Jul 13, 2021
Alabama farmers linked to local groceries with Sweet Grown initiative

Sweet Grown Alabama has launched an effort to help the state’s farmers sell more produce in local grocery stores.

The nonprofit foundation, which promotes Alabama’s farming industry, is working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries and five local grocers and distributors across the state.

Sweet Grown Alabama was awarded a $75,000 USDA specialty crop block grant to provide incentives to stores and distributors to purchase more local products. In exchange, the stores and distributors are providing sales data that is being shared with farmers, who can use it to help make planting decisions and explore potential new markets.

“We are tracking data of what products are already being sold, and we also hope to capture what grocery stores are looking to purchase that our farmers aren’t growing right now,” said Ellie Watson, director of Sweet Grown Alabama.

Watson said many grocery stores throughout the state are big supporters of local farmers, so this effort is aimed at strengthening current ties and building new ones.

“Through this grant program, we hope to make buying local products even easier for our grocery members,” she said. “We know buying local takes a bit more money and effort, but the economic benefit it brings to our state outweighs the challenges.”

Partners in the program include Greer’s Markets in south Alabama, the Piggly Wiggly Birmingham GroupRenfroe’s Markets in central Alabama, WM Grocery in Eest Alabama and Mitchell Grocery Corp. in north Alabama. Combined, the companies represent 70 stores and nearly 200 distribution partners.

The data collection began in December 2020, and Sweet Grown Alabama is getting monthly reports to share with its members.

Overcoming challenges

Farmers face several challenges in getting their produce on grocery store shelves, said Trav Foster, who runs Ballard Creek Farms in Lowndes and Butler counties.

Building relationships with store managers is big, especially for farmers who are just starting out, as is navigating complex federal food safety regulations, he said.

“It’s intimidating going into a grocery store and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to buy our produce?’” Foster said. “And if someone isn’t already established, knowing what products to grow can be difficult, too.”

Ballard Creek Farms raises cattle and grows row crops, hay and sod. Its main produce is watermelon, and over the years it has grown sweet corn, tomatoes and cantaloupe, selling to grocery stores in Montgomery, Crenshaw, Butler, Wilcox and Autauga counties.

The watermelons are a big hit at gas stations in the region and have buyers from across the country.

Foster said Sweet Grown Alabama helped connect Ballard Creek Farms to a USDA farm-to-school program, which purchased a semi-truckload of fresh corn and 3,000 watermelons last year.

Renfroe’s Markets is one of five companies partnering with Sweet Grown Alabama to get more locally grown products into Alabama groceries. Photo: Sweet Grown Alabama

“Sweet Grown Alabama not only connects us to the outlet for our product, but also does a good job of advertising to get consumers to purchase local produce,” he said.

Local appeal

Andy Virciglio, who owns and operates Piggly Wiggly stores in the Birmingham area, said participating in the USDA grant program, and other efforts of Sweet Grown Alabama, is a natural fit for his family business.

“Sourcing product from around us matters a ton to us and our associates,” he said. “For years, we have tried hard to support local farmers, growers and makers, and Sweet Grown Alabama made 100% sense to our store’s mission and what our customers expect from us.”

The most popular locally grown products in the Piggly Wiggly stores include Alabama Gulf seafood, sausages and seasonal produce, such as tomatoes, melons, collards, turnip greens, berries, peaches and figs.

Additionally, the stores offer a large selection of locally made products, including ice cream, baked goods, pimento cheese, chicken salad, fresh roasted coffee and craft beers.

Virciglio said his stores are ready for increased availability and access to local products and average a couple of new opportunities each week.

“I guess growing up around Alabama brands like Golden FlakeZeiglerBarber’s and more keeps Alabamians seeking more locally made products. They appreciate that, and we do as well,” he said. “We know that if it can be made, grown or brewed locally, we want to have it available for our customers.”

Supply chain connections

Sweet Grown Alabama was founded nearly two years ago and has more than 220 members in its network, including farmers, makers, retailers and restaurants. The group has its own logo, branding effort, marketing programs and promotional activities to encourage consumers to buy local products.

One of the biggest challenges that produce farmers face is finicky growing conditions, Watson said.

“One bad cold snap, a hurricane or a tornado can destroy your crop in minutes, and it can’t be replaced easily,” she said.

Another challenge is the risk of not having a guaranteed market for products when they do grow plentifully. Starting new crops or expanding existing ones can be a tricky proposition.

Watson said Sweet Grown Alabama strives to help farmers make valuable supply chain connections.

Deciding what and how much to grow can be a tricky calculation for farmers. Sweet Grown Alabama is working to help them find a local market for their crops. Photo: Sweet Grown Alabama

“That’s our commitment. If farmers call and say ‘We have extra products,’ we’re going to do what it takes to help get that product sold, whether through grocery stores or farmers markets,” she said.

Another benefit of the USDA grant program is that the participating stores joined the Sweet Grown Alabama branding program. That means they can use the organization’s logo in their ads and aisles, and they are listed in a searchable database of where consumers can find local products.

“Not only are grocery stores reaping the benefits of this grant, but Sweet Grown Alabama farmers are as well, because we have so many new sales opportunities and connections,” Watson said.

Alabama Department of Commerce

Photo at top: Trav Foster, right, who operates Ballard Creek Farms in Lowndes and Butler counties, says Sweet Grown Alabama has provided valuable assistance. Photo: Contributed

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