Readers wrapped up in the Market Bulletin

Twice a month, 130,000 Georgians open their mailboxes and pick up a 93-year-old farm newspaper courtesy of state taxpayers.

But that folksy freebie, the Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin, might be nearing the end of an era. The legendary newspaper, which helped create one governor and endanger a few others, has come under the glare of budget-whackers at the state Capitol.

The Market Bulletin — no one calls it by its real name — costs the state $774,000 a year to produce and distribute, according to the state Department of Agriculture. It has survived the demise of a rural-dominated Georgia and a long line of powerful politicians who have tried to rein it in, including former Govs. Jimmy Carter and George Busbee.

Now the state is at it again, this time with a proposal to begin charging Georgia readers $10 a year to subscribe to the 12- to 16-page newspaper, which has been mailed anywhere in the state free of charge since 1917.

The paper includes everything from recipes to articles on animal diseases to its huge, coveted classified ad section. Readers can advertise free of charge as long as the ad relates to farm and agricultural needs.

“My grandparents read it, and my parents read it, and now I read it,” said Sarah Crutchfield, who lives with her husband, Gayland, and her 93-year-old mother on a 52-acre farm in south Fulton County. “It’s a throw-back to simpler times. We love it.”

Many Georgia families view the Market Bulletin, with its jumbled layout and quirky ads, as an endearing part of the state’s fast-vanishing rural culture. Many urban gardeners and wannabe farmers pore over the publication, not just for products and supplies, but for a connection with an agrarian past far removed from cellphones and traffic jams and the grinding stress of modern life.

Crutchfield and a half-dozen other Market Bulletin readers interviewed for this article said they would be willing to pay a subscription fee for the newspaper if that’s what it takes to keep it publishing. Out-of-state subscribers — there are about 1,000 — already pay $20 a year.

Many readers said they are particularly drawn to the ads, offering or seeking quaint services or goods that seem unchanged over the paper’s long history.

In a recent edition, Charles (who lives in Newnan) offered to remove honey bees from buildings in Heard, Fayette and Coweta counties. Somebody named Will in Covington was looking for “reasonably priced” rabbit cages. And Marty in Cumming offered to “cook your pork fat into cracklins; you keep the lard and half the cracklins.”

Bob Emerson, who lives in Candler Park near downtown Atlanta and keeps horses on land near Gainesville, searches the newspaper mostly for articles and ads about equine products. “I usually end up reading it cover to cover,” Emerson said. “It’s a nice, enjoyable read when I’m relaxing.”

But sentimentality only goes so far, especially when the proposed $17.8 billion state budget has a potential billion-dollar hole and lawmakers are frantically searching for ways to slash expenses or come up with more revenue.

State Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough) earlier this year broached the idea of getting rid of the printed Bulletin, or charging subscribers. The lawmaker pointed out that the Bulletin is available online for free.

“In times when you have plenty of money, it’s one thing to keep sending things like this out for free,” Davis said. “But when you’re laying people off and slashing jobs, you have to stop doing the same old things that you’ve been doing.”

Davis is not a Bulletin subscriber, but sits on the board of the Henry County Farm Bureau and has seen the publication, he said.

State Commissioner of Agriculture Tommy Irvin, whose office produces the newspaper, said many of the Bulletin’s subscribers don’t have Internet access and depend on the printed version, which he touted as an economic generator in the farm and gardening community.

“The Market Bulletin generates about $50 million in farm commerce every year. Everything from farm products and machinery to needlework is sold through that thing,” said the 80-year-old farm leader.

Irvin, who is serving his last term, said politicians should be wary when they mess with the Market Bulletin.

“Jimmy Carter [when he was governor] tried that, and it bit him real hard,” Irvin said, with a big grin.

In 2003, when the Legislature cut the Department of Agriculture’s budget, the Market Bulletin was reduced from a once-a-week to a twice-monthly publication to save money.

The Bulletin came of age in a very different Georgia. In 1920 there were 310,000 farms in the state, and most of its 2 million or so residents lived in rural areas. But those demographics shifted quickly after World War II. Today, there are only 48,000 farms standing as the state’s population has mushroomed to 9.8 million, most of them living in or near cities.

The publication, which once circulated to nearly a quarter-million subscribers, was so powerful in its heyday that historians credit it with the election of the late Gov. Eugene Talmadge in 1932. When Talmadge was commissioner of agriculture, he blatantly used the taxpayer-funded Bulletin as a campaign vehicle, expounding on issues dear to farm folk and gleefully bashing opponents.

The Bulletin’s current editor, Carlton Moore, said the publication has continued to resonate with readers.

“A lot of older people have told me the only publications they had in their houses was a Bible and the Market Bulletin,” said Moore, who has edited the publication for two decades. “Some of them said they learned to read, sitting on a parent’s knee, reciting ads in the Bulletin.”

Moore said that charging a subscription fee for Georgia readers could cut its current circulation by half.

Marcia Killingsworth, a 55-year-old freelance writer and gardener who lives in Ormwood Park near downtown Atlanta, said her grandfather read the Bulletin all his life.

“It was always next to his chair,” said Killingworth, who scans her copies of the Bulletin in search of heirloom plants for her garden.

Killingsworth has become a devotee of the Bulletin and what she believes it represents in Georgia culture. She waxed poetic about some of the experiences she has had buying heirloom flowers from people who advertise in the newspaper’s want ads.

“If you buy one of these flowers and go to pick it up, it’s such a positive experience,” she said. “You sit and talk with these people about plants that have been in their family for years; cuttings from their great-grandmother’s roses. It’s a continuation of the South I grew up with.

“It’s a connection to our roots. It’s an anachronism. But it’s still valuable and relevant in today’s world.”