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From Black Belt To Alabama’s Veggie Basket

April 24, 2014

Mary Johnson

The Browns are first-generation farmers who finished construction of eight high-tunnel houses at their farm near Moundville in December 2013. From left are the Browns, Alabama Farmers Federation Horticulture Division Director Mac Higginbotham, Federation Area 6 Organization Director Wallace Drury and Southern Fresh Produce Chairman Don Chamberlain.

Randy and Debra Brown share a dream of returning economic prosperity to Alabama’s Black Belt. They’re doing their part to make that happen, using agricultural innovations to grow fresh produce at their Havana Junction Farm.

“In the small towns of west Alabama, businesses aren’t going to come unless we build it and get something going,” Randy said. The Browns’ individual success is part of a master plan to coordinate efforts from several small farmers and form a network of growers for Southern Fresh Produce.

Southern Fresh Produce Chairman Don Chamberlain said he hopes to have 11,000 new, high-production organic vegetable farms in the South in 10 years.

The Browns are the first fully operational farm in the network and are using a business plan established by Southern Fresh Produce. The couple finished eight high-tunnel houses on 1.5 acres in December. Their farm is in the small settlement of Havana near Moundville, and they’re already growing lettuces, kale and other greens.

The Browns already succeeded in previous business ventures. They formerly owned a restaurant and currently own and operate the local hardware and auto parts stores, but this is their first venture into farming.

“We cooked it; now we want to grow it,” Debra said. “We’ve been going to classes, and we have professors from Auburn and Mississippi State who have helped us. There’s people with a lot of years of experience and knowledge who taught us what to do.”

Chamberlain admits the growth of his network will be a slow process. It may not be as exciting as a big manufacturer coming to the state, but it will have the same impact, he said.

“If we reach our goal, that will be 65,000 jobs,” Chamberlain said. “That’s wealth-building, and that’s the big picture.”

The business model relies on the ingenuity of high-tunnel houses, drip-irrigation and plastic Coco grow bags. Unlike greenhouses, a high-tunnel house doesn’t require heat. The fabric covering can be rolled up to increase circulation or let down to provide greater insulation, maintaining appropriate growing temperatures with less energy.

When outside temperatures dropped to single-digits this winter, Randy said the ground temperature inside the tunnel-house stayed above 40 degrees.

“This is a really good design,” Randy said. “It’s a controlled environment. The plants are going to get what they need. If it’s dry, that’s not going to hurt them, and if it’s wet, that’s not going to hurt the plants, either.”

The Browns plan to grow tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and okra along with lettuces and greens. With the hoop houses, they hope to extend their growing season to 10 months.

The initial investment for eight high-tunnel houses — which is 67,200 square feet under roof — is around $150,000, Chamberlain said. A smaller business model of four houses takes up 33,600 square feet and would require $100,000 in start-up costs.

“Some people have wanted to do more, but the largest business model for Southern Fresh Produce members is the eight-house setup,” Chamberlain said. “Our projections show that’s $300,000 in growth revenue annually for a farmer, and that will be spent locally. There’s potential to make $5 per square foot of soil under these roofs.”

While Havana Junction Farm is the first operating member of Southern Fresh Produce, Chamberlain already has contracts for four more growers in west Alabama, for a total of 201,600 square feet of growing space. The next step is to build a cold storage facility for packaging and distribution.

“This kind of initiative is one to get excited about,” said Alabama Farmers Federation Horticulture Division Director Mac Higginbotham. “Don Chamberlain is clearly passionate, motivated and determined for this to be successful. He has initiated a network of producers and educators, and established companies to make this possible. As more hardworking and determined people like the Browns get involved, the Southern Fresh Produce network will get stronger, potentially transforming Alabama’s produce industry. The California drought has produce buyers and suppliers looking to other states to fulfill orders, and this initiative can help meet those needs.”

As members of Southern Fresh Produce, the Browns don’t have to worry about marketing. The company handles all that.

“Wouldn’t it be great to say we get our vegetables from Alabama?” Debra asked. “How wonderful would it be for us to become national producers and have Alabama be the state to take over the vegetable market?”

One thing is certain — with their determination, the Browns will work hard every day to be part of the vegetable revolution to revitalize west Alabama.

“We’re excited about doing this,” Randy said. “It’s going to take some time, but we’re going to make it a success.” Visit HavanaJunctionFarm.com for more information on the Brown’s farm.

For more information on Southern Fresh Produce, visit SouthernFreshProduce.com. 


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