According to agronomist Charles Mitchell, in The Encyclopedia of Alabama, “One hundred years ago almost four million acres [in Alabama] were planted to cotton, and today only 1.3 million acres are devoted to all agricultural crops.” Alabama’s contemporary landscape is marked as much or more by pastures and pine trees than by plowed fields, and many “producers” (ag-speak for farmers) work only part-time, according to Mitchell.
Alabama still produces a big chunk of agricultural products. In 2005, Mitchell says, the state’s 43,500 farms sold over $3.3 billion worth of commodities. And the state ranks in the top five nationally in sales of such commodities as sod, pecans, peanuts, catfish and broiler chickens, according to the web site for the Alabama Farmer’s Federation (ALFA).
But an increasing number of foodies, farmers, community activists and food industry professionals think there is something missing from that picture in Alabama—the production of lots of fruits and vegetables. Jerry Spencer, CEO of Grow Alabama in Birmingham, estimates that a meager five percent of the produce consumed in Alabama is grown in the state.
In this piece, Birmingham Weekly begins an exploration of Alabama’s food system, including its causes and economic, environmental and health consequences. We talk to some of the people who are trying to change the system. And we offer glimpses into Alabama’s possible farming future.
At a recent Share the Harvest luncheon at the Grow Alabama warehouse, located on Finley Avenue near the Birmingham Farmers’ Market, a few attendees eat Tuscany chicken salad made with Alabama-grown onion, squash, tomatoes and eggplant. They munch and listen while Spencer talks about what he says is the tremendous need for Alabama to grow more of its own food. “It’s $50 billion a year that we lose by buying most of our food from somewhere else,” he says. “And we need it. Alabama is one of the poorest places.”
Spencer approaches this subject with what can only be described as evangelical fervor. “This is my mission from God,” he says. “This is my ministry.” He tells a story about being in third grade, in 1953, and hearing his teacher read a selection from the Weekly Reader newspaper. “Alabama is one of the few states that can grow the food its people need,” the article read, according to Spencer. “That is all gone,” he says.
“The truck farmers are gone.” Alabama farmers lost their viability as a source of produce for grocery stores beginning in the 1960s, when California growers of such commodities as lettuce and celery put together large, effective market co-ops, according to Spencer. “Stores could call a broker in California and say, ‘I need this stuff right away,’” he says. “The 18-wheeler could come from California cheaper than from our farms. This system left our farmers literally to die on the vine.”
Grow Alabama is Spencer’s response. A forprofit entity, Grow Alabama sells food subscriptions to consumers, who may buy either small, medium or large boxes of Alabama-grown produce. A former chiropractor, Spencer began farming in the area about 12 years ago and started Grow Alabama about four years ago.
Spencer works with participating Alabama farmers to develop crop plans. “We tell our farmers what we need to have grown and promise to buy ‘X’ amount,” he says. He tries to encourage farmers to broaden the number of crops they plant. “We’re spreading crops out, so everybody’s not growing squash,” he says. “I want asparagus, Irish potatoes, radishes, kale and chard—not just turnip and mustard greens.
The estimate that Alabama grows only five percent of the food it consumes is, Spencer says, based largely on anecdotal evidence. “I walked around grocery stores and looked at what came from Alabama and asked produce people,” he says during a subsequent telephone interview. “Other than seeing some peaches and watermelons from Alabama once in a while, that’s all I could ever find.” Spencer says that he had a difficult time finding hard statistics on this issue, even after consulting a statistician at the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. “He said, ‘You would have to call every grocery and supplier and start getting those numbers,’” according to Spencer.
Spencer made what he calls a “guesstimate” that Alabama was producing no more than 20 percent of the produce it consumed, but revised that number down after a casual conversation in 2007 with Agricultural Commissioner Ron Sparks and his deputy Ronnie Murphy, both of whom—according to Spencer—placed the estimate in the low single digits.
Spencer found a study conducted in the Asheville, N.C., area that he says supports the notion that Alabama’s economy may lose the staggering sum of $50 billion per year due to the purchase of food from other states. “They had 2.1 million people in the [study] area, and the dollar amount for food bought outside North Carolina was about three or four million dollars, and I extrapolated over to Alabama,” he says. “Our state is about four to five million people, so it’s going to be roughly twice that, turning into $7 billion per year.” According to Spencer, the actual loss to the state’s economy is even greater. “All of the agricultural economists I talked to have always said that the loss to the state economy is around seven to nine percent times the cash loss,” he says. “So in Alabama, that turns into a $50 billion loss for the state economy.”
Grow Alabama has big goals. “My goal is 1000 acres of table food for 67 counties,” Spencer tells the luncheon attendees. “With 67,000 acres, we can feed all of Alabama, an economic boost for our communities, counties, the state.”
As part of any grand vision for changing Alabama’s food system, the small pieces—including neighborhood markets—must be in place.
Alabama once had only three farmers’ markets, but the state has now established 119 of them, broadening the opportunities for small farmers to take their goods straight to increasingly foodsavvy consumers. Farmers’ markets make food personal, since consumers are buying food from the people who grew it.
