By: Contributing Writer, Tammy Joyner
Those seasonal roasted vegetables on the menu at the posh Atlanta restaurant Ray’s On the River most likely come from The Atlanta State Farmers Market in Forest Park.
So does the emergency supply of produce when premier grocers Whole Foods and Sprouts are in a pinch because their regular produce suppliers fall short. In fact, the Clayton County market is the backbone of the Southeast’s multibillion-dollar food supply chain.
Billed as “The World’s Largest Roadside Fruit and Vegetable stand,” the 155-acre complex off I-75 has been supplying the South with everything from apples to zucchinis for six decades. What’s not grown locally or stateside comes from Mexico, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, and other locales. The market not only supplies grocery stores and restaurants but schools and prisons as well.
The market also is known as “The South’s Refrigerator” because of its state-of-the-art refrigeration system. There’s 890,000 square feet (roughly 20 football fields) of climate-controlled space. About half of which is cooler space. Another 16,400 square feet is freezer space. The cooler section will grow by 75,000 square feet next year.
“This market supplies the entire southeast with produce,” said Jeff Howard, manager of the sprawling complex.
The Clayton County market is home to 100 businesses, 45 of which sell directly to restaurants and grocery stores and other commercial outlets. The retail side sells to individual shoppers and mom-and-pop companies.
Eighteen-wheeler trucks, buyers and shoppers eager to get the best shot at the freshest selections filled the market on a recent Friday morning.
David Rodda drove more than 120 miles to Sunbelt Produce Distributors, a family-owned wholesaler at the market. He bought boxes and bags of corn, green peanuts, apples, oranges, bananas and onions for his employer Crown Produce, a Chattanooga wholesaler. Crown, in turn, sells to grocery stores and restaurants in Tennessee. Rodda has been making the trek to the market three times a week for 30 years.
“The friendly people and fresh produce,” keep him coming back he said.
“People don’t realize how many fruits and vegetables come through this place or how many jobs the market and companies within market provide,” said Sunbelt Co-owner Cliff Sherman. “There’s a lot of people out here working.”
In the nearby open-air pavilion, Wunmi Wilson of Jonesboro loaded up on tomatoes, plantain, carrots and habanaro peppers slated for a large meal she was making for a weekend gathering.
In addition to fruits and vegetables, the market’s garden center sells plants, shrubs, trees, ground cover and ornamentals, cut flowers, landscape supplies, large decorative pots and yard ornamentals.
“There’s great prices compared to stores,” Wilson said.
While you’re in the garden center, try a fully-loaded chicken burrito at Don Burrito’s Grill, a Tex-Mex cafe. Wash it down with Purple Pineapple, a fresh-squeezed concoction from the juice bar. You won’t have to wonder where the ingredients originate.
ATLANTA FARMERS MARKET: AT A GLANCE
The market is one of 13 wholesale terminal fruits and vegetable markets in the United States.
Here are some vital stats about the market:
Revenues the market generates for Georgia (Fiscal Year 2018): $5.6 million