gives local slant to
by Fran Sharp
arise. Jerry Spencer is calling and Grow Alabama needs your help.
in 1998, Jerry Spencer’s Grow Alabama community members (buyers) are
beginning to outnumber his organic food supply and similar to Uncle Sam,
he’s looking for a few good farmers to help fill orders. He’s hoping
to recruit growers of organic foods by natural means. Publicity.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) aims to reverse the ratio of foods
consumed in Alabama to foods grown in Alabama, thereby increasing the
production and the profitability of all Alabama farmers. Spencer says this
will enhance the economic viability of all rural Alabama and bring
economic and environmental sustainability to the state, while giving the
consumer the highest quality food available.
demonstration farm at Mt. Laurel Gardens is alive in the winter with
several varieties of laying hens that produce 1500 dozen eggs
per month. A flock of chickens are dressed each month as ordered
online by the CSA’s 500 members. Behind Spencer is the pond where he
raises ducks and fish (tilapia), and is trying out a new variety of
sheep for meat.
less than 5 percent of fresh produce in grocery stores actually coming
from Alabama, Spencer says Grow Alabama is an opportunity to have
locally fresh vegetables, fruits, eggs, dairy products, and meats
delivered to home, office, or to a central pick-up point, from Alabama’s
adds, "You can taste the difference. Open your first organic vegbox
and you’ll feel you’re tasting fresh produce for the first time.
Instead of fruits and vegetables that have been picked unripe in
California and transported for days, you’re tasting fresh corn, beans,
peas and squash that were rippling in sun-drenched rows less than 48
hours ago, and picked by a farmer who had the time to look for the
perfect moment of ripeness and flavor. Our items are tagged with numbers
to identify growers and area so you know where the food is coming
only does Grow Alabama make known the origin of foods for the
consumer, but Spencer schedules events during the summer so members can
meet, exchange ideas and learn about the people producing their
a CSA, you say?
(Community Supported Agriculture) is a partnership of mutual commitment
between a farm and a community of supporters who provide a direct link
between the production and consumption of food. Supporters cover a farm’s
yearly operating budget by purchasing a share of the season’s
CSA members make a commitment to support the
farm throughout the season, and assume the costs, risks and bounty of
growing food along with the farmer or grower. Members help pay for
seeds, fertilizer, water, equipment maintenance, labor, etc. In return,
the farm provides, to the best of its ability, a healthy supply of
seasonal fresh produce throughout the growing season. Becoming a member
creates a responsible relationship between people and the food they eat,
the land on which it is grown and those who grow it.
This mutually supportive relationship between
local farmers, growers and community members helps create an
economically stable farm operation in which members are assured the
highest quality produce, often at below retail prices. In return,
farmers and growers are guaranteed a reliable market for a diverse
selection of crops.
Grow Alabama is a CSA, designation 501C#
non-profit. Its members (buyers) number about 250 in the winter and grow
to 500 in the summer. Its products are supplied by about 20 farmers who
are part of Grow Alabama’s profit division (LLC). For information,
phone (205) 991-0042 or go online to
Alabama is the dream of one man, and the chance for everyone to preserve
a vital way of life. Jerry Spencer’s Grow Alabama establishes a
community connection to the family farms of Alabama. Members not only
buy more nutritious, flavorful food, they keep millions of dollars from
leaving the state, and a rich tradition from vanishing forever. Starting
as Mt. Laurel Organic Gardens in 1998, Grow Alabama became the country’s
first statewide multi-farm community supported agriculture program, a
trend that is pushing the organic food industry to new heights of
Organic Consumers Association (www.organicconsumers.org)
recently featured the results of an annual survey commissioned by
retailer Whole Foods Market of 1,000 Americans showing that more than
one-quarter of Americans are eating more organic products than just one
year ago. The survey also reveals that more than half of Americans have
tried organic foods and beverages, and nearly one in 10 use organic
products regularly or several times per week. Americans are buying
organic products for a variety of reasons, with more than half of
respondents saying they believe organic foods are better for the
environment (58 percent) and better for their health (54 percent).
