August 2015
Farm & Field

Catfish to Cucumbers, Farm to Fork

 
The Abercrombies like to see vines that are hanging heavy with cucumbers – like ornaments on a Christmas tree.  

Sweet Alabama Farms is a family venture that relies on premium products and natural, organic processes.

Don Abercrombie graduated college with an accounting degree and became a certified public accountant.

Today, he could be pushing a pencil, crunching numbers from 9 to 5 and spending weekends at the beach.

But, Abercrombie’s passion was not in the world of finance. His passion was the farm.

Abercrombie grew up on a Barbour County farm, the youngest of nine children.

"I’ve spent a lot of long, hot days in the fields picking cotton and hoeing peanuts," he said. "Our family struggled at times, but material things aren’t everything. We had the love of a family and that’s what was most important."

The love of family and the freedom to be "proactive, aggressive and to think outside the box" were the factors that led Abercrombie and his wife Traci to form AquaSouth, a farm-raised catfish company, in Louisville in Barbour County in 1993.

Four years later, Abercrombie developed an off-peak power rate that stimulated the catfish industry in west Alabama.

The Abercrombies were soon well-established in the Alabama catfish industry and a chance meeting involved them in the shrimp industry.

 
  Each house can hold 2,750 cucumber plants that are transplanted by hand on foot or from tractor seats. Traci and Averi did most of the planting. The eight greenhouses are in the same area where the Abercrombies plan to build another 24 greenhouses.

Abercrombie was delivering catfish to a customer near Bayou LaBatre and just happened to see a man walking his little girl home from school.

"The man had on shrimping boots. Seeing him and his little girl reminded me of my own little girl Averi and those long nights checking catfish ponds," Abercrombie said. "I could imagine how hard the man worked to keep food on the table for his family."

From that experience, Abercrombie incorporated shrimp into his company. He also sells peanuts through his company because his roots are in red clay peanut fields

As a result of Abercrombie’s ability to analyze agricultural industries and understand how to create more value for both the farmer and the end customer, AquaSouth is at the forefront of the catfish industry in Alabama.

Catfish, shrimp and peanuts, for good measure and for old-times’ sake, would seemingly have been sufficient to fulfill Abercrombie’s passion for farming. But it wasn’t. Abercrombie is an out-of-the-box thinker and a visionary.

And, out of the box and from his vision appeared those curious-looking "houses" located in the vicinity of Louisville and Texasville. From a distance, those greenhouses appear to be Quonset huts in the Arabian Desert, but they are actually the "foundations" of the Abercrombies’ Sweet Alabama Farms.

For now, Don, Tracie and their son Cass and daughter Averi Whitfield are growing organic cucumbers on their farm – tons of cucumbers in eight 60-by-204 greenhouses with 24 more greenhouses on the drawing board.

 
At the beginning of the season, the cucumbers grew low on the vines.  
   

"There’s a future here," Abercrombie said. "This is the way we can grow cucumbers and other vegetables organically and profitably. When you can grow a crop ‘inside,’ you have some control on factors you can’t control outdoors. And, organically grown produce is what more consumers are wanting and demanding. Consumers want to know where their food comes from, how it’s grown and they want to know it’s safe."

Abercrombie’s family’s quest for having the absolutely best locally grown, value-added products led them to growing USDA "Certified Organic Crops" inside the greenhouses.

"The best way to explain the growing process is to look back in time," Abercrombie said. "Imagine growing a crop without modern synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and disease control options, and to do this during non-typical growing seasons. That’s the growing process."

And, he admitted right up front that growing 22,000 cucumbers indoors is a rather labor-intensive venture.

"We had to transplant every single plant. Traci and Averi did most of the transplanting," he said. "They put up ‘miles’ of strings for the cucumber vines to climb. That’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of time."

Traci and Averi did most of the tending of the plants and that included clipping the tendrils daily to keep the plants from tangling with each other.

"We have a drip irrigation system and a ‘feeding’ system that helps us manage the plants and we harvest every other day," Abercrombie said. "The organic fertilizers have to be injected daily, using two or three different nutrients separately."

Abercrombie Organics’ cucumber of choice is the Prima Vera cucumber used in the fresh market primarily for salads. The eight greenhouses produced about 150,000 pounds of organic cucumbers and, with the addition of 24 more houses, "that will be a lot of cucumbers."

Abercrombie said about 90 percent of the organic cucumbers grown for Abercrombie Organics are #1 cucumbers and measure from six to eight inches and weigh about two-thirds of a pound. Any cucumber that is too large or too small has to be sold as a #2 and at a lower margin of profit.

"You want your cucumbers to be long and straight and, for them to be, they have to be trained," he said.

Growing on a climbing vine, the cucumbers have space to stretch and grow, and gravity has a good pull on them.

The Abercrombie family plans to have three crops a year and will eventually add tomatoes and bell peppers to the organic farming operation.

At Sweet Alabama Farms, the family’s hope is to provide a model for others interested in this industry.

"Everything from greenhouse design, including using a tractor inside, to the crops being grown based on consumer demand has been incorporated into the production plan," Abercrombie said. "We have felt for years that there’s a better way to market crops through the distribution channel. In marketing our produce, we will be using the Abercrombie Foods model that tells the story of who we are and where and how the crops were grown from ‘farm to fork.’

"Our products must be available before the conventional produce and vegetables are ready in order to receive premium prices and justify the extra cost associated with growing organically certified crops."

The Abercrombie family’s collective involvement in the world of agriculture dates back 22 years when their premium-brand, farm-raised catfish and other 100-percent U.S.A. products were developed.

"Cass and Averi have grown up around ponds, flavor testing fish, cooking and leading catfish and shrimp demonstrations in grocery stores, and have recently been involved with our restaurant in Clayton," Abercrombie said.

The Abercrombie Organics venture requires a family effort. Cass is the farm manager and Averi handles the marketing. Traci does most of the trellising and picking of the cucumbers.

"There’s nothing as rewarding as developing a business with your family." They all agreed.

Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.