During a visit to the East Lake Farmers’ Market (now closed for the season) on a recent warm, bright Saturday morning, we found that such markets may also act as social glue for their communities, perhaps saving some of them from further deterioration. “I think if we did not have this market, [East Lake] would have been [a food desert],” according to market director Sally Allocca. Food deserts are areas in which there is not enough good food available to residents at reasonable prices “We were looking at health issues and knew that there were a lot of diet-related diseases in the area, and access to fresh produce was not easy to come by, and so we thought that it would be a great community event in addition to providing good access to fresh produce,” Allocca says. “In the last two years, this market has really grown.”
The farmers at the market seem thankful for the added measure of security and improved livelihoods the markets have provided. “We do pretty good,” according to Bennie Dixon, a Chilton County farmer whose family has been farming for three generations. “You deal with the people one-on-one here or you deal with the brokers. I like talking to the people. Yeah, we do a lot better.” Just then, a man who seems to be a regular customer approaches Dixon’s booth to buy a basket of tomatoes. “This is the greatest family,” he tells us. Dixon praises the Farmers’ Market Authority’s statewide “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” marketing campaign. “They do a lot of promoting too and it all helps, like opening this market right here,” he says.
It is not hard to notice that many of the farmers at the market are older men. “I wish we could get more young folks in it,” Dixon says. “It’s hard for them to get loans to get started. That makes it harder. If they’re not already established in it, it’s kind of hard to get them to get in it.”
On a recent Friday afternoon at Jones Valley Urban Farm, a three-acre plot in downtown Birmingham that produces fresh vegetables nearly in the shadow of the Red Mountain Expressway, JVUF director Edwin Marty shares his hopes for the future of farming. ‘’My dream, and the vision I have for what’s going to happen in Alabama and maybe across the country, is that we’re going to have a radical shift in the perception of people who want to farm, a really big resurgence of young people who are formally trained in other things and can farm part time, and so our whole food system will shift away from being dependent on large farms and be much more dependent on small part-time farmers,” Marty says. He cites the growth of farmers’ markets in the state as a way for parttime farmers to make a decent living. “We have the fastest growing number of farmers’ markets in the country,” he says.
JVUF is a CSA, which means “community supported agriculture.” According to Marty, a CSA means “a community coming together and supporting a farm.” By paying a recurring fee, members of a community provide the farmer much-needed security and receive fresh produce in frequently distributed packages. Marty, a Birmingham native, started Jones Valley Urban Farm in 2001 after returning from the West Coast, where he went to college and worked on numerous sustainable farming projects.
Much like farmer’s markets, CSAs make food personal. They make it possible for consumers to know the people who grow their food, introducing a unique level of transparency. CSAs also helped pioneer environmentally sustainable agriculture.
“[A CSA] is basically an insurance policy in its purest form,” Marty says. “A CSA is a relationship built on the trust between a farmer and the community he is part of. The farmer doesn’t have to weather the whole risk of farming.
The idea is that community members want their food from this farmer and they’re willing to pay money up front before the season to the farmer to give their grower resources that he or she needs, and in exchange they get a good price on the produce, and they’re getting the freshest possible product.”
According to Marty, Jones Valley is committed to changing the way people think about their food and where it comes from. “We think food should taste like somewhere,” he says, “Food that’s grown at Jones Valley Urban Farm tastes like central Alabama.” To spread that message, JVUF has created educational programs for children, including Seed 2 Plate, in which school kids plant seeds, pick produce and go to a nearby YMCA youth center to prepare their own fresh snacks.
According to Marty, if Alabama policy makers encouraged the introduction of local produce into, for example, institutional food service, the economic benefits could be large. “The main thing is getting policy makers to recognize that there’s an opportunity in incentivizing purchasing from local farms,” he says. “We could have policies where school systems have to buy 10 percent of products from local farms. [It’s a] huge economic impact and immediately you’re going to get fresher, better tasting food into your school. If it tastes better, kids are going to want to eat more of it.”
Marty offers some numbers regarding the possible economic impact of local food. “We got a researcher to come in, and he found that there was $1.4 billion a year spent on food in Jefferson County,” he says. “We produce about .01 percent of that in Jefferson County. If you just promoted 2 percent of the food that’s consumed in the county be grown here, you have hundreds of millions of dollars that stop going out.”
It’s easy to forget that Alabama was built on agriculture. It seems such a distant concept— men working hard in the field, pulling their sustenance from the land with the sweat of their brow. But it hasn’t been that long ago that a lot of people in the state made their living that way.
“Farming has changed completely in our lifetime,” Alabama’s Commissioner of Agriculture Ron Sparks said in 2007, quoted by food writer Holley Camp at www.thicketmag.com. “Our state farmed 19 million acres 50 years ago. Today we farm 9 million. The average farm is about 210 acres. The average age of a farmer is 55 years old. And the income they make is ridiculous. We’ve got to find a way to show our farmers that they can make a profit.”
