Easy being green

The Common Market Georgia helps small-scale farmers into large-scale kitchens

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Photo credit: Courtesy Alexis Edwards
FARMING FAM: The Edwards family grow hydroponic lettuce at R&G Farms, which is distributed to local institutions by The Common Market Georgia.

Alexis Edwards calls herself the “Lettuce Lady.” She and her husband Colby have grown Bibb lettuce in a hydroponic greenhouse for over a decade, selling their produce to farmers’ markets in middle Georgia and upscale Macon restaurants. It’s tough for small family farms like the Edwards’ to distribute their produce in the Atlanta food system, but a new CSA is trying to change that.

Atlanta’s newest food distributor, the Common Market Georgia, is an ideal partner for farm-to-institution endeavors. The nonprofit picks up fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meats from farms and delivers their goods to hospitals, universities, and schools around the metro Atlanta area. All of these farms are within a 250-mile radius of the new Common Market warehouse and distribution facility in East Point. 

“Food touches every part of our lives,” says Georgia director Lily Rolader. “It’s reaching you at the hospital down the road or where you drop your kids off at school. We want to create the infrastructure to make it possible for farmers to move food and make it easy for our customers to get good food.”

The Common Market has been distributing food for nearly 10 years and has moved more than $18 million in food from 150 small family farms between New York, Virginia, and the mid-Atlantic. They’re now continuing down south in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Local food systems champion Susan Pavlin founded the Common Market Georgia in 2016 and ran the CSA out of Sweet Auburn Market. Now, Rolader has stepped up to the role of director to oversee the new Atlanta warehouse and draw in more farmers like Edwards.

Image TRUCKIN': The Common Market Georgia picks up produce from local farms and delivers them to hospitals, universities, and schools around the metro Atlanta area.Corryn LytleTen years ago, inspired by a friend who grew tomatoes, Alexis Edwards decide to try her own thumb at hydroponic farming. She contacted Crop King, a greenhouse manufacturer, who suggested she and her family start off with lettuce. Next thing they knew, an 18-wheeler full of the ingredients needed for a commercial sized hydroponic greenhouse was delivered to their Dublin, Georgia, home.

Edwards named the farm R&G, after her two children, Riley and Grace. She and her family got started by simply inviting members of the community to stop into the greenhouse and select their own organic lettuce, sold at just $2 a head. “They will just walk in, pick their lettuce, and leave money in the sink,” Edwards says. “It’s on the honor system.”

A rustic sink serving as a cash register may be charming, but the truth is small and midscale family farms often struggle to make ends meet. In a food system that has evolved to favor low prices and convenience, Edwards said partnering with a CSA like the Common Market is crucial to reaching a wider Atlanta market. “It has been a huge confidence builder to be able to start something from the ground up and watch it grow,” she continues. “It's hard to do that nowadays.” 

Thanks to better distribution partnerships forged through the Common Market, R&G Farms currently supplies Emory Hospital with leafy greens. As an independent farm, Edwards says they normally wouldn’t have even been on the hospital’s radar. “The Common Market opened doors for us that we were not able to and other companies just haven't been able to do. They’re big on fresh. They don't hold it in their cooler, they get produce from us and they are pretty much delivering it the next day.” Other big wholesale produce companies in Atlanta let veggies sit in coolers up to a week — allowing nutrients to break down before even reaching consumers.

Image WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Employees celebrate the grand opening of The Common Market Georgia in East Point.Corryn LytleThe Common Market’s new warehouse in East Point is over 60,000 square feet. As soon as the distributor purchased the warehouse in December 2016, they got to work building out their cooler space, upgrading from their three-cooler rental agreement at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Today, they have 6,500 square feet of cold storage with zones to separate foods that naturally produce ethylene, the gas emitted during ripening, and products that are sensitive to ethylene. Refrigerated shipping containers have allowed them to distribute more frozen products.

Most of the produce is boxed up and driven to large institutions including Morrison Healthcare and the 11 hospitals in their network, including Grady and Emory. Sage Dining represents many private schools and even more Atlanta public schools; early childcare providers and community organizations are included in the Common Market partnerships. Services are not limited to large groups, though. Farm share members can also be individuals and families who can pick up pre-selected, seasonal items at participating spaces such as workplaces, schools, and community centers.

The Common Market Georgia’s procurement manager, Katie Chatham, spends most of her day donning and shedding layers of clothing as she steps inside the cooler to take detailed inventory. But she also thinks big picture for the farmers. Her job is to run reports of cases of food sold month by month, identify new areas of growth, and estimate projected amounts for products for the upcoming season. Chatham personally drives to each farm to chat with growers face-to-face about the needs of the upcoming season and to plot where they should distribute next.

At this month’s vision meeting, Edwards said she hopes to sell R&G Farms greens to Grady Hospital. Regardless, she knows the Common Market will find her a good fit in Atlanta. “They are an incredible company full of the most wonderful, honest, and organized people we have ever dealt with in produce,” she says. “They have reached out and have done so much more than we could have ever possibly done on our own.”

The Common Market Georgia, 1050 Oakleigh Drive, East Point. 678-343-9525 ext. 21. www.thecommonmarket.org

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