Chilton County peaches, blueberries from Brewton, Sand Mountain potatoes, Slocomb’s tomatoes, strawberries from Loxley and peanuts from the Wiregrass are the standards making Alabama’s locally-grown produce a demand this summer.
Buying local produce satisfies wallets and the taste buds of consumers. Shopping at farmers markets and road-side stands offers a price for goods supporting the growers and cutting out the "middle-man" associated with large-chain grocery stores. Farmers harvest their crops when the fruit or vegetable is at the peak of maturity, making for a tastier product.
The Alabama Farmers Market Authority estimates about $12 million is spent each year on sales through farmers markets. In 1997, there were 17 farmers markets in Alabama; this year there are 135.
"People want to ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ produce because they desire something that tastes real," said Don Wambles, director of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority. "They want to put a face with the farmer who grew the food they are buying, and they enjoy the experience of the market."
Buying food at wholesale markets around the state doesn’t necessarily mean those items were grown in Alabama. The term local means it is grown in Alabama. Consumers should be aware of this when they are shopping each week.
For the past 12 years, Mike and Mary Charles Burnette of Thorsby, in Chilton County, have had a booth at Pepper Place Farmers Market in Birmingham. This summer they will supply peaches, tomatoes, plums, blueberries, potatoes, squash, cucumbers, corn and more to seven farmers markets in central Alabama. The enthusiasm of customers they meet at the markets each week is encouraging for the Burnettes to continue growing and providing fresh food to them each year.
"We found growing for the wholesale market alone did not give us a fair return on our investment," Mary Charles said. "Pepper Place and the other markets gave us an opportunity to sell where the demand is for the produce we grow."
The Burnettes plant their vegetables on a schedule where their inventory of produce is continuing to ripen throughout the summer, so they are always able to provide the freshest food for the markets.
"We really have seen an increase of people at the farmer markets in the past several years," Mike noted. "People know it’s local and are amazed it is picked and sold on the same day."
Those who frequent the markets become familiar with farmers who sell the produce. This relationship builds trust and consumers feel safer about the food they are buying because they feel as though they know the farmer personally.
The Burnettes are one of many farmers all over Alabama who spend their summers selling to people at the farmers markets. The experience of going to the market each week has become an attraction for many towns.
Grove Hill, in Clarke County, is one of the most recent towns to organize a local farmers market. Through the county office of the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service and County Agent Kevan Tucker, the Grove Hill Development Board and a grant from the Ala-Tom Resource Conservation Development Council, this rural town is experiencing a new business during the summer months.
"The market has been a project reaching out to all areas of our town and community," said Gina Skipper, director of the Grove Hill Development Board. "We have people from all walks of life selling and buying produce each week and it has really been a huge success for Grove Hill."
Like many of the markets around the state, Grove Hill is set up downtown in a vacant parking lot. This increases the traffic in the downtown area and utilizes a space that once seemed neglected. Citizens begin to refer to the lot as the farmers market, not just a bare space.
Setting up markets in areas of town to attract new business is a smart economic booster for the area. Farmers markets are great tools for economic development.
"People are tired of spending money on food that doesn’t taste like food anymore," Wambles said. "Markets have exploded here in Alabama in the past decade and it has been great for small and large farmers. Our markets support producers farming one acre or those farming one hundred."
Launched in 2004 by the Farmers Market Authority, the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign is what Wambles believes is the sole reason interests in farmers markets in Alabama began to grow. T-shirts, caps, billboards, radio and television ads spoke to the pride of Alabamians to seek out produce sold by their neighbors.
Buying fresh means it comes ripe off the vine, and buying local means supporting Alabama’s farmers who continue to provide consumers with seasonal produce that is safe and delicious.
Anna Wright is a freelance writer from Collinsville.