As the summer begins, we look forward to local produce

Published 7:22 pm Monday, June 8, 2009

It was a good spring for rain and temperatures. The drought is now firmly over, and we didn’t see any major late frosts or other natural disasters that can wreak havoc on farmers and their crops. Now we are in the growing season and that means one thing: fresh local produce is starting to arrive.

Alabama is fortunate that we have an abundance of world-famous local produce, from Chilton County peaches to Geneva County tomatoes. We have the soil, the climate, and the people that grow the best produce in the world.

Sometimes however, it is hard to know whether what we are buying this summer is locally grown. There are two ways to quickly find out.

In farmers markets and farm stands throughout the state, you can look for the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” label. Sponsored by the Alabama Farmers Market Authority, the colorful and bold labels clearly mark that the produce you are about to buy is grown locally.

The second is the “Alabama A+” campaign that promotes Alabama produce and value added products in grocery stores and other markets. The Department of Agriculture & Industries program showcases our state’s farmers and the goods that they produce using visual displays and colorful “Product of Alabama” labels.

It is obvious why buying local produce is important: it is always fresher and therefore tastes better. Usually sold within 24 hours of being harvested, locally produced fruits and vegetables are simply better than produce which has been shipped for a long period of time. Studies show that produce purchased in supermarkets may have been shipped from distant states and countries traveling an average of 1,300 miles for as many as 7 to 14 days.

We have all eaten a tomato that is grainy and flavorless, and the reason is because it was picked well before it was ripe and sat many days before it reached you. But when you eat a locally grown tomato picked at the height of ripeness, the natural exceptional flavor, as well as the nutrients, come shining through.

There is another very important reason to buy locally grown produce: it supports local farmers and has a very important impact on the state economy.

The traditional family farm is in danger of disappearing. Alabama family farmers are a valuable part of our economy and heritage, and are the backbone of our rural counties and communities. Alabama has lost thousands of family farms in the past decades, and one of the best ways to sustain the family farms we have left is to buy directly (or as close to directly) from the farmers themselves.

State officials say that today’s farmer receives less than 10 cents of the retail food dollar. When a farmer is able to sell directly to us, the middleman is cut out and a higher profit is realized by the farmer. The farmer then circulates his profits throughout the local community creating an economic cycle that benefits everyone.

Moreover, when a farmer makes a profit selling produce locally, it helps preserve agricultural land. Many farmers have had to sell the land for development and other non-agricultural uses because it was no longer profitable. Selling directly to the local consumer is an important income source that helps maintain farming land.

And one other outcome of buying local is that it maintains genetic diversity. Commercial produce has few varieties, hybrids created to survive shipping and stay long on the shelf. Yet local farmers grow a much wider variety of plants, some only grown in the local area, and therefore preserving plant varieties for future generations.

Most importantly, nothing compares when it comes to taste. Alabama grown produce is the best, and when we can easily identify through the “Buy Fresh” and “Alabama A+” programs, then we know that excellent flavor is guaranteed.