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Western Drought Expected To Drive Up Southern Produce Demand

April 24, 2014

By Debra Davis

Art Sessions, left, and his brother, David, repot tomato plants they grew from seeds. Sessions Farm grows more than 50 varieties of fruits, vegetables and nuts in Mobile County.

A strong March wind whipped through a sea of pink blossoms that in a few short weeks will be the year’s first peaches at Sessions Farm in Grand Bay. Despite temperatures hovering in the low 40s, the flowers signal spring is here. This year, it comes with a great sense of optimism for some Southern fruit and vegetable farmers.

Thousands of miles away, where more than half of America’s fruits, vegetables and nuts are grown, it’s a vastly different story. Farmers in California’s Central Valley are experiencing one of the worst droughts on record. Many are plowing under their fields of established nut and fruit crops, while others say they won’t plant vegetables they’ve typically grown for decades.

Meanwhile, a few miles off the Gulf Coast, brothers Art and David Sessions are busy preparing to plant their spring vegetable crop. The family farm grows more than 50 different kinds of produce, fruits and nuts.

“We grow all our own plants from seeds,” said Art, who, along with David, was busy “stepping up” hundreds of small tomato plants — moving them from a tiny seed tray to a somewhat larger transplant tray. “We’ll probably plant these in the ground in mid-to late March, depending on the weather.”

Like most farmers, the Sessions say the weather dictates much of what they do. Excess rain last summer ruined much of their pecan crop. Prolonged freezing temperatures hurt their satsuma trees to the point that yields this year will suffer.

“But at least we’re not as bad as those folks in California,” said Art’s son, Jeremy, referring to the lingering drought.

In California, farmers rely on rationed water for irrigation. The disaster there could mean new opportunities for Southern farmers.

“Farmers in the Southeast have been getting calls from produce suppliers looking to other states to meet consumer demand,” said Alabama Farmers Federation Horticulture Division Director Mac Higginbotham. “It’s a matter of supply and demand that has positioned Alabama farmers to possibly expand their fruit and vegetable production.”

The challenge will be growing food here at a price that is affordable and competitive with imports, Higginbotham said.

“California and other western states are able to have lower input costs by dedicating thousands of acres to grow a single crop,” he said. “Those states also have extended growing seasons with widespread irrigation infrastructure. That has put them at a competitive advantage until now. The lack of water will certainly have an impact on this.”

As the nation’s top food-producing state, California’s drought is affecting production of everything from milk, beef and wine to some of the nation’s largest fruit and vegetable crops including avocados, strawberries and almonds.

Food price inflation is expected to increase since California accounts for one-third of U.S. vegetables and two-thirds of fruit and nut production, said USDA’s Chief Economist Joe Glauber at a forum earlier this year.

Water could be the key to farm expansion for the South. Jeremy said their family farm, which also raises peanuts, cotton and beef cattle, already was expanding because of population growth in their area.

“With urban sprawl, we’re already planting more vegetables this year just to meet our local demand,” he said. “But I feel like there’s going to be a better demand everywhere, not just our local market.”

The Sessions sell at five retail farmers markets, operate two roadside stands and have a hearty wholesale business. Another expansion is under way and includes a new retail outlet with a large storage cooler.

“The cooler will allow us to store our satsumas, and that’s the main reason we’re getting it,” Jeremy said. “But it will allow us to store more vegetables in the summer, too. We’ll use it for our tomatoes, cantaloupes, cucumbers, squash and peaches. Farmers in our state are blessed to have so much water. It’s about time we take advantage of it.”

Abundant water is one of Alabama’s greatest resources, Higginbotham said.

“In addition to many rivers and streams, our state averages nearly 60 inches of rainfall a year,” he said.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimates approximately 10 percent of freshwater resources in the continental United States originate in or flow through Alabama. 


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