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Availability for January 8

As we start our eighth year at Athens Locally Grown, I’m going to take the next few weeks to discuss the hows and whys of ALG. We’ve come a long way from the first half-dozen farmers putting together boxes for the couple dozen customers out at Heirloom Organics in Winterville. Three of those first growers are still with us, as are many of those first customers, but now we’re approaching seventy growers and two thousand customers. I’ve worked hard to keep the spirit of cooperation intact even as we’ve grown, but in the convenience of our system the reasons for why we do what we do sometimes get glossed over.

This week, I’m going to talk about the many legal issues surrounding our market. Even though many people call us “the co-op”, ALG is legally an extension of my wife’s and my vegetable farm. There’s no board of directors, no shield corporation, no pot of grant money. It’s just us, and while that keeps things very simple, it also exposes my family to a ton of liability.

Some of you have sent me news items about the raid last month by armed law enforcement officers (some have described it as a SWAT raid, but it wasn’t quite that bad) on the home of John and Jacqueline Stowers, who run the Manna Storehouse, an organic food co-op in Ohio not too dissimilar from Athens Locally Grown. You can watch the Stowers tell their side of the story, or read news accounts, or read lots of web chatter about it. However it all plays out in court, undisputed is the entire family (including children) were held at gunpoint for hours while their house was searched and food and computers were seized. I’m doing my best to avoid having the same thing happen to my family, and there are several things we do specifically toward that end:

  • The growers list their own items and set their own prices. When you buy from them, it is from them, not from me, and not from Athens Locally Grown.
  • Athens Locally Grown never takes ownership of the food. The growers drop it off, and you pick it up.
  • The raw milk is a little different, since by federal law the dairies in South Carolina are not allowed to bring their milk into Georgia. In this case, the price for milk on the site includes a separate amount you pay us to go pick up your milk for you.
  • Everything at the market has a customer’s name attached to it. ALG does not repackage any items.
  • When you pay, you’re paying into a shared cash box for all of the growers. This lets you write a single check for convenience, but you are really paying all of the growers directly.
  • The growers give a percentage of their sales back to the market to cover the expenses of keeping the market going. I’ll cover finances another week.
  • ALG never buys from a grower and resells the items to you. Never.
  • When a grower sells items that need licenses from either the state or the federal government, ALG verifies that the proper licenses have been obtained.

The ownership issue is key. It’s one of the reasons why we can’t deliver, and why we usually can’t hold items for you if you aren’t able to pick up your orders. That might be a good business for someone, but it’s not at all what I want to be into. Many food coops and even some farmers markets aren’t as careful with that as I try to be, and indications are that’s what got the Manna Storehouse into trouble. There are so many grey areas in all this, and the regulations don’t even consider that something like Athens Locally Grown might exist. We’re firmly in the grey areas with most everything we do that it’s just too risky for me to bring us into the areas that are clearly black.

So, these are the sorts of things that guide my thinking as Locally Grown has grown over the years. Everything we do has legal ramifications, and the state of Georgia has a reputation for being no nonsense when it comes to enforcement. I’m not a lawyer, but every time we enter those grey areas, I make sure we follow the intent of the laws, don’t flaunt anything, and have a good defense and a paper trail should we need it.

On that note, let’s get on to the food! The bakers have returned from their holidays, and the cold has bitten back some of the greens, but apart from that the list looks much like last week. January and February tend to be hard months to grow anything, even in greenhouses, so we’re likely to see the variety dip a bit in coming weeks. It won’t be too long, though, now that the days are slowly getting longer, that we’ll start seeing the spring goodies come back.

Thanks for all of your support. If it wasn’t for your desire to eat freshly harvested, locally grown food, we wouldn’t be here at all. We’ll see you on Thursday from 4:30 to 8pm at the old state farmers market on Broad Street!