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July 17, 2009   Email to Friend 

ALFA EMPLOYEES ENJOY FRESH, LOCAL PRODUCE
Jeff Helms
(334) 613-4212
July 17, 2009

Alabama Farmers Federation employee Linda Dennis, right, purchases fresh peaches from Carol Cleckler of Clanton.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. --  Drivers traveling along the East South Boulevard in Montgomery Friday afternoon probably were surprised to see hundreds of employees pouring out of the front doors of Alfa Insurance and Alabama Farmers Federation. But it wasn't a fire alarm or emergency that generated such a crowd; it was fresh produce.

That's because for one hour the entrance area of the 1,000-employee headquarters was transformed into the sixth annual Alfa Farmers Market. The event was originally organized to help kick off the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign, but it has become a much-anticipated part of summer for Alfa employees.

"We like the market because it's convenient and we can get good, fresh produce," said Alfa employee Cathy Moorer, who purchased peas, squash, tomatoes, okra, cinnamon bread and chicken salad. "We occasionally go to the EastChase market, but this is more convenient."

Carol Cleckler, who sells produce for her nephew, Keith Wise of Clanton, said having hundreds of potential customers in one location makes for a busy afternoon.

"We usually don't go quite this fast," Cleckler said as she handed fresh peaches to another Alfa employee. "It's very busy, but it's very rewarding. It's good for us, and I'm sure it's good for the employees, too, because they don't always have the opportunity to go out and shop."

Wise Farms also sells produce at Peach Park in Clanton as well as Saturday markets at EastChase in Montgomery and Valleydale Road in Birmingham. Cleckler said she thinks the Buy Fresh, Buy Local program has helped educate consumers about the value of locally grown produce.

"When people come to our table, they can choose what they want. We have prettier produce than in the grocery store, and they know it's picked every day. It's picked fresh, and we don't let it sit on the shelf for days," she said.

Federation Horticulture Director Mac Higginbotham said the crowd at Alfa shows that consumers want to support local farmers.

"It's proof that Alabama demands more fresh, local produce," said Higginbotham as he helped unload peaches from Cleckler's truck. "Everyone benefits when we buy local - from the community, to the producer, to the consumer.

"Knowing where your food comes from and seeing it first hand is important to consumers, and there's the added bonus of keeping this money in the community," he said.

Also helping Cleckler fill orders from the steady stream of Alfa employees was Don Wambles, director of the Alabama Farmers Market Authority.

He said the number of farmers markets in the state has grown from 17 in 1999 to 112 today. Twenty years ago, there were about 243 farmers who sold at farmers markets, but today Wambles has 1,043 active sellers in his database. Meanwhile, the popularity of fresh produce is almost outpacing production. In fact, Wambles says there are 18 more communities that want to start farmers markets, but he's still working to line up enough farmers to supply those markets with produce.

Many of the customers craving fresh produce are like Moorer, who didn't grow up going to the farmers market. Others, however, are frequent customers who long for a taste of their childhood.

"I was raised on fresh produce," said Alfa employee Dianne Mills, who purchased squash, peaches, okra and peas. "My mother cooked three meals a day when I was growing up back in Mississippi. (My husband) loves fresh vegetables so we go to the farmers market on Coliseum Boulevard at least once a week during the summer. This is great because the farmers market comes to the office."

In addition to Wise Farms, this year's Alfa Farmers Market featured Carroll's Farm Fresh Produce of Ozark, Oakview Farms of Wetumpka, GiGi's Fabulous Foods of Montgomery and lemonade served by the children from Alfa's on-site day care center.


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