Tricia Stearns – Fresher, Simpler Living from the Ground Up
It’s a sun-drenched spring morning in Fayette County, so gorgeous that it nearly takes your breath away, leaves you feeling happy just to be alive. Perhaps there’s no better place to enjoy that feeling than in the parking lot of the Aberdeen Shopping Center in Peachtree City, where the Peachtree City Farmers Market is bustling with activity.
In the dappled sunlight, the crowd ebbs and flows in and around the market’s white tents. A young mom pushes a stroller, two little ones in tow, stopping to examine some eggplants at a vegetable stand. Further down, a small band of high school girls cluster around a display of bracelets, comparing their favorites, while nearby a silver-haired couple laughs with some friends as they sample French pastries. A younger couple, keeping their black Lab close on a leash, walk past booths of grass-fed beef, fruits and vegetables, handmade soaps, local honey, freshly baked bread, and more fruits and vegetables. In short, people of every age and stage of life are here, a colorful, boisterous, sunshine-soaked cross-section of Fayette County. What they all have in common: a love of fresh food, a desire to support local businesses, and a shared feeling of pleasure in being part of a like-minded community.
Across town on this same lovely sunny morning, a different scene is underway, although it, too, centers on fresh food and community. The Peachtree City Community Garden, a 8.6-acre lot on Kelly Drive, bustles with gardeners intent on their plots. Again, the spirit of community is visible, with all types of people—individuals, families, even groups of neighbors and friends—sowing, seeding, planting, fertilizing, watering, weeding. Amongst gardeners intent on the work, folks chat with each other, sharing planting tips and garden tools, taking turns with the watering hoses.
Imagine, for a moment, what these two locations were only a few years ago: the empty, weed-filled lot of land where the vibrant garden is now; the ordinary suburban shopping center parking lot where the market is now. Both would be exactly the same today had it not been for the vision, passion and hard work of one woman: Tricia Stearns.
You’d probably assume that a woman who is able to create two highly-successful venues that bring our community together and promote fresh food and local business, and who does so in a short span of a few years, is an exceptional person. And you’d be right.
Tricia was born and raised in Houston, Texas. Her father, a professor of education and science at the University of Houston, took part in engineering the first space missions with NASA; her mother was an artist. Although the family first lived in the city, when Tricia was in sixth grade, they moved to the rural town of Victoria, Texas. There, Tricia really began to love nature. “I was in 4-H, rode horses, played basketball, and ran track. I was a big tomboy,” she says. “And I always liked gardening.”
After high school, Tricia enrolled in William Woods College, graduating four years later with a degree in English. “I was going to go on and study journalism, but I fell in love. So instead, I got married and got on the baby train,” she explains.
She and her new husband settled down in Tyler, Texas. In the midst of raising her growing family (Meredith, born in 1987; Mallory, born in 1989; and Julia, born in 1993), Tricia stayed busy. “I was very active in Junior League, and even back then I was really interested in taking care of the environment. I started the first Earth Day in our town and organized a town clean-up and a recycling program. Back then, we didn’t have bins that were picked up at the curb—we had to collect the recycling and bring it to a center,” she says. Tricia also shared her knowledge, giving talks and presentations on the programs she’d established and consequently inspiring other communities to begin their own programs.
In 1995, Tricia’s husband got a new job in the Atlanta area, so it was time for the family to move. It so happened that Tricia’s best friend from college, Pam Fisher, was living in Peachtree City, and Tricia had visited her after the birth of her second child. “I had gone riding on golf carts with Pam, all of our babies in tow. I knew the area pretty well and knew it was definitely where I wanted to live,” she says.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t long after moving here that her marriage began to fall apart, and as the divorce proceedings began, Tricia knew she needed a way to support herself and her three daughters. Although she had become a working mom when they had lived in Texas, taking a position as the Director of Marketing at Tyler Bank & Trust, nothing was immediately available in that field; she would have to reinvent her career. So she earned her real estate license and began selling real estate, a career she continues to this day.
Ever resourceful, intelligent, and outgoing, Tricia quickly built a successful business. As the Atlanta housing market continued to expand in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so did Tricia’s real estate work. But despite her rapidly growing career and her financial success, Tricia still yearned for the simple life, the lack of materialism that she grew up with as a kid who rode horses and climbed trees back in Victoria. That feeling intensified after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “It was like something shifted in me,” she explains. “It was a shift in mindset, away from consumerism—the house, the pool, working so hard to have stuff—it all became so silly. I wanted to live more with less.”
However, it wasn’t until the real estate market began to falter around 2007 and the recession took hold that her life really began to change. Watching her revenue stream decline was scary, she explains, and more than a little overwhelming. “I was having a pity party for myself one morning,” she says, “when I just decided that I would make the changes I could. I would eat healthier with less money and be less stressed.”
Tricia began downsizing and turning her “make do with less” ethos into a reality. With her daughters grown and mostly independent, and with more time on her hands now that business had slowed, she decided in 2008 to enroll in the Master of Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State University.
“I decided to write my master’s thesis on what I was experiencing,” she recalls. “I wrote about food, and how to live when you’re broke. That led me to writing about how to obtain fresh, healthy food on a smaller budget.”
True to Tricia’s style, one thing led to another; reading and writing about low cost, fresh food brought her to researching farmers markets and their importance in a community. “I was traveling with my new husband, interviewing farmers at various markets, and then attended a seminar in Chattanooga on farming and markets. A lot of the talks were aimed at farmers, but they also had a panel on how to start one,” she says.
