Some of the state’s smallest farmers have partnered with the nation’s largest retailer to make farm-fresh local produce available to consumers.
The Small Farmers Agricultural Cooperative formed by Tuskegee University and Walmart is helping farmers like Darryl Brown of Autauga County increase demand for their produce.
“This is the first time Walmart has adopted a ‘Buy Fresh, Buy Local’ initiative approach to their business,” said Miles Robinson, director of the Small Farm Development Center at Tuskegee. “Walmart is purchasing from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Texas. Alabama is probably the only state that is producing at least three crops for the stores.”
Brown, a third-generation farmer, has 65 acres of watermelons, 10 acres of collard greens and 50 head of beef cattle. He’s been involved in the cooperative since its inception four years ago. He said cooperative members worked hard to meet Walmart’s quality standards.
“Buyers were kicking trucks (of produce) back when we first started,” Brown said, indicating the crop didn’t meet quality standards set by the store. “That’s about a $1,000 loss after it’s all said and done, so we had to stop that. This year, we haven’t had one truck come back.”
The cooperative has farmers from Autauga, Barbour, Butler, Chilton, Dallas, Lowndes, Macon and Marengo counties and has processing facilities in Autaugaville, Selma, Shorter and Tuskegee. After processing, the produce goes to two distribution centers in Cullman and Opelika, which serve a total of more than 400 stores.
“The university has been all in, from top to bottom,” Robinson said. “Walmart asked us what our farmers were best at growing, so that’s why the cooperative sells purple hull peas, watermelons and collard greens.”
Alabama Farmers Federation Horticulture Division Director Mac Higginbotham said the Southeast, and Alabama in particular, is becoming a produce hotspot.
“Nationally, the majority of commercial fruits and vegetables are grown in California and Arizona,” he said. “About 480,000 acres in California are out of production due to the severe drought, and with those states struggling to produce, Alabama is in a prime position to step up and fill the gaps. We have an abundant water supply, very fertile soils and people who work hard in agriculture.”
In addition to creating opportunities for themselves, cooperative members have become economic drivers in their communities.
Chilton County farmer Warren Ford started with 10 acres of peas last year and expanded to 71 acres this year.
“You’ll be surprised at how many people are calling for work,” he said. “Next year, if I can, I want to expand to 150 acres of peas.”
Audrey Zeigler, resource farm management specialist for Tuskegee University, said the contract with Walmart allows farmers to concentrate on what they do best: feeding an ever-growing population.
“The main thing we want to do is give farmers a market for their products,” she said. “With this project they can focus more on their crops instead of trying to market the product.”