Officials say upgrading the Morgan County-Decatur Farmers Market would benefit vendors and customers, but money constraints are a problem.
“We have a lot of plans, but we need money,” said farmers market board Chairwoman Laura Fitch. “It would be great for the market to be open year around, but we can’t do it in the facility where we are.”
Fitch said the nonprofit market, open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. mid-April through mid-November, operates on an annual budget of about $24,000. She said the farmers market is one of four in the state open six days a week during the growing season.
“Most of our money comes from table rentals to vendors,” said market manager Elizabeth Thompson, plus $3,000 per year in marketing money from the Morgan County Commission.
Thompson said vendors pay a daily rental rate of $12 per table and $15 per table on event days, such as the Corn Day set for Saturday. The market has 38 tables available to rent. The city offers assistance with the budget by providing routine maintenance, Thompson said.
Established in 1936, the farmers market has been at its current site at 211 First Ave. S.E. since 1984. Fitch and Thompson said they would like to make the farmers market an attraction to lure people to the area. They both would like to see the market open 12 months a year with a multi-purpose room to give seminars. They would like the market to have a small deli, and to sell cheese, eggs, baked goods and meats in the winter months.
Thompson said the site needs additional storage space.
"We need a storefront, too," said Fitch. "We’re just taking baby steps right now about improvements.”
Improvements in the facility could broaden the market's function, she said.
“We can offer more educational classes,” Fitch said. “Ask a grown kid where food comes from. Most don’t have a clue. They say either a grocery store or a restaurant. … Want to stay healthy? Know what you are putting in your body."
The city and county jointly own the site after CSX Railroad donated the land in 1984, Fitch said.
Morgan Commission Chairman Ray Long said the market’s location is not a problem, but he supports improvements to the existing site.
“I don’t know where you would move it,” Long said. “The restaurants downtown buy from them. Everybody knows where they are. We looked a few years ago about locating over across the railroad tracks at the warehouse. We thought it was a good idea. We were going in there to make it larger and have a small restaurant. The board at that time didn’t want to do that."
Long said the county assists the market staff when needs arise. He said in recent years the county helped alleviate problems with plumbing and damage from rats.
He said he is looking for funding from the local legislative delegation for improvements.
"Maybe take it down and rebuild it. Make it something nice, something to be proud of,” Long said.
Thompson said the farmers market was not built to add on a supporting structure, so “improvements will be costly.”
At least one customer said this week the market could benefit from a move to a location with easier access to Interstate 65.
“Maybe somewhere over by the Celebration Arena in Priceville would be a place to build a new one,” said Rhonda Blevins, of Decatur, while buying squash and peppers at the farmers market. “There’s always something going on over there. Also, enclosing part of the market would attract the elderly population who won’t have to worry about the elements.”
Chris Sharp, of Sharp Farms in Priceville, said she would like to see the market “on a busier road and away from the train tracks.”
Vendor Jacob Fortenberry, a senior at Decatur High, said keeping the market open on Saturdays beyond the growing season might work. He was selling barbecue sauces, squash, cucumbers and eggplant this week. “The farmers market definitely needs more people, vendors and customers,” he said.
Thompson said a dry spring and early summer have reduced the number of vendors setting up shop this season.
Marilyn Champion, of Champion Farms in Falkville, is a regular vendor selling out of the back of her mother’s red truck. She’s not so sure moving or adding to the farmers market is a necessity.
“We have a lot of customers who live around here and they may not want to drive to another place,” she said. “Some people might expect tomatoes year round and we know that won’t happen with the local growers.”
And longtime customer Larry Wilhite, of Trinity, said he wants the market to stay as it is.
“I’ve been coming here since the thing opened,” said Wilhite, 85. “I don’t think moving it is a good idea.”