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Is Hall County ready for organic?
Products catching on at a sluggish pace
Tim Mathias bought Austin’s Nutrition Center in Gainesville three years ago. In that time he has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars from food that never sold. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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Tim Mathias has eaten $300,000 worth of food in three years — or at least the cost of it.

When Mathias bought Austin’s Nutrition Center on Browns Bridge Road, the Athens resident hoped to provide a source of organic and locally grown food to Hall County residents.

He has, but not in the way he intended.

“I really thought that Gainesville and Hall County would be ready for a small Whole Foods approach with organic produce, organic meats, organic foods,” Mathias said. “Man, I was just going to go all out.”

In his first year, Mathias stocked the store’s shelves full of organic food and local meat. Today, more than three years later,

Mathias said he has donated approximately $300,000 worth of unsold food to Good News at Noon.

The shelves in the grocery section of his store, which sells everything from nutritional supplements to natural shampoo, now stay half empty.

“What I found out through trial and error was that the people of Hall County and Gainesville are not ready for this,” Mathias said.

While the trend toward local and organic food is, no doubt, growing throughout the state, the “slow food” movement might be coming to Hall County at a sluggish pace.

Attendance at this week’s Georgia Organics conference, an annual gathering of fresh food enthusiasts, was the highest ever, according to the organization’s communication’s director Michael Wall.

The conference, held at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, gave “slow food” supporters the opportunity to connect with and learn from local farmers, share tips on successful marketing strategies and celebrate the state’s burgeoning food culture.

During the two-day event, approximately 1,100 people toured the area’s organic farms and shuffled into seminars on sustainable farming practices. Of that number, only five people represented Hall County’s farming industry, Wall said.

Kim Cook, owner of Cook’s Family Farms in Clermont, was one of the them. This year will mark Cook’s fifth harvest at the Hall County farm, where he grows approximately 80 different varieties of vegetables with organic methods.

According to Cook, the trend of organic and locally grown food has grown in Georgia this year, because “people are concerned much more so now about the health of the planet and their own personal health as a result of a lot of the well-publicized outbreaks related to food-borne disease that we’ve seen.”

But it hasn’t seem to catch on much in Hall County. None of the vegetables Cook harvests this summer will be offered at the Hall County Farmer’s Market when it opens in May.

Like Mathias, Cook tried selling his produce in Gainesville before. He says he can remember walking away with $30 after three days at the market.

“It wasn’t very successful for me,” Cook said.

Though he sells some of his vegetables at Mathias’ store and to a few area restaurants, Cook said he largely relies on residents from Atlanta — where, statewide, support of organic and locally grown food is at its height — to keep his farm afloat.

Aside from its status as a concrete jungle, Fulton County was one of Georgia’s leading producers of organic products in 2007, according to the state department of agriculture.

Hall County was nowhere on that list.

“I don’t think people are as familiar with the benefits of locally grown produce and, in particular, of organically grown produce in our community as maybe in some of the more urban areas where there’s been more of an effort to educate the public,” Cook said.
Fulton County’s residents are also throwing their money the way of the “slow food” movement.

“When I go into Atlanta to the farmers market I sell almost everything that I take, and I think I get a fair amount of money for it,” Cook said. “But I wasn’t able to do that in the Gainesville market.”

And Cook is not the only local farmer forced to find profit outside of the county. Hall County Extension Agent Billy Skaggs said he only knows of a few farmers in the county who use organic methods. Those farmers primarily sell their produce in and around Atlanta, he said.

“They go where the customers are,” Skaggs said.

Hall’s farmers market is traditional, Skaggs said, and its customers look to buy produce at low, grocery store prices. But because growing food without the help of chemical fertilizers or pesticides is labor intensive, organic farmers cannot make a profit at such low prices, he said.

“On a large scale it’s extremely difficult to do when you don’t have the consumers willing to pay that price,” Skaggs said.

At a higher price, organic foods are an even tougher sell for many people struggling to make ends meet in a recession. Mathias said he also believes it is the price that deters his Hall County customer base.

“It’s not cheap,” he said. “With the present economic downturn, if someone’s going to cut back, they will cut back on getting organics, it seems like, pretty quick, because you can go to Wal-Mart and buy (produce) a whole lot cheaper than you can coming in and buying organics.”

For the most part, Hall County’s consumers have not been willing to pay the price in today’s economy. Yet, there are signs that the recession could give interest in local farms a shot in the arm.

Just weeks ago, Mathias was invited to speak about organics to a mothers’ group at First Baptist Church in Gainesville. There has been more interest in backyard gardens this year than Skaggs said he can remember in his time with the extension office.

The trend toward local food is coming, Skaggs said, just at a slower pace than the metro Atlanta area.

Cook hopes it’s true, and not just for the benefit of his Clermont farm.

“I’m hopeful that people will prioritize and decide to spend their money on something that’s so important to their own health and nutrition that will benefit the planet and their local economy, which would be buying their vegetables from a local vegetable seller,” he said.