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Sweet Home Alabama

The local food movement, Southern style
Alabama Commodities

Alabama has been an agricultural state for centuries, although primary commodities have shifted with time and markets. In the mid-1800s and early 1900s, Alabama was known as the “Cotton State,” growing more than 4 million acres of cotton. Today, peanuts and pecans, along with greenhouse items and conventionally grown tomatoes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon, peppers, squash, peaches, and berries top the crop list. Alabama also produces specialty items such as Satsuma oranges and shiitake mushrooms on a smaller scale.

What’s unique about Alabama is its proliferation of farmers’ markets, which have grown from 17 in 1999 to 155 today. These range from co-ops blending wholesale and retail vendors to retail-only markets, as well as small, community farm stands.

The expansion of this fresh food network has supported and benefited from a strong movement to sell Alabama-grown produce when in season. The main player in seasonal showcase is the tomato, both in wholesale and retail.

The only major wholesale market in the Dixie State is the Alabama Farmers Market in Birmingham (officially known as the Jefferson County Truck Growers Association Farmers Market). Here, 14 wholesalers occupy the market year-round, and share the grounds with a contingent of seasonal sellers during the summer and fall. The Alabama Farmers Market is open 24/7, and is a co-op owned by the growers and the state.

“We have a long shed that we lease out to the wholesalers, and they support themselves, but mainly it’s a retail market,” comments James McAnnally, market manager. The market has been around since the 1920s, and according to McAnnally, was booming in the 1970s and 1980s but in recent years has suffered with the arrival of discounters and big box stores selling fresh produce. “Over the past generation, people have forgotten the value of fresh produce. You can go to a chain and get a four-pack of tomatoes for $4 or $5 that may have come out of storage, whereas at the market, you can get a quart of fresh-picked tomatoes for the same price.”

Mike Tucker, manager at James Tucker Produce, Inc., a wholesaler at the market, says the produce business has been challenging the past few years. “I don’t think the younger generation cooks as much as the previous ones,” he explains. “More people are going to the Walmarts and grocery stores, and to the little local summer markets. We aren’t selling as much as we used to.”

Luther Wright, proprietor at Wright’s Produce on the Montgomery Farmer’s Market handles a full line and sells to grocery stores and roadside markets. “Business has been pretty good,” he says, “but the vegetable side has been slacking over the years. I think the younger generation is going more for hamburgers than peas and butter beans.”

McAnnally, who has a long history with the market and recently took on the position of manager, says his first objective is launching a marketing campaign. “I want to get the market back in the public eye and I want consumers back at the market,” he declares.