Inspired, Tricia began making plans to start a farmers market in Peachtree City. By early 2010, as she was completing the work for her master’s degree, she was laying the groundwork for her new project.
“I knew there was a need,” she says. “I had been traveling to Decatur and Buckhead for farmers markets, and I knew others around here traveled distances on a regular basis to go to them as well. So I started meeting with city officials, and they were encouraging. The next step was sitting down with Tony Bernard, a former city employee, who helped me write an ordinance. I got permission and support from the Peachtree Crossing Shopping Center, and the City Council, and then I went looking for farmers who would participate.”
That aspect turned out to be the most challenging of all. Tricia went, one by one, down a list of local farmers, going in-person to the farms and asking the farmers directly whether they’d participate. Many were reluctant, doubting they’d get the amount of business that they were currently experiencing at the larger markets north of the city. “There are not enough small farmers in the local area,” she says. “True farmers are hard to find.”
But eventually she was able to persuade six farmers to start out with her, and in the summer of 2010, they set up the market in the parking lot of the closed “baby Kroger” on Highway 54 in Peachtree City. With the high volume of traffic passing the parking lot, the market was soon averaging 800 to 900 shoppers per day—quite successful. Tricia was encouraged, and established Fresh South, Inc., a non-profit 501(c)3, to support her endeavors and continue to build the market’s success.
Later that year, Fresh Market leased the Kroger space, and Tricia needed to move the farmers market so as not to compete too closely with the store. “It worked out really well,” she says. “Marilyn and Jim Royal, local business owners and long time Peachtree City folks, were so supportive and welcomed us to their Aberdeen Shopping Center. We now had a space that was shaded with lots of trees. It made such a difference because now you could be out of the sun and enjoying it more in the summertime.”
The farmers market quickly grew in size and scope. The number of actual farmers’ booths swelled in size from six to twelve, while an assortment of other booths came on board as well—baked goods, pasta, gourmet food artists whose creations included artichoke dips and salsa, Greek food, Flavor of Georgia finalists, Georgia Jams and Capra Gia goat cheese, local honey, grass-fed beef, fresh eggs, and nitrate-free pork. “What few people understand is that this is a true farmers market. Food is the center, and very few booths have anything but food,” explains Tricia. “True local eating is possible.” The crowds increased in size, too, and the market began to take on a life of its own with 1200 visitors on an average summer weekend.
Carolyn Bradley, one of the original vendors of Peachtree City Farmers Market, speaks highly of Tricia’s management. “I have not in my market experience of seven years found a more capable, fair and enthusiastic market manager as Tricia Stearns,” she states. “She is all about bringing the best of the local food movement to our community.”
For her part, Tricia values the relationships she’s developed with the vendors. “I just love the family of vendors we have,” she remarks. “There are so many stories of reinvention, people who have discovered a different way of living—growing their own food, raising their own chickens, making money while doing it. They’re such incredibly neat people.” She acknowledges, however, that one of the challenges of running the farmers market is making sure that “everybody plays nice.”
Since the market has begun to thrive, Tricia’s role has changed. She drives out to visit her market’s farmers to make sure that they’re actually growing the fruits and vegetables that they’re selling. She keeps abreast of regulations from the Department of Agriculture and the Health Department to make sure that the foods sold adhere to their standards.
With the market well established by the end of 2010, Tricia began to think about another project that had been in the back of her mind when she did her thesis on eating well on a small budget: starting an organic community garden. She had recognized a need in the community for a space where, for a nominal fee, community residents could grow their own vegetables and herbs in full sun, with access to a water source and a fence to keep the deer away.
Again, she threw herself into planning and executing. “I went to Larry Dove of Two Doves Farm, our one true organic farmer who lives here in Fayette County, and I went to the Peachtree City Planning and Zoning Department and asked, ‘Do you support this, and where do we have land?’” After a successful presentation to City Council, she and her cohorts scouted around until she found the location, an unused, weed-filled lot on Kelly Drive. The group she’d pulled together—Larry, her new husband, Bern, her Farmers Market Assistant Chris Reynolds, and Fresh South Board Member Tommy Dean—planned the layout of the plots, then began clearing the lot and building the garden plot boxes.
“Later on, we had more volunteers who helped us, but at first it was just us,” she says. “We’re just now really growing to the point where we have a maintenance committee.”
As much as the Farmers Market and the Community Garden have transformed Fayette County, they have transformed Tricia’s life as well. On the day-to-day level, Tricia continues to keep the wheels in motion. “It’s truly a nonprofit, truly a labor of love,” she explains, citing the small budget and the long Saturdays she spends at the market. But on the other hand, she says, “It’s just such good energy. I have so much fun. I love seeing people I haven’t seen in a long time.”
Tricia’s also tremendously proud of how both the Farmers Market and Community Garden have contributed to the community, both socially and financially. “We are now one of the few year-round farmers markets in the country. Everything is local, and a lot of greens are grown in greenhouses in the winter,” she says proudly. Furthermore, she adds, “Because of the Farmers Market, three to four million dollars are added to the local economy, just by keeping that money here in our community.”
What’s remarkable about Tricia is her ability to take an idea and run with it, executing it from top to bottom, and making her vision a reality. It’s a trait that has inspired her daughters, too. “My mom has demonstrated to us how to be unstoppable in all that we endeavor,” says Meredith, Tricia’s eldest.
And, when you consider the results of Tricia’s ability to follow inspiration with determination, passion and action, her youngest daughter Julia’s remarks ring true. “My mom has taught me to think outside the box and to think unconventionally,” she says. “If you put your mind to something, it can become a reality.”