Nearly 100 people listened as a speaker described how to massively increase Alabama’s farm production and pump millions into the state economy, while helping to fill the produce demand left by a water-starved California.
Farmers from across the state were sprinkled through the crowd. Food distributors sat next to university officials and others that want to help grow the state’s largest industry.
But news media and politicians were scarce. That stood out to speaker Gary Lemme as he talked about how irrigating 1 million acres of farmland here would have the same economic impact on the state as landing two new automotive plants.
“If we were talking about getting two automotive plants, the TV cameras would be everywhere,” said Lemme, director of the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. “Politicians would be tripping over themselves to get to the microphone. But because it’s agriculture (people aren’t as excited).”
Noel Brown was one of several farmers who made a long drive to Montgomery to hear how they can increase business. Brown mostly grows row crops across his 2,300 acres in north Alabama, but he’s been growing strawberries for the last 17 years on irrigated land.
“We don’t have good sources of water right there where I’m at,” Brown said. “If you find groundwater, you’re really lucky.”
Most of his strawberries are sold right on the farm, part of a recent surge in farm-to-plate business. There were 17 farmers markets in Alabama in 1999 and that has ballooned to 157 today, according to Farmers Market Authority Director Don Wambles.
Meanwhile, vegetable and fruit production’s impact on the state’s economy is high and growing – standing at $77 million in 2013, according to ACES data. The impact of tomato production alone jumped 26 percent last year, hitting $11 million.
The state has a chance to raise those numbers a lot more because of what’s going on out west, state Agriculture and Industries Commissioner John McMillan said.
“Historically, California has furnished half the produce we consume in this country,” McMillan said. “With the water situation out there, that production is going to migrate. A lot of it, for about 20 years, has been moving into Mexico. But it’s a great opportunity for us to increase the economic impact of agribusiness in Alabama.”
McMillan and others in the department were hoping last week’s summit would give farmers a better picture of the situation and help the state chart a course toward growth. They’ll consider all the options for help, including legislative action and grant programs, McMillan said.
Brown said his biggest barrier to growth is that he’s a farmer, not a marketer. While he can grow “a lot more,” getting it into the hands of the public is a different story.
Still, Wambles said the state and nation are hungry for food from Alabama’s farms. He pleaded with the crowd in Montgomery to produce more.
“We have actually created a greater demand than we have supply here in Alabama,” Wambles said. “I tell farmers every time I stand before them, ‘Guys, you’ve got to plant more. You’ve got to plant more. We’ll find a home for it.’”
By the numbers
140 New farmers markets in Alabama since 1999
5 percent Of 250 million acres of suitable Alabama land is irrigated
$77 million – 2013 economic impact of vegetable and fruit production in Alabama