Taste the Farm in Urban Alabama

Years ago, my wife and I discovered the joys of locally grown produce. A new Urban neighborhood was being developed in (ironically) rural Shelby County on land owned by the local owners of media distributors, EBSCO.  Called Mt. Laural, it was to be a model of walkable sustainability and included an organic farm. The idea was to provide fresh organic vegetables to be sold to the residents of the new town.

Founded by Jerry Spencer, ( an extremely interesting individual),  this urban farm was one of, if not the first local Community Supported Farm (CSF). Jerry did not limit it to just Mt. Laural residents. He was already supplying organic produce to local restaurants and decided to sell to the general public. For an annual prepaid subscription, you would be entitled to a weekly box of fresh organic produce delivered to several locations around town for you to pick up. It was exciting to get the box each week to see what wonderful delights it contained.

It was thru Jerry’s farm that we were introduced to new   things (to us) such as blue fingerling potatoes, broccoli raib, kale, Swiss chard and edible flowers (great in salads) as well as the usual red, lettuce,  collards, turnip greens and heirloom tomatoes. The variety was wonderful. The catch was you had no choice as to what would be in your box each week, and it was a bit more costly than the grocery store. But we did not mind, as the produce was fresher, more delicious and many of the varieties we got were not available in the stores at at any price.  (until Whole Foods came along).

Jerry’s farming operation, now called Grow Alabama, has grown over the years to serve approximately 500 families fed from several different farms all over Alabama. This network of farmers allow Jerry to offer more variety and to extend the season for a longer period. Jerry’s goal is to keep the money people spend on vegetables here in Alabama.  He is a pioneer of sorts, devoted to teaching Alabama farmers how to grow organic vegetables for the local markets.

According to the Grow Alabama web site, only 5% of produce consumed in Alabama is from Alabama. But this may be changing, courtesy of … guess who… Wal-mart. Walmart announced today that as part of their drive to be more sustainable and reduce transportation costs, they plan to buy more local produce, and to encourage and ultimately require more sustainable practices from their suppliers. For now they have set their sights low , intending to only buy 5% of their produce locally. As the program expands, and more farmers are added to their supply chain, the percentage will grow. Since Walmart is the largest distributor of food in the world, they have the ability to change the entire market. I think this is a responsible move on their part that should be applauded.

I do not fear that this will put small distributors  like Jerry  out of business. There will always be a market for the special service and unique variety that Jerry provides. However, taken together with similar efforts by Whole Foods, Fresh Market and V- Richards, (not to mention other stores around the state), this trend should result in a growing boom for Alabama farmers, and a more sustainable future for us all. This means more people in Alabama will be able to enjoy the benefits of fresh local produce at a reasonable price, and our economy will be helped as well.

Walmart is not that bad. Lets just not forget pioneers like Jerry!