If you find yourself in Athens, GA on a Wednesday or a Saturday, the Athens Farmers Market is the place to be.
Enjoy live music, a chef demo, or an educational activity; catch up with your friends; swap recipe ideas with the person ahead of you buying kohlrabi; and of course, find the very best fresh, local, sustainable food.
Below, Jan Kozak the Market Manager, shares why the market is such a special place for him and for the community.
Where is your market? Athens is a small town of about 120,000 90 minutes east of Atlanta, in the Georgia Piedmont. UGA is here and we have a thriving art and music scene (REM, the B52s, and Neutral Milk Hotel are all from Athens), and a growing local food scene too. The market is trying to establish itself as a central institution in Athens, as something that we’re known for.
Briefly describe the Athens Farmers Market. We’re in our 6th season and we’re really proud of our work so far. We have one market on Wednesday afternoons at City Hall, in heart of downtown, and one market on Saturdays at Bishop Park. This is our bigger market, we have 35-40 vendors and we average about 2,000 patrons!
What makes your market stand out? We only allow vendors from the 27 counties surrounding Athens. We have a hyper definition of local, and we’re really proud of that. In addition to food, we also have local arts and craft vendors. The market feels like a festival. We have live music, educational activities, chef demos, and we partner with other organizations to have wellness fairs. It’s always very lively!
Do you do this full time? Do have any other jobs? I work about 25-30 hrs/wk as market manager and I love the work. It’s so dynamic and it’s an amazing opportunity for me personally to be part of the community. I’m also the Operations Manager for Thousand Faces Coffee, a craft coffee roaster in town that actually has a booth at the market. I am also the Program Director for Wholesome Wave Georgia, which partners with 21 farmers markets statewide to give them the financial capacity to double the value of food stamps. It's all connected to food and to the market.
How long has the market been around? The market started in 2008, and I started as market manager in 2010. It was initiated through a community effort that recognized that we had this great farming community, and a tremendous demand in the Athens. That first Saturday market 3,000 people came through, and vendors were mostly sold out by 9:30am! I was there as a customer that first Saturday, but I missed most of the food because I slept in!
When did the market begin to require certification? We required that produce vendors be Certified Naturally Grown or Certified Organic from the get-go. Our motto is “local and sustainable.” We’re committed to supporting local small scale farmers. The USDA certification is not accessible to many of our farmers - they don’t want to come out of the field to do the mountains of paperwork and/or they can’t afford it. CNG’s peer review inspection process makes a lot of sense for us.
What unexpected customer interactions have been especially rewarding? Athens is a great community but we have one of the lowest personal income indicators in Georgia. We have huge income gap, so being able to put together a market that includes all members of the community is really exciting. On the surface everyone is shopping for great local healthy food, but they’re also interacting with each other. The saying is that people have 10 times as many conversations at a farmers market than at a grocery store. It’s a place where folks from all different income strata can connect to each other through food.
Favorite vegetable: That’s hard to say, maybe summer squash? I think Swiss chard is under appreciated. Prepare it with a little salt garlic, olive oil. You can put it in salads, sauté it, put it in soups. It’s so good for you, so delicious, and so versatile.
Do you have any guilty pleasures? I’d say food in general. My wife and I spend a huge portion of our disposable income on food. That’s just the decision we’ve made. It all comes back to the way our nation sees at food as less important to most people, but I go the other way.
What plans or hopes do you have for your market in the future? I would love to see our market become year-round. (Obviously, that’s with the input and support from our growers.) There are year-round markets in the northeast with cooler climate and shorter growing seasons. If they can do it, then we should be able to. We have been slowly extending our season, it’s already 9 months long from April through December. It’s a matter of having the supply and diverse enough offerings. Going year round is probably about 4-5 years off.
I also hope that we continue to be successful such that the local government incorporates us into their plans for the city. We would benefit tremendously from some kinds of infrastructure. A roof over our head would protect us from the elements and make the market more stable for our growers. We see a significant drop in the market when it’s rainy. We’d need a shelter that doesn’t take away from the ambiance of the market. That would be a huge step forward.