Auditors task state with determining future of Georgia farmers markets

An audit of the state’s farmers markets found that, other than the Atlanta Market, many are underused and more than half are losing money.

Georgia Department of Agriculture officials, however, say auditors may be viewing the markets through a different lens than the one they use.

“I think it depends on what your vision of a farmers market is,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture and the General Assembly need to re-evaluate the use of the state’s nine farmers markets to determine whether the cost is worth the benefit of having the facilities, according to a report the Department of Audits and Accounts released Tuesday.

“Operational improvements are needed to ensure that the markets, as an enterprise, are operating in a more business-like manner,” the report states.

Black said many of the administrative recommendations that were suggested during the 18-month process of the audit have been implemented.

“I absolutely agree that all aspects of government should employ business principles every day,” he said. “We apply business principles.”

For example, the department has looked more closely at its lease agreements for the markets and has centralized some of the accounting processes.

The audit noted that the Legislature approved the state’s borrowing of $15 million between 2014 and 2016 to improve the markets across the state, with $14 million of that money going to the Atlanta Market.

According to the audit, state farmers markets are underused by both customers and farmers. Of the nine markets run by the state, five of them cost more to operate than they generate in revenue.

Department Marketing Director Jack Spruill said while that may be true, the department has to consider the mission of the markets.

“Here is the perspective difference,” Spruill said. “How are these supposed to make profit, or how much are they supposed to add to the profitability as a whole of the community to give all of the agricultural community an outlet for their products?”

Black said the markets are loved by the communities they serve.

“Ten weeks out of the year that’s a very busy place,” Black said. “The local community would like to have it, and the local legislative delegation would like for it to be there.”

Auditors said the Department of Agriculture should focus each market, other than the one in Atlanta, and determine whether it needs to be closed. If the department chooses not to close markets, they need investment and the department must determine if and how they can be improved and modernized.

Black said while he always welcomes suggestions about how to improve all facets of the department, he is confident that the markets will thrive.

“What I have a lot of trust in is the professionals who are in this industry — who came to us with careers — and understand the business and understand the management of state resources,” he said.

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