February 2006
Featured Articles

Grow Alabama gives local slant to feeding Alabama

 
  Jerry Spencer’s demonstration farm at Mt. Laurel Gardens is alive in the winter with several varieties of laying hens that produce 1500 dozen eggs per month. A flock of chickens are dressed each month as ordered online by the CSA’s 500 members. Behind Spencer is the pond where he raises ducks and fish (tilapia), and is trying out a new variety of sheep for meat.
by Fran Sharp

Farmers arise. Jerry Spencer is calling and Grow Alabama needs your help.

Established in 1998, Jerry Spencer’s Grow Alabama community members (buyers) are beginning to outnumber his organic food supply and similar to Uncle Sam, he’s looking for a few good farmers to help fill orders. He’s hoping to recruit growers of organic foods by natural means. Publicity.

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) aims to reverse the ratio of foods consumed in Alabama to foods grown in Alabama, thereby increasing the production and the profitability of all Alabama farmers. Spencer says this will enhance the economic viability of all rural Alabama and bring economic and environmental sustainability to the state, while giving the consumer the highest quality food available.

With less than 5 percent of fresh produce in grocery stores actually coming from Alabama, Spencer says Grow Alabama is an opportunity to have locally fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, dairy products, and meats delivered to home, office, or to a central pick-up point, from Alabama’s family farms.

He adds, "You can taste the difference. Open your first organic vegbox and you’ll feel you’re tasting fresh produce for the first time. Instead of fruits and vegetables that have been picked unripe in California and transported for days, you’re tasting fresh corn, beans, peas and squash that were rippling in sun-drenched rows less than 48 hours ago, and picked by a farmer who had the time to look for the perfect moment of ripeness and flavor. Our items are tagged with numbers to identify growers and area so you know where the food is coming from."

Not only does Grow Alabama make known the origin of foods for the consumer, but Spencer schedules events during the summer so members can meet, exchange ideas and learn about the people producing their food.

What’s a CSA, you say?

CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) is a partnership of mutual commitment between a farm and a community of supporters who provide a direct link between the production and consumption of food. Supporters cover a farm’s yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s harvest.
     CSA members make a commitment to support the farm throughout the season, and assume the costs, risks and bounty of growing food along with the farmer or grower. Members help pay for seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, labor, etc. In return, the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season. Becoming a member creates a responsible relationship between people and the food they eat, the land on which it is grown and those who grow it.
     This mutually supportive relationship between local farmers, growers and community members helps create an economically stable farm operation in which members are assured the highest quality produce, often at below retail prices. In return, farmers and growers are guaranteed a reliable market for a diverse selection of crops.
     Grow Alabama is a CSA, designation 501C# non-profit. Its members (buyers) number about 250 in the winter and grow to 500 in the summer. Its products are supplied by about 20 farmers who are part of Grow Alabama’s profit division (LLC). For information, phone (205) 991-0042 or go online to www.growalabama.com.
 
Grow Alabama is the dream of one man, and the chance for everyone to preserve a vital way of life. Jerry Spencer’s Grow Alabama establishes a community connection to the family farms of Alabama. Members not only buy more nutritious, flavorful food, they keep millions of dollars from leaving the state, and a rich tradition from vanishing forever. Starting as Mt. Laurel Organic Gardens in 1998, Grow Alabama became the country’s first statewide multi-farm community supported agriculture program, a trend that is pushing the organic food industry to new heights of popularity.

The Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org) recently featured the results of an annual survey commissioned by retailer Whole Foods Market of 1,000 Americans showing that more than one-quarter of Americans are eating more organic products than just one year ago. The survey also reveals that more than half of Americans have tried organic foods and beverages, and nearly one in 10 use organic products regularly or several times per week. Americans are buying organic products for a variety of reasons, with more than half of respondents saying they believe organic foods are better for the environment (58 percent) and better for their health (54 percent). Additionally, 57 percent believe buying and using organic products is better for supporting small and local farmers. Almost one in three Americans (32 percent) believes organic products taste better, and 42 percent believe organic foods are better quality. "The survey results echo national sales trends, with recent reports indicating organic food sales hit $10 billion and 20 percent sales growth last year," said Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods Market vice president of governmental and public affairs.

Of the respondents who currently choose organic foods, 68 percent sought fresh organic fruits and vegetables, but the consumption of organic eggs, meats, dairy products and grains is growing fast.


Spencer is actively recruiting producers to supply his ever-growing market of vegetables, produce and meats. "Natural fed meat is incredible. There is no comparison to what people have been eating and demand is growing. For chickens and all the other animals, we really need feed grains. There is none organically grown in Alabama right now. If I could get a few thousand acres of feed grain going, that’s when I would know organic farming has hit Alabama. We need grains for breads and such, as well.

"Currently we sell practically everything our producers grow to our membership. We have grocers, health food stores and restaurants who want what we are doing but the production is not really there yet. We need everything."

Mt. Laurel Organic Gardens, Spencer’s farm and teaching venue is on Shelby County Road #41, off Highway 280 and just 11 miles from Birmingham. There he not only mentors farmers in becoming organic certified producers adhering to USDA standards, but aids them in obtaining grant assistance through private and government agencies.

"Most people don’t know farmers can get as much as $10,000 as a producer from the USDA through its Sustainable Agriculture.

Research and Education (www.sare.org) program, he says. "Grants are an attractive area of assistance, but many don’t fool with them because grant writing takes a lot of talent and work. Right now I am the ‘grant writer’ for Grow Alabama, but we are going to hire a fulltime person to take over the task and work with our producers."

 Organic farming is growing by natural means and it’s not as difficult as one might think, Spencer says. "Fertilizers and pesticides are on the upgrade in organic farming; more and more are being approved. It’s getting easier and easier to grow organic and the organic farmer is learning how to take optimum care of his land so it will be fit for future generations; how to minimize erosion, and rotating crop families. It’s a step by step process beginning with manures. It doesn’t come on you all at once," he explained.

 Grow Alabama producers are a diverse lot, Spencer added. "Some are growing on 300 acres and are willing to take 4-5 acres in organic growing to see how it works. Others have anywhere from 10 to 150 acres that they live on and are willing to do an acre or three, just to learn about organic growing and have a market for what they grow."

 
 
   
Spencer said he decided to publicize the growing opportunities for organic foods through Alabama Farmers Cooperative because of its reputation for dealing with farmers who truly known their business.

"I have a crop plan and I look and see what I need, and mesh our needs with the wants of the farmers as to what they want and are able to grow. We grow meat, eggs, fish and every type of vegetable and produce (everyday and specialties) and more kinds of lettuces than you can heap in a bowl.  I am putting together a group of pasture poultry producers and looking to having our own USDA approved poultry for small farmers sometime in the next few months. We’re working with meat sheep, (Catadins), called hair sheep because they don’t produce

wool.  I am growing some and the way I usually do things is I start a small flock and learn the ins and outs of it so I can help the other farmers. We have nowhere near enough lamb or chickens  to provide for Alabama. I grow tilapia in my lake and there are a good number of people producing tilapia for stocking lakes. There is a website sign-on for members and/or producers at www.growalabama.com or by phone at (205) 991-0042.

 "I don’t see Grow Alabama as being the final marketing venue for a growing farmer, it’s only a stepping stone so that I can support them in learning the ins and outs of organic certification. Ultimately, if you really want to make money at organic farming, you need to be in the regional distribution system. An organic farmer can do his own farmstand, his own market, county or Saturday markets. The overall prediction is by 2020 over 50 percent of people will be actively seeking organically grown vegetables. Imagine being part of that food supply."

Fran Sharp is a freelance writer from Alabaster.