Sparks is now the Democratic nominee for governor, and we spoke to him after his recent debate with Republican opponent Robert Bentley at Birmingham-Southern College. If it’s true that Alabama only grows a few percentage points of its table food, what would Sparks do as governor to fix the problem? “I’ve always supported Buy Fresh, Buy Local,” he says. “I studied the docks and stopped shipments of food from China if they didn’t meet Alabama standards. I built farmers’ markets all across the state, and I will continue all of those practices if I am elected governor.”
However, there are always barriers to any major social or economic change, and the effort to grow more food in Alabama is no exception. Even Sparks’ own agency is partially to blame, according to Spencer. “The state Agriculture Department is all word games for the small farmer,” he says. “The only people who really get help from the state or ALFA [the Alabama Farmers Federation] are commodity growers, things like cotton, soybean, chickens, cattle and corn. They get the ear. And those things are great, but if we could feed our own people, it would be better than a lottery.”
Another problem, according to Spencer, is that grocery stores are not set up to work with small numbers of local farmers, especially when they can call a broker in California and get whatever they need. “It’s not the grocery stores’ fault,” he says. Spencer’s plan is to form a new non-profit, statewide co-op by March 2011 to help train Alabama farmers to get stuff to stores. The coop would also function as a food broker, he says—a role that Grow Alabama already seems to play on a smaller scale. The co-op will train Alabama farmers in what Spencer calls “post-harvest production,” in which farmers properly clean, grade, package, label, store and ship their product.
Spencer seems optimistic that the amount of Alabama-grown product found in grocery stores is slowly increasing. “That situation is getting better because of public demand,” he says. It is perhaps growing consumer demand for fresh, local food, more than the passage of any bill in the legislature, that could help drive real changes in the system.
Jim Dolan, owner of the Irondale Cafe, is one of many local restaurateurs who seek out local food. According to Dolan, a shift toward local food and farmers is a real phenomenon in the restaurant business. “With the rebirth of local farmers producing high-quality goods, we have seen a return to cuisine that reflects our regional qualities, and the food is so much better,” Dolan says.
In the next 10 years, Dolan sees increased opportunities for local and sustainable farming. “We haven’t seen the transition of locally produced food into residential kitchens like we have with restaurants,” he says. “With more [farmers’ markets], and more demand, locals will have more opportunity to be exposed to fresh, locally grown food.”
According to Dolan, people have learned more about food from such sources as TV’s Food Network and are reading packages more carefully. “People will be more cognizant of where their food is coming from,” he says. “If you want to be green, that’s the greenest thing you can do, to buy stuff from the guy down the street that’s growing it. And not because its green, but because its common sense.”
Jesse Chambers is a Birmingham Weekly contributing editor. Andy McWhorter is a Birmingham Weekly intern and contributor to the Green Space environmental section. Send your comments to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Learn more about food in Alabama by attending Food Summit 2010, to be held November 12-13, at the Avon Theater, 2829 Seventh Ave. South and other locations. There will be speakers and panel discussions about community food security and economic development through food. Other activities will include a community garden bike and bus tour. The event is organized by Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners, Alabama Possible and other groups. Registration for Friday’s sessions are $25. For details, visit www.foodsummit.org.
Additional resources and information
Here are a few of the places in Birmingham to learn more about Alabama agriculture— including local food and sustainable farming.
2301-B Finley Blvd., Birmingham, AL 35234 (205) 991-0042 www.growalabama.com
Jones Valley Urban Farm
701 25th St. North, Birmingham, AL 35203 (205) 439-7213 www.jvuf.org
PEER (Promoting Empowerment and Enrichment Resources)
7753 First Ave. South, Birmingham, AL 35206 (205) 836-3201 www.peerinc.org The people who bring you the East Lake Farmers Market (which ended for the year October 9), as well as other community food and nutrition programs.
Pepper Place Saturday Market
2829 Second Ave. South, Birmingham, AL 35233 (205) 802-2100 ext. 230 www.pepperplace.com Pepper Place presents their “Harvest & Holiday Market” on Saturdays through December 4, with Alabama-grown apples, squash and pumpkins, as well as hand-made gifts.
Alabama Farmers Market Authority
(334) 242-2618 www.fma.alabama.gov Here you can find a directory of all farmers’ markets in Alabama, a list of CSAs in the state and information about the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” program.
Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network
(205) 789-5934 www.asanonline.org This Birmingham non-profit is working to built a network of growers and consumers of Alabama-grown food.
Community Garden Coalition for Birmingham
500 23rd St. South, Birmingham, AL 35233 (205) 380-4082 www.cgcbham.org The CGC, according to their web site, attempts to support local gardens, encourage the establishment of new gardens and empoower youth through community gardening. You can find information here about such local gardens as the West End Urban Garden and the North 32nd St. Community Garden in Norwood.
Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners
www.gbcfp.org This grassroots organization seeks to promote to good food for everyone in the community through a sustainable food system that helps to build community self-reliance.