NUTS ABOUT CARNIVAL: Fidlers Hope To ‘Let The Good Times Roll’ With Mardi Gras Throws
He hasn’t exactly broken the silence of Mobile’s secret Mardi Gras societies, but Jimmie Fidler believes he has his foot in the door of opportunity.”It’s just around the corner,” Fidler said over his ever-present cell phone as he wound his way back home after another late January delivery. “I’d say within five years we might have more business than we want.”Fidler’s business, as virtually everyone in Baldwin County has known for the last 15 years, is peanuts — green or dry, roasted or boiled, regular or Cajun or just plain ol’ raw. Buy ’em by the bushel or the five-pound bag. Buy ’em as tiny as your pinky or as large as Bigfoot’s big toe.Either way, Fidler says the competition in Silverhill is nothing like it is over in Houston County where half of the peanuts in the United States are grown within a 100-mile radius of Dothan.That’s why you’ll find Fidler Farms’ peanuts not only at the farm, but also at fruit stands, at wholesalers as far as Baton Rouge, at almost all Baldwin County high school football games, at fire department and other charity fund-raisers, at convenience stores and, of course, at Mobile’s Mardi Gras celebration.”This Mardi Gras thing is unbelievable,” said Fidler, days before it ended Feb. 5. “They party in the street, they get on those floats and throw all these beads out to people, and they’ll throw candy and toys and little dolls and stuffed animals.”By 1997 (three years after he took an unknowing plunge into the world of peanut farming), they were throwing Fidler’s peanuts too, sealed in four-ounce bags emblazoned with the words “Fidler Peanuts: Happy Mardi Gras,” his phone number and a cartoon-like drawing of fiddling peanut wearing a Mardi Gras mask.You can find these “throws,” as they are called, in tote bags at any of the three Toomey’s stores — long considered the place for serious Mardi party shoppers — and even in Wal-Mart stores during the carnival season.Based on his sales of 125,000 Mardi Gras throws each of the past two years, he guesses he’ll sell about 15,000 pounds of peanuts in just 24 days this year.Yet, the way he sees it, there’s still room to grow by somehow selling the secret societies on the idea of customizing their peanut throws.”There’s something like 25 or 30 organizations in this Mardi Gras thing,” said Fidler. “I don’t understand everything about it, but it’s been going on forever. There’ll be thousands and thousands of people there. And they’re doing it not just in Mobile and New Orleans, but Gulf Shores, Orange Beach, Bay Minette, Citronelle, Loxley, Gulfport, Fairhope and Daphne. This Mardi Gras is something that I’m really going to pursue. I think that’s the best future for our farm.”Should the customized peanut throws take hold the way he expects, it will be a far cry from 1973, the year Jimmie Fidler quit his job at a dairy and went into full-time row crop farming. By the early 1980s, the farm was nearly bankrupt, and Fidler turned to the produce business.With the help of his wife Faye, daughters Connie and Jennifer and sons Jamie and Randy, Fidler set up a produce stand at a four-way stop where a Wal-Mart store now sits and began selling sweet corn, cantaloupes and watermelons. “We sat there underneath the pecan trees for about 15 years,” said Faye.
But when the landlord wanted to raise the rent on their produce stand to $1,000 a month, Jimmie decided to try something new — peanuts.”They went out there and started planting peanuts and didn’t have any idea how to harvest them or what they were going to do with them,” said Faye. “They just went out on a limb.”But after a few missteps, Jimmie found redemption in the Super Jumbo, a huge, oversized meaty peanut specially developed by a crop Extension specialist at North Carolina State.”When people see these things, they just go, ‘Man oh man! What do you put on these peanuts!?'” said Jimmie. “I tell ’em it’s special, that Dr. Gene Sullivan bred this peanut up for his own use in his back yard. He sent me a pound of seed — there were 313 kernels in it — and he said to just take it and run with it, and that’s what I did.”Since then, Fidler guesses he’s sold almost 400,000 pounds with countless bags going into Wal-Mart stores in south Alabama and north Florida. That is, until a directive from Wal-Mart’s corporate offices banned green peanuts from their stores over peanut allergy concerns.”When I lost this Wal-Mart business, that was a big hit,” Jimmie said. “We lost $100,000 worth of business off this farm.”Yet, Fidler Farms plows onward, buoyed largely by the sale of its green peanuts and its booming boiled peanut business, which includes those served piping hot from a slow cooker at almost all convenience stores within a 30-mile radius of the farm.At 66 and with the kids all grown, Jimmie says he’d like to turn the convenience store sales over to daughter Connie Glassford, who operates her own marketing agency. Faye still works by Jimmie’s side roasting, boiling and bagging peanuts. Jennifer, who has a horticulture degree from Auburn and works with the City of Fairhope, often steers sales their way and even makes occasional deliveries.Jamie, who is preparing to step into Dad’s shoes, is looking into diversifying the farm even further with direct marketing of grass-finished cattle and pasture-raised chickens. “We want to be the small farm selling directly to the public, like what we do with the green peanuts,” said Jamie. “But these green peanuts are our bread and butter.”Jamie’s brother Randy, an investment broker with Morgan Stanley, would agree with that. That’s why he’s helping the family farm break into the Mardi Gras market with sales of its smallest peanut, the kind inside the four-ounce throws.Due to the secret nature of the Mardi Gras groups, Jimmie says breaking into the secret circle isn’t easy. “They stay secret — they don’t let it out that they are members, and they’re always behind a mask,” said Jimmie. “And you can’t go to their meetings unless you’ve been sponsored to join.”But he has some ideas, ideas like the customized throws for each organization — ideas that race through his head at night, exciting him with endless possibilities. “You know, I wake up at 2 o’clock in the morning sometimes thinking, ‘How are you going to keep this farm together?'” said Jimmie. “I forget that I’m getting old, and need to slow down, but I get so excited about it I can’t help myself.”For more information, contact Fidler Farms at (251) 945-5687.