The popularity of the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign and Ala-bama’s farmers market nutrition programs has increased demand for locally grown produce and created new opportunities for the state’s farmers, according to the state Farmers Market Authority (FMA).
"In 1999, we had 17 farmers markets in Alabama; today there are 95," said FMA Director Don Wambles. "This has created a great opportunity for farmers, whether they are part-time farmers or run a cattle or poultry operation looking to diversify."
But Wambles said the popularity of these programs and a renewed interest by consumers to "buy local," has created a shortage of produce at some markets. "About 25 percent of our farmers markets are in serious need of more producers," he said. "Demand is so high that, in some places, farmers are selling out in one or two hours, and customers who arrive later in the day are being turned away." Brian Hardin, director of the Alabama Farmers Federation’s Horticulture Division, said the development of new markets and a new customer base is a good thing for Alabama agriculture.
"A lot of times, we see the need for new markets to accommodate the production we have," Hardin said. "Now, we are in the situation where it is reversed. Our markets are outpacing our produce supply, and that is a positive for Alabama farmers looking to diversify."
Farmers don’t have to make a huge investment to tap into these thriving markets. In fact, Wambles said a one-acre, irrigated vegetable plot is enough for most farmers to get started in the produce business.
"Vegetables are a high-priced crop, and there’s a lot of money that can be made on an acre of vegetables," Wambles added. "That’s because you can get two, sometimes three, crops off one acre during the course of the growing season with vegetables."
Wambles estimates it would take about $750 to put in an acre of drip irrigation with plastic mulch, plus another $300-$400 for seed and fertilizer – if the farmer already has the land and small tillage equipment. With that kind of an investment a farmer might expect to make as much as $2,500 on an acre of vegetables, if he markets what he grows.
Irrigation, however, is a must if you are going to successfully grow produce in Alabama, Wambles said.
"I would encourage someone getting into the produce business to look very seriously at drip irrigation and possibly plasticulture," he said. "We’ve got to take rainfall out of the equation. Dry weather cannot be a limiting factor in fruit and vegetable production."
Wambles added that fruit and vegetable growers can double or triple their customer base by attending two or three different farmers markets within about an hour of their farms each week.
or your local Extension agent.
. A list of farmers markets and online certification for the farmers market nutrition programs is available at www.fma.alabama.gov