John Aplin wasn’t expecting much from the new Market at Ag Heritage Park in Auburn back in 2005, and that’s where he went wrong. “I figured it would be a waste of time,” recalls Aplin, whose family regularly travels hundreds of miles to farmers markets throughout Alabama to sell tomatoes, peppers, cabbage and other produce from their sprawling Slocomb farm.But because he had promised Don Wambles, director of the Farmers Market Authority, that he’d help in the market’s launch, a skeptical Aplin loaded up his truck and set out for Auburn and the unknown.What happened next became a lesson in planning, a lesson that Wambles now preaches to his choir of farmers: Know your market.Within minutes after Ag Heritage Park’s gates opened, Aplin’s tent was swamped. Scores of customers patiently waited in line — some as long as 45 minutes — to buy his produce.”Don now has pictures (of the waiting customers) in a slide show and he uses me as an example of how you should never underestimate your market,” Aplin said with a laugh. “I didn’t take any help, and I had folks buying it faster than I could get it out there. I didn’t even have time to look up. Don felt so sorry for me that he came over to help. The lady who sold honey at the stand next to me helped, too. I underestimated that market very badly.”Never again. Today, Aplin knows his markets inside out.
That’s because the farmers markets — boosted by the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaign launched in 2004 by the state Farmers Market Authority and the Alabama Farmers Federation — are changing the way that Aplin Farms has done business since 1952.Not long ago, the Aplins — John, his dad Gerald, mom Beverly, grandmother Vera Mae, uncle Ronnie, brother Tommy and 3-year-old niece, Chesnee — would grow 150 to 200 acres of tomatoes which they would sell wholesale and ship all over the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.Today, wholesale is only half of their market as the retail farmers markets have become crucial to their success.”The way we do things now, it would be ignorant to even think of us quitting the farmers markets,” said John. “With the ‘Buy Fresh’ campaign and our little markets going the way they are, I don’t worry about selling a product anymore. My main concern is getting it produced so I can take it to my customers and exchange it for money. “I’m taking more and more products and going to more and more of these markets, and I’m making twice as much money off the same product,” he added.He’s not alone.
Wambles says that, thanks to the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” campaign, about 1,000 farmers now regularly sell their goods at Alabama’s 95 producer-only markets. He also says that if he could find about 200 more farmers, he could open even more markets.”The ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ campaign has been received with open arms by the whole of Alabama — the farmers have embraced it, and the consumers have embraced it,” Wambles said. “We’ve actually had consumers tell us, ‘Those four words tell me what to do.’ That’s exciting. Our producers have told us that they have actually seen their sales increase, and that is the No. 1 indicator of a successful campaign to us.”But Wambles also says that to be successful, a producer must know his market.”That’s the beauty of direct marketing — you learn the cultures of a community, and you grow a product that those individuals are accustomed to eating or that they like, and you can sell things that you ordinarily wouldn’t think about selling,” said Wambles.”That’s one thing we have tried to encourage our producers to do — to not do what great granddaddy and granddaddy did,” said Wambles. “Times have changed. America has changed. And if we will grow crops that meet the cultural needs of our society today, whether it’s Hispanic or other ethnic groups, we’ve got a built-in market.”Listening to their customers is why the Aplins began growing eggplant and zucchini. It’s why they began selling such value-added products as jars of cayenne pepper sauce, pickle relish and chow chow, and why they grow 17 different varieties of pepper. It’s also why they plant crops like broccoli and pumpkins when “nobody in south Alabama eats that stuff.”All because they listened to their customers. From Dothan’s Wiregrass Farmers Market to Birmingham’s Pepper Place, from Montgomery’s East Chase to Auburn’s Ag Heritage Park, the Aplins know what sells best and where.”Every market is different,” said John. “You learn what your customers want, and that’s what you take to them because that’s what you’re going to sell.”The Aplins know Pepper Place customers will only buy quart-sized cups of tomatoes, but Auburn customers want large 2 1/2-quart-sized baskets. Eggplants? Put the small and half-mature ones on the truck for Birmingham, the huge, ripe ones on the trucks for Auburn.Montgomery’s East Chase market? “That’s a big pea-eatin’ crowd,” says John. “Birmingham is the same way, but they had to be taught to eat peas.”Whatever you take to market, Wambles and John Aplin agree, take enough that you don’t run out.”The perfect day at the market for me is to leave with one cup of everything that I brought,” said John. “That means that everyone of my customers left with what they wanted, and I had one of everything left. If I sold out of everything, there’s a possibility that someone came and I didn’t have what they wanted.”The search for that “perfect day at the market” has taken him hundreds of miles to markets all over. But it’s his farthest market — the 200-mile one-way trip to Pepper Place — that John Aplin comes closest to that perfection.”You’d have to kill me to take my spot at Pepper Place,” he says with a laugh. “It’s that good.”For more information call Aplin Farms at (334) 726-5104 or (334) 792-6362 or visit www.AplinFarms.com