Henry Farmers Market provides healthy food, strengthens community

By Jason A. Smith
Times Correspondent

Gary West of McDonough has loved gardening his entire life, with his specialties including melons, cabbage, broccoli, tomatoes, green beans and other assorted vegetables. He smiled as he welcomed local residents to peruse his table of vegetables at the Henry County Farmers Market Thursday.

Gary West of Circle M. Farm displays his produce at the Henry County Farmers Market. The market is held each Thursday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Photo by John Jackson

“I enjoy the interaction with the customers,” says West. “People get the opportunity to get fresh produce that’s locally grown.”

The Farmers Market launched its seventh season Thursday. Its hours, through August, are Thursdays from 10 a.m., to 2 p.m., in the Jason T. Harper Event Center at Heritage Park in McDonough. Admission to the market is free.

West has been a vendor at the market for the last five years, he says the venue helps to promote healthy eating.

“Just about everybody here tries to use organics,” says West. “They’re trying to limit pesticides as much as possible.”

Items being featured include fresh produce, vegetables, baked goods, pet treats, soaps, honey and woodworking products, says Frank Hancock, agriculture and natural resource agent at the University of Georgia Extension Office in McDonough. He has overseen the market since its inception locally, focusing on promoting food grown by local farmers.

“We have an average of 15 vendors at each market.” Says Hancock. “That’s grown from the beginning, when we had five or six vendors. There are several new vendors who have called in. We want to encourage people to come out and support their local farmers and entrepreneurs.”

Hancock admits that attendance at the market has dropped slightly in recent years, going from roughly 250 customers to about 200. The issue at hand, he says, is one of “supply and demand.”

The challenge to having the market is, you have to have enough vendors so that customers want to come to the market,” says Hancock. “And, you have to have enough customers so that the vendors want to come back. It’s a balancing act. So far, we’ve had enough to sell and enough people to buy. More markets have popped up over the last couple years, which is good because it gives our vendors more opportunities to sell their goods on different days of the week. But, it has resulted in a little decline in the number that attend this market.”

Along with an annual tomato-tasting event in July, Hancock is planning to schedule demonstrations by local chefs to generate interest in the market. He says recent grant funding will help to get the word out as well.

“AgSouth had a grant program in several states,” says Hancock. “Our market was one of 26 that received a $1,000 grant for advertising and promotion of the market.”

Some farmers come from other areas of the state to bring their items to the Henry market. David Mangham of Circle M Farm in Molena, Ga., is in his third year as a vendor. The Pike County farmer offers a variety of vegetables for his customers, as well as buckwheat honey and clover.

“We specialize in tomatoes, but we grow everything,” he says. “We have 50 hives of honey bees, we have five acres of produce and 10 acres we plant for the bees. People like tomatoes, so they mainly come for the tomatoes.”

Mangham acknowledges that the market has been slower in the last couple years. Still, he says, the market is “good for the community.”

“If they didn’t come by, we couldn’t come here,” he says. “It gives the option to buy fresh stuff, instead of buying from a grocery store.”

Deby Brown of McDonough returned to Heritage Park this year, offering aprons, wristlets and wallets for her customers. Brown says she has loved making aprons since she was five years old. She says along with providing a service for her customers, making aprons keeps her active.

“My grandmother taught me how to sew,” she says. “That was my reward for being good. I think of her every day. I’ve had some recent health challenges, and it gets me back to my therapy. It gives me a purpose and helps me keep going. It’s empowering.”

Brown adds that, in her experience, women aren’t the only ones who have benefited from her apron-making skills.

“This is the time when everybody gets one for Father’s Day,” she says.

Brown, a Master Gardener, has been a vendor at the Farmers Market since it first opened. She says the venue provides healthy eating alternatives for local residents.

“It’s good that we’re bringing local produce, which is fresher,” says Brown. “It’s so beneficial for the community, as a whole, that you can come here on Thursday, get your fruits and vegetables and eat better while you can. It’s beneficial for the seller, too. It makes the community self-sufficient. We’re supporting each other. I think it builds the community.”

Hancock, along with Henry Extension Coordinator Susan Howington, will focus on enhancing the safety of locally-grown produce during a Lunch and Learn session on June 9 at noon. It will be in Room A of the Extension Office, at 97 Lake Dow Road.

For more information, call 770-288-8421, or visit the Henry County Farmers Market’s Facebook page.