"We're about to wear out this tree trying to find some shade under it."
By By Adam Prestridge
They've been hiding from the sweltering sun for almost two years now. Sweating, trying everything to keep cool.
Sometimes a glass of ice-cold water relieves some of the anguish, but not for long, the sweltering furnace continues to bake their already leathery skin. They are true rednecks, not the typical stereotype Southerners are associated with, but those that have aged before their years from all the hard work in the fields picking snap peas, collards and okra.
They are a dying breed of farmers; entrepreneurs of sorts with gardens in their backyards and nothing but a hoe and a 10-gallon bucket to work with. They are business owners with unique storefronts from the tailgate of an old pickup truck. They have their good days and their bad days, but always have a good story to tell.
If it were not for the old sweet gum tree providing an umbrella-like shade for the aging farmers, there would be no relief from the heat.
"We're about to wear out this tree trying to find some shade under it," Atmore resident Robert Johnson said. "That sun is hot."
Bob Coleman, a repeat customer of the market, agreed as he paid Johnson a few dollars for some peas.
"We decided yesterday that if it wasn't for this tree, they wouldn't be here," he said.
Johnson is one of several produce peddlers that have not only had to endure the lengthy drought this summer, but also the unbearable heat without the shade of a farmer's market pavilion, which was one of Hurricane Ivan's many victims in September 2004.
"That's one of the reasons we're over here," Jesse English said Friday morning as he leaned on the bed of his pickup parked under the old tree.
Fortunately for the farmers, Pacer Transportation trucker Joy Harrison surprised them early Friday morning with a load of supplies to reconstruct the pavilion.
"It's nice to see them start on it even though summer's almost over," Bruce English said. "It's hot out here in the parking lot. These small farmers will finally have some shelter from the heat and rain again."
The farmers all agree that the shelter will not only help them to endure harsh weather conditions, but also assist in maintaining fresh veggies.
"The vegetables won't hold up in this heat," Bruce English said.
The wait paid off for the farmers because the new pavilion is 12 feet longer than the original, aging pavilion. Atmore Mayor Howard Shell said even though the project was approved earlier this year, it has taken a while to get the materials to begin work.
"Ordering the building and getting it in has taken a while," he said. "There has been a backlog on construction materials. Fortunately the farmer's market came in on the truck trailer Friday and we're looking forward to seeing that old, familiar farmer's market business up and know that we're back in business."
Hammill &Associates, Inc. of Birmingham has been hired to erect the new 24 x 44-steel pavilion with a hipped roof, concrete footings and a powder coating finish, which carries a price tag of $28,913.
"It's a good opportunity for all of our local farmers who grow produce to have a place to come as a central location and people in town are aware of it," Shell said. "It's a good mix for all of us. There are a lot of local people that grow peas, beans, squash and other produce. It's excellent produce."
Atmore building inspector Allen Nix believes once the footings are set and dry, it will take less than a week before farmers are once again backing up into a farmer's market pavilion.
"Hopefully this time next week, we'll have a new farmer's market," he said.
As for the farmers, they are anxious for the job's completion. Each believe that business has been slower because there is no shade for customers and other farmers can't, or refuse to, brave the temperatures to setup shop and offer more of a variety of vegetables.
The farmers also miss that special connection with their customers.
"I'm a frequent visitor of the farmer's market," Coleman said.
Coleman, an Atmore resident, is one of few customers that frequent the curb market searching for the freshest produce. His loyalty has helped keep the peddlers in the business.
"A new building should help business," Johnson said. "It will definitely help."