Historic Market Looks For Bright Future During Difficult Days
By Tanner Hood
Fresh produce, friendly faces and a family oriented environment await visitors at the Alabama Farmers Market in Jefferson County.
Incorporated by the Jefferson County Truck Growers Association (JCTGA) in 1921 but operating before then, the Alabama Farmers Market has been a Birmingham staple for over 100 years.
Flavor Pic Tomato Co. founder and market member Leon Johnson is the second generation to set up shop at the market, which now boasts covered stalls for vendors, warehouses for wholesalers and parking for customers in its current location northwest of downtown.
“I started in 1957 and went to the old downtown market with my dad,” he said. “We would sell something and have to carry it several blocks to the buyer’s vehicle.”
The market began when mules and buggies were the preferred methods of transportation. Now, 18-wheelers waiting to be loaded with fresh produce from across the South are a common sight.
However, being deeply rooted in history isn’t the Alabama Farmers Market’s only unusual characteristic.
“Farmers own the market,” said JCTGA President Wade Whited, who farms in Blount County. “They’ve got the vote on how this market runs.”
A nine-member board made up of active Alabama Farmers Market producers leads the market. Whited said the requirement ensures decision-makers understand the market’s greatest needs.
“A majority votes on ideas and situations,” Whited said. “We’ve got a board that runs it, but it all comes back to the membership.”
Whited said the Alabama Farmers Market is one of a handful of farmer-owned markets in the U.S. It’s a source of pride — and challenges.
“Because we’re member-owned, we don’t receive federal or state funds,” Whited said.
Without those funds and with decreasing membership numbers, he said it’s difficult to update market infrastructure and appearance.
“At one time, there were over 200 members, but now it’s closer to 100,” Whited said. “Our youngest board member is 28 years old, so we need a younger generation to take over and see the importance of the market.”
Despite scattered, empty stalls, there is still a buzz of pride and joy from vendors who serve customers with smiles and a firm handshake. For many, the people of the Alabama Farmers Market have become a tight-knit community.
“I remember coming up here every summer as a child,” said vendor Walter Postell Jr. “The people of the Alabama Farmers Market are my family.”
That concept is important to the market’s farmers, who said they’d enjoy seeing more families spend their time at the market learning about agriculture and buying fresh produce.
To help farmers and customers, the Alabama Farmers Market is open 24/7, year-round. Whited said this was implemented to help farmers who were traveling from all parts of the state by giving them access to the market whenever they could arrive.
Members span from Limestone to Houston counties.
Although some vendors have set operating hours, Whited said the best time to buy fresh produce is early in the morning when most farmers pick and deliver their products to the market.
“When you have more people selling here, you get more people to buy,” said Postell. “The biggest thing is getting fresh fruits and vegetables to the people who we’ve become family with over the years.”
Visit AlabamaFarmersMarket.org to learn more.