the mouth of Forest Park with enclosed office and storage space—still keep the produce at the correct temperatures to extend freshness. One recent upgrade that she relishes: wheels added to some of the original display stands to transport the produce in and out of the cooler rooms.     

Collins Wholesale Produce Company was among the first vendors to open at the previously named Georgia State Farmers Market in 1959, when it moved to Forest Park from Murphy Avenue in Atlanta.

A lack of modernization plans for the aging market doesn’t discourage the thrill of having all your produce consumed (either from purchase or donations to nonprofits and animal farms), serving a small but dedicated customer base, and feelings of nostalgia of continuing the family business.

Collins has been running the day-to-day operations of her father’s stand since the late 1970s, but she has fond memories of time spent with her dad when he was in charge. “He used to have this little brown stove with a screen on top, and we would always have baked sweet potatoes in the winter time. It would be too busy to really go eat [a full meal], but you could go sit down and eat a sweet potato,” she recalls of those early days at the market. Collins still remembers her mother packing vegetables in front of the stand while her brothers assisted her dad wherever help was needed, including unloading truckloads of produce and sales.

 

Decades later, some of her brothers have maintained careers in the industry including Mike Collins of Collins Brothers Produce and Curtis “Big David” Collins III of Phoenix Wholesale Foodservice—both located in the farmers market.

 

But it’s Collins Wholesale Produce Company’s current manager, Matthew Turner, who Collins says carries on her father’s spirit. He’s a talker, just like her dad used to be. It’s a perfect coworking match for Collins, who prefers to stay behind the scenes. “I just juggle every day according to how the day presents itself,” she says. 

“I just juggle every day according to how the day presents itself.”

Turner started off as a customer at Collins Wholesale Produce Company and has worked with Collins for the last 10 years. He grew up around farming and spent years working in the restaurant industry. “Then, I got older and realized the rat race of chasing a dollar wasn’t really what I wanted to do, and that’s what led me on the path of produce,” says the former patron-turned-customer manager. Collins’ largest customer base now is local small businesses from Forest Park and beyond. “It’s local restaurants, small hotels, and Mom and Pop places that are not yet large enough to start having deliveries but just large enough to really come out and do bulk shopping,” he says. “They can buy cases of stuff instead of ones and twos because you’re always going to get the better, commercial price when you buy the whole box.”   

 

On Saturdays, Turner opens up shop by setting up the display and making sure everything is fresh. They do their best not to let anything go to waste—a point of pride. The produce that does not sell is donated to organizations that redistribute the items to local families in need in the surrounding Forest Park. Items not fit for human consumption are given to local zoos or composted to help grow more food. The company also makes donations to the Forest Park Senior Center and, sometimes, the seniors are brought to the market to visit.   

 

By far, the best part of Turner’s day is engaging with customers with whom he confidently tackles a variety of topics, from market timing to recipe integrity. “The grocery store is at least three weeks behind the market, so if the market runs out of tomatoes, then about three weeks from then, you’ll see the grocery store start running out of tomatoes,” he shares as one example. He also does not fully trust the USDA’s definition of “organic,” explaining that growers are still allowed to have up to 25 percent of their crop to be nonorganic while their farm receives the organic label. He suggests shoppers in search of organic options look for produce with the Certified Naturally Grown label instead. His advice on sweet potatoes will keep you in granny’s good graces. She will not be happy if you purchase North Carolina sweet potatoes (the long ones) to bake her pies, he warns. Why? Because “those are the stringy ones.”

Seasonal produce is organized neatly on shelves built by the Collins men. The added wheels make it easy to transfer unsold produce into temperature controlled coolers.

A search through the Georgia Archives off Jonesboro Road reveals stories of a once-vibrant Georgia State Farmers Market. In its own way it’s still vibrant, but instead of congenial Watermelon Day festivities, local pageants and activities to foster connection to the Forest Park community, pedestrians and trucks now fight for a prime spot at their vendor of choice. Construction at the current site was completed in 1959. At that time, the 150-acre site was described as the most modern farmers market in the country. Though the name of the market was changed to the Atlanta/Clayton County Produce Terminal and Market in 2019, not much else has; and “modern” is the last word you would use to describe the market now. Still, word-of-mouth recommendations are drawing new curious visitors from all over. In fact, Collins says she’s never had to advertise the family business.

 

San Diego transplant Chloe Edwards discovered the market through her husband who often visited with his grandmother as a kid. She loves being able to grab Mexican snacks that bring back childhood memories. The piñata she purchased for her son’s birthday was also purchased at the farmers market. “All of this looks so familiar to me so I love that,” she says. With her are two friends visiting the market for the first time, sisters Christine and Eunice Louis-Jacques. Christine frequents several community markets around metro Atlanta and is impressed by the international options available at the market. The coconuts and jackfruit they saw at another vendor brings back fond memories of their roots. “Our family is from the Caribbean so sometimes, you know, you just want some of those snacks,” says Eunice. “I’ve never seen jackfruit at any of the other farmers markets so that’s really nice.” 

 

The sisters are excited to try the preserves they picked up from Collins who asked Edwards, the West Coast–er of the group, if she’d ever visited Pike’s Place Market in Seattle—the mostly indoor market and must-visit attraction where visitors can find anything from flowers to paintings and fruit. “You name it, they’ve got it,” says Collins. “And [that modern concept] would really do well here.”

Historical photos of the market found in the Atlanta Produce Dealers Association Atlanta Farmers’ Market Silver Anniversary booklet.

Both Collins and Turner are disappointed that very little has been done to improve the vendor’s site at the farmers market since the early days. Collins has made small improvements on her own, but dealing with the antiquated infrastructure frequently hinders her progress. “I just had these lights that come on when you walk in the door, put in,” she explains. “The water leak knocked them all out.”  

 

She has contacted the state about the water leak several times but to no avail. “They used to be really good about coming down here,” she says. “They would do it at the drop of a hat, but now it’s hard to get them here.” These days, it’s faster to make her own maintenance arrangements to handle repairs.

 

Collins would love to see a mix of the return of nostalgic community events combined with a more modern infrastructure. She suggests improved parking areas and an indoor space to help with temperature control since the extremes of 90 degree summers and cold temperatures in the winter are unkind to fresh produce. “You know, they talk about redoing all these buildings but I bet you they’ll tear them down,” she says. “That’s not what I would like to see happen, but if it does … I’ve done my best.” 

 

Despite the disappointment, Turner chooses to focus on giving excellent customer service and having faith that the business and logistic side of the market will eventually work itself out. “If you do everything right,” he says, while fussing with some Vidalia onions on the shelf, “the customers are going to come back.”

Automobiles, forklifts, pedestrians, and produce all share the rows of the Farmers Market making navigation difficult on busy days.

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