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May 31, 2006   Email to Friend 

Buy Fresh, Buy Local - Taste the Difference
Debra Davis

Top photo, Mobile County farmer Art Sessions and his granddaughter, Kelly Kirkwood, pick collards on the Sessions' farm. Bottom photo, State Farmers Market Authority Administrator Don Wambles, left, and Mary Jo Byrd of BlackJack Gardens Greenhouse examine tomatoes ready for shipment.
"Buy Fresh, Buy Local" has taken root with Alabama farmers and shoppers alike and is beginning its third season in the state this spring. A joint venture of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority and the Alabama Farmers Federation, the program promotes fresh, Alabama-grown fruits and vegetables. Reminiscent of an old seed catalog sign, the logo itself conjures up memories of tasty, farm-fresh food.

Producers like Art Sessions of Grand Bay in Mobile County say "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" has been a tremendous success for small farmers.

"We've been hunting for years for something to help the small vegetable growers in Alabama," Sessions said. "The 'Buy Fresh, Buy Local' program has been the greatest program to help the small producer that the state of Alabama has ever been involved in -- bar none. People love the sign, and it reminds them to look at the food they buy to make sure it came from an Alabama farmer."

Sessions, 55, operates a diverse family farm along with his brother, David, his two sons, Daryl and Jeremy, and his nephew Blake Nicholas. They grow peaches, pecans and satsumas along with cantaloupes, watermelons, cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, collards and cabbage. They also grow corn, peanuts and cotton.

"Ninety percent of what we sell is sold wholesale, and we have a lot of buyers who have been our customers for years," Sessions said. "But the remaining 10 percent we sell at farmers markets and at our roadside stand. These are probably some of the most rewarding sales we make because we get to meet the people who buy our food face-to-face. They get an understanding of what we're about, and we have an opportunity to meet and get to know them. It's a great public relations tool, and it's really important when you consider the number of people from the city who are moving to the country each year. It helps us understand each other."

In addition to building relationships with his customers, the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" program has been a financial success as well. Although Sessions said it would be hard to come up with a dollar figure on how much it's benefited him, increased profits are all the proof he needs.

"I know people look for that 'Buy Fresh, Buy Local' sign, and just the sign itself makes you want to buy fresh fruits and vegetables," he said. The Alabama Farmers Federation State Horticulture Committee has endorsed the program since its inception, and Federation Horticulture and Greenhouse, Nursery and Sod Director Brian Hardin said the support is strong, statewide and continues to grow.

Hardin said the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" program has been the most well-received program he's been involved with at the Farmers Federation.

"Farmers are excited about the program and the opportunity to promote the products they grow and sell," Hardin said. "The logo just jumps out at you and makes you think of farm-fresh produce. Our farmers are 100 percent behind 'Buy Fresh, Buy Local.'"

Hardin said small farmers typically can't compete with larger commercial operations or chain stores in terms of gross sales, but farmers markets give them a chance to add value to their products.

"Farmers typically receive more for what they produce by selling it directly to consumers, and those consumers enjoy the freshest food by buying it right from the farmer who grew it. Farmers markets allow many small farms to remain a viable business without worrying about issues like packaging and shipping that larger producers face."

Farms that participate in the "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" campaign through the Alabama Farmers Market Authority range in size from an acre to several hundred acres said State Farmers Market Authority Administrator Don Wambles, but they all have one thing in common -- they're all owned by Alabama farmers.

Word about the success of Alabama's "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" program has spread outside the state as well. Wambles has had numerous requests from other states asking him to share the secrets of the Alabama campaign.

"Our outdoor advertising (billboards) has probably been one of the biggest factors in the success of the program," Wambles said. "That's helped our radio and TV advertising, and we've branded lots of items with the logo like caps, license plates, window clings, T-shirts -- all of which have been in big demand."

Last year, SYSCO, the nation's largest food distribution company, joined the program. The company agreed to identify Alabama-grown products that it will distribute to Alabama restaurants. "Through SYSCO's Alabama-grown program, we're identifying Alabama farm-grown products," Wambles said. "SYSCO brings the food into its warehouse and labels it with an Alabama-grown sticker. We've also been working with chefs and restaurant owners to display window clings on the front door and table tents inside the restaurant to show customers that the restaurant serves Alabama-grown products and supports our state's farmers."

Mary Jo Byrd of BlackJack Gardens Greenhouse in Trussville says SYSCO's affinity for Alabama-grown products has been a blessing for BlackJack. Byrd grows huge, luscious beefsteak tomatoes year-round inside her 17,400-square foot greenhouse using an organically rich medium of topsoil, compost, leaf mold and sand. Pests are controlled with beneficial insects, and boxes full of bumblebees are used to pollinate the crop.

"Smaller growers have needs that are different from the global marketplace," said Byrd, adding that her market is just beginning to expand beyond Birmingham. "Your product gets lost, there's no crop identity, and no accountability to the grower in that setup. There's no way a small grower can compete in that. But that has not deterred SYSCO. They have said, 'We will support the local growers and they're doing it."

Closer to home, BlackJack has found other supporters as well, naming Piggly Wiggly Warehouse, Western Supermarkets, and upscale grocers like V. Richards, Harvest Glen, Home Grown and Red Rain as businesses that appreciate the added value of fresh products grown locally. There are hundreds of other places where shoppers can buy locally grown produce. The program's website, BuyLocalAlabama.com, contains locations to farmers markets and roadside stands recognized by the Alabama Farmers Market Authority. The site also includes a list of U-pick operations, typical produce seasons in the state and recipes.

Wambles said he's not sure how big "Buy Fresh, Buy Local" will become, but added that if the last two seasons are any indication, Alabama farmers and consumers will harvest benefits from the program for years to come.


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