Blount Co. Ranchers Like Healthy, Happy Stock
The Department of Agriculture’s "Buy Alabama’s Best" campaign was launched five years ago, but it didn’t take long to move from the drawing board to statewide acceptance as well as a major success story at the same time.
Food producers, grocery stores and consumers have responded in such a positive way since the early months of 2004 that Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who came up with the idea, couldn’t be happier.
"I think if you ask people around the state what they know about this program, you’ll find they are well acquainted with it and do what they can to buy Alabama products," said Sparks.
Concern over foreign products, especially imported food and toys, has grown in each of the past five years, underlining the reason for the agriculture department’s program.
In addition to promoting Alabama-grown products, the program helps raise money for charitable enterprises, including the Janie Sims Children’s Foundation which is dedicated to helping boys and girls with cancer.
Consumers may not be aware of the importance of the program, but they can’t miss seeing it in grocery stores or farmer’s markets where large cardboard look-a-like posters of Sparks holding up the colorful "Buy Alabama’s Best" logo.
There’s one at the State Farmer’s Market near Garrett Coliseum in Montgomery and it’s only a few feet from a large display showing dozens of Alabama-grown or produced items.
After Gov. Bob Riley issued a "pardon" to "Clyde" the turkey just before Thanksgiving, turkey producer Bill Bates accompanied Sparks into the coliseum where they inspected the exhibit. Bates’ turkey booth was located in the same area.
"The more we can promote what we make in Alabama, the more people will buy them," said Sparks, who is halfway through his second and final term as agriculture commissioner and is frequently mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2010.
The list of Alabama products promoted by the campaign is long and varied. It ranges from Golden Flake potato chips to Red Diamond and Milo’s tea.
Then, there’s Alaga Syrup, a Montgomery-based breakfast favorite for more than a century, and lesser-known items like Mamie’s Famous Cheese Wafers, a relative newcomer launched in Mobile in 2003.
They all add up to millions of dollars in sales around the state and region and Sparks wants them to be on even more grocery lists as the "Buy Alabama’s Best" program moves mid-way into its first decade.
A key to the program is helping shoppers find the products made in Alabama. Sparks praised Wal-Mart and other grocery stores for doing just that.
"It’s imperative stores have our products in plain view of shoppers," he said. "I’m very pleased when I see it in the stores I go into."
Sparks declined to list his personal favorites, saying that might get him into hot water with competitors, but he did mention his love of seafood "and when I visit a store I often go to the seafood section to see what they have and where it came from."
Fresh food can’t be topped or duplicated, he said, and that’s why he has been beefing up farmers markets around Alabama. At the moment, there are about 100 of them, supported either by the state or local governments.
"When you see all the recalls we’ve had in recent years, it’s understandable that people are going to be looking for fresh locally grown food," Sparks said. "The most important factor is timing. Our farmers produce fresh products and don’t have to ship them halfway around the world to consumers."
He mentioned luscious peaches grown in Chilton County as well as tomatoes grown in the Sand Mountain region and south to Mobile. Most popular fruits and vegetables are grown in Alabama. Sparks said bananas are exceptions and they have to travel long distances to Alabama consumers, meaning they tend at times to ripen en route.
Sparks praised the Alabama Food Manufacturers and Producers Association for helping to make the "Buy Alabama’s Best" program a success.
"We didn’t have that association when I came into office," he said. "It’s become very important to our program and I can’t thank those who have helped enough."
Sparks also has special praise for the Alabama Grocers Association (AGA) for its assistance in promoting the program.
The grocers association and the food manufacturers and producers group both sponsor a display contest for grocery stores across the state. The best displays are exhibited in the stores.
To get the program’s message across to people, Sparks’ department has been even more visible the past few years because of television appearances by Lauren Stone Cole during the noon hour.
Cole, a nutritionist with the agriculture department, demonstrates what can be made from Alabama-grown produce, vegetables and meat, and has become a popular addition to the home lunch crowd watching on television stations from Huntsville to Mobile.
She tries to use at least five Alabama-grown products during the television segments. During last year’s Thanksgiving show, she used a turkey from Kelley Foods of Elba, added some green beans, bacon from Zeigler’s and topped it all with a "little Alaga Syrup glaze."
Sparks said about the only thing that isn’t grown in Alabama for a Thanksgiving feast is cranberry sauce. Other than that, it’s all made in Alabama "and as good as you’ll find anywhere around the country."
The agriculture department headquarters near Garrett Coliseum has a little kitchen area and Cole uses it to prepare experimental dishes using Alabama fruits and vegetables. She said most of her creations work and they are taken to the television stations for the noon food programs.
An altruistic by-product of "Buy Alabama’s Best" is contributions to the Janie Sims Foundation which assists in pediatric cancer research. Contributions from the program are approaching $70,000 a year.
The money comes from a portion of sales derived by the companies taking part in the program and promotional assistance from state leaders like the governor and First Lady Patsy Riley.
Growing food in Alabama is only half the story, said Sparks, who likes to point to the jobs they produce and the raw farm products involved like paper, boxes and packages.
He said Alabama food product sales represent an economic impact of more than $2 billion annually, not to mention a fourth of all those employed in the state have some connection to the food and service industries.
"So, as we buy from our local producers, we are fueling the profits rights back into our state’s economy," said Sparks. "I want to thank all of those individuals who help make this a success including the manufacturers themselves, the grocers and especially the Alabama consumer who makes an effort to buy their food from local manufactures."
It is estimated about 250,000 Alabamians are employed in some aspect of food production in the state.
Members of the board of directors of "Buy Alabama’s Best" include Gerald Baggett of China Doll Rice and Beans, Johnny Collins of Barber’s Dairy, Johnny Fox, Jr. of Moore’s Marinade, Hugh Miller of Dean’s Sausage, Bill Seal of Kelley Foods, Julie Strauss of Golden Flake, Virginia Whitfield of Whitfield Foods/Alaga Syrup, Ellie Taylor of AGA and Lauren Stone Cole of the State Department of Agriculture.
Members of the Retailer Advisory Board are Tom Keller, Associated Grocers; David Davis, Bruno’s; Mac Otts, Greer’s; Jay Mitchell, Mitchell Grocery; Mike McShane, Southern Family Market; Scott O’Brien, Piggy Wiggly; Michael Musolino, Publix and Steve Mulford, Wal-Mart and Winn Dixie Corporate/Marketing.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.