Additionally, 57 percent believe buying and using organic products is
better for supporting small and local farmers. Almost one in three
Americans (32 percent) believes organic products taste better, and 42
percent believe organic foods are better quality. "The survey
results echo national sales trends, with recent reports indicating
organic food sales hit $10 billion and 20 percent sales growth last
year," said Margaret Wittenberg, Whole Foods Market vice president
of governmental and public affairs.
the respondents who currently choose organic foods, 68 percent sought
fresh organic fruits and vegetables, but the consumption of organic
eggs, meats, dairy products and grains is growing fast.
is actively recruiting producers to supply his ever-growing market of
vegetables, produce and meats. "Natural fed meat is incredible.
There is no comparison to what people have been eating and demand is
growing. For chickens and all the other animals, we really need feed
grains. There is none organically grown in Alabama right now. If I could
get a few thousand acres of feed grain going, that’s when I would know
organic farming has hit Alabama. We need grains for breads and such, as
we sell practically everything our producers grow to our membership. We
have grocers, health food stores and restaurants who want what we are
doing but the production is not really there yet. We need
Laurel Organic Gardens, Spencer’s farm and teaching venue is on Shelby
County Road #41, off Highway 280 and just 11 miles from Birmingham.
There he not only mentors farmers in becoming organic certified
producers adhering to USDA standards, but aids them in obtaining grant
assistance through private and government agencies.
people don’t know farmers can get as much as $10,000 as a producer
from the USDA through its Sustainable Agriculture
and Education (www.sare.org) program,
he says. "Grants are an attractive area of assistance, but many don’t
fool with them because grant writing takes a lot of talent and work.
Right now I am the ‘grant writer’ for Grow Alabama, but we are going
to hire a fulltime person to take over the task and work with our
farming is growing by natural means and it’s not as difficult as one
might think, Spencer says. "Fertilizers and pesticides are on the
upgrade in organic farming; more and more are being approved. It’s
getting easier and easier to grow organic and the organic farmer is
learning how to take optimum care of his land so it will be fit for
future generations; how to minimize erosion, and rotating crop
families. It’s a step by step process beginning with manures. It doesn’t
come on you all at once," he explained.
Alabama producers are a diverse lot, Spencer added. "Some are
growing on 300 acres and are willing to take 4-5 acres in organic
growing to see how it works. Others have anywhere from 10 to 150 acres
that they live on and are willing to do an acre or three, just to learn
about organic growing and have a market for what they grow."
said he decided to publicize the growing opportunities for organic foods
through Alabama Farmers Cooperative because of its reputation for
dealing with farmers who truly known their business.
have a crop plan and I look and see what I need, and mesh our needs with
the wants of the farmers as to what they want and are able to grow. We
grow meat, eggs, fish and every type of vegetable and produce (everyday
and specialties) and more kinds of lettuces than you can heap in a
bowl. I am putting together a group of pasture poultry producers
and looking to having our own USDA approved poultry for small farmers
sometime in the next few months. We’re working with meat sheep, (Catadins),
called hair sheep because they don’t produce
I am growing some and the way I usually do things is I start a small
flock and learn the ins and outs of it so I can help the other farmers.
We have nowhere near enough lamb or chickens to provide for
Alabama. I grow tilapia in my lake and there are a good number of people
producing tilapia for stocking lakes. There is a website sign-on for
members and/or producers at www.growalabama.com
or by phone at (205) 991-0042.
don’t see Grow Alabama as being the final marketing venue for a
growing farmer, it’s only a stepping stone so that I can support them
in learning the ins and outs of organic certification. Ultimately,
if you really want to make money at organic farming, you need to be
in the regional distribution system. An organic farmer can do his own
farmstand, his own market, county or Saturday markets. The overall
prediction is by 2020 over 50 percent of people will be actively seeking
organically grown vegetables. Imagine being part of that food
Sharp is a freelance writer from Alabaster.