With the arrival of spring’s first blooms, many Alabamians are already dreaming of this year’s first vine-ripened tomato or the sugary-goodness of a slice of fresh watermelon. But while many people are waiting and hoping, Alabama’s fruit and vegetable growers have long been planning and preparing to bring consumers the tastiest possible produce from their farms.
"We all know everybody is making more conscious decisions about their food," said David Johnson of Randolph County, President of the Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (AFVGA).
"One of our goals as an association is to put the consumer in direct contact with local growers who can tell their customers more about what’s happened to their food and what’s been done to it. There is a demand for that information, along with a desire for fresh, safe, high-quality produce," Johnson explained.
At the Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Conference held in February on the Auburn University campus, Johnson welcomed about 140 Alabama produce farmers to a day filled with the latest production and safety information from professors, Extension researchers and specialists, and other agriculture leaders.
Opening remarks made by Don Wambles, Director of the Farmers Market Authority, encouraged growers to remember the importance of marketing their produce.
"Marketing is the other bookend to production agriculture. We have to start to think about things a little differently. We’re not just growing a crop, we’re growing food," he said.
Wambles also stressed the importance of growers using direct marketing to end-consumers or customers through traditional u-pick and roadside stands as well as the booming sectors of Farmer’s Markets and Community Supported Agriculture alliances.
Smaller group sessions for the remainder of the day focused on one of three areas – small fruits, tree fruits or vegetables – with each group hearing from numerous speakers about different crops and practices in that area. Small fruit segments included information on strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and muscadine grapes. Tree fruits presentations were made on apples, satsumas and other citrus fruits, peaches and Oriental persimmons. Vegetable sessions covered foods like tomatoes, peas and asparagus. A presentation was also given on pesticide safety.
Although the fields of expertise ranged from heirloom apples to asparagus, Regional Extension Agent Gary Gray said some of the best information may not have been displayed on a screen or handout.
"The AFVGA has been a strong resource for growers, and these conferences provide the opportunity for producers to meet one another and exchange ideas. Extension plays a large part in providing the latest research to farmers, and we have a good partnership with the AFVGA," he said.
According to AFVGA Executive Secretary Leslie Brasher, the association currently has around 200 members. She added that one of the primary benefits for growers who join the association is up-to-date information on the latest research directly from the researchers themselves in the form of newsletters and conferences.
And Johnson added the organization is not just for farmers with several hundred acres.
"It seems like we’re seeing more people who have retired and are still able to work a small-acreage operation for self-sufficiency and profit. Some people are looking for a way to do something with 30 or 40 acres that won’t break the farm if it doesn’t work," he said.
Brasher said the AFVGA board will soon schedule more meetings and conferences for the year, and the organization is in the process of creating a new online list of member growers.
Many of the presentations given during the February meeting were accompanied by Extension manuals or handouts highlighting pertinent information or additional sources for growers. In addition to this information, AFVGA members in attendance also received a copy of the 2010 Vegetable Production Handbook for the Southeastern U.S. The handbook was compiled by the Southeastern Vegetable Extension Workers and is updated annually.
Gray added that Extension meetings throughout the year are planned in cooperation with the AFVGA, and include new findings as well as tastings of fruits and vegetables grown as a result of studies conducted by Extension researchers and specialists.
"Plans are already underway for the 2010 Farm, Home and Wildlife Expo which will be held the first Saturday in August at the Chilton Research and Extension Center. The event will include variety tasting and information on Extension fruit and vegetable production," Gray said.
For more information on upcoming Extension or Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association events, visit www.aces.edu.
Kellie Henderson is a freelance writer from Troy.