Watson said many grocery stores throughout the state already are big supporters of local farmers, so this effort is aimed at strengthening current ties and building new ones.
“Through this grant program, we hope to make buying local products even easier for our grocery members,” she said. “We know buying local takes a bit more money and effort, but the economic benefit it brings to our state outweighs the challenges.”
Partners in the program include Greer’s Markets in South Alabama, the Piggly Wiggly Birmingham Group, Renfroe’s Markets in Central Alabama, WM Grocery in East Alabama and Mitchell Grocery Corp. in North Alabama. Combined, the companies represent 70 stores and nearly 200 distribution partners.
The data collection began in December, and Sweet Grown Alabama is getting monthly reports to share with its members.
Farmers face several challenges in getting their produce on grocery store shelves, said Trav Foster, who runs Ballard Creek Farms in Lowndes and Butler counties.
Building relationships with store managers is a big one, especially for farmers who are just starting out, as is navigating complex federal food safety regulations, he said.
“It’s intimidating going into a grocery store and saying, ‘Hey, do you want to buy our produce?’” Foster said. “And if someone isn’t already established, knowing what products to grow can be difficult, too.”
Ballard Creek Farms has row crops, cattle, hay and sod. Its main produce is watermelon, and over the years it has also grown sweet corn, tomatoes and cantaloupe, selling to grocery stores in Montgomery, Crenshaw, Butler, Wilcox and Autauga counties.
The watermelons are a big hit at gas stations in the region and have buyers from across the country.
Foster said Sweet Grown Alabama helped connect Ballard Creek Farms to a USDA farm to school program, which purchased a semi-truck load of fresh corn and 3,000 watermelons last year.
“Sweet Grown Alabama not only connects us to the outlet for our product, but also does a good job of advertising to get consumers to purchase local produce,” he said.
Andy Virciglio, who owns and operates Piggly Wiggly stores in the Birmingham area, said participating in the USDA grant program, and other efforts of Sweet Grown Alabama, are a natural fit for his family business.
“Sourcing product from around us matters a ton to us and our associates,” he said. “For years, we have tried hard to support local farmers, growers and makers, and Sweet Grown Alabama made 100 percent sense to our store’s mission and what our customers expect from us.”
The most popular locally grown products in the Piggly Wiggly stores include Alabama Gulf seafood, local sausages and seasonal produce, such as tomatoes, melons, collards, turnip greens, berries, peaches, figs and more.
Additionally, the stores offer a large selection of locally-made products including ice cream, baked goods, pimento cheese, chicken salad, fresh roasted coffee and local craft beers.
Virciglio said his stores are ready for increased availability and access to local products and average a couple of new opportunities each week.
“I guess growing up around Alabama brands like Golden Flake, Ziegler’s, Barber’s and more keeps Alabamians seeking more locally made products. They appreciate that, and we do as well,” he said. “We know that if it can be made, grown or brewed locally, we want to have it available for our customers.”
SUPPLY CHAIN CONNECTIONS
Sweet Grown Alabama was founded nearly two years ago and currently has more than 220 members in its network, including farmers, makers, retailers and restaurants. The group has its own logo, branding effort, marketing programs and other promotional activities to encourage consumers to buy local products.
One of the biggest challenges that produce farmers specifically face is finicky growing conditions, Watson said.
“One bad cold snap, a hurricane or a tornado can destroy your crop in minutes, and it can’t be replaced easily,” she said.
Another challenge is the risk of not having a guaranteed market for the products when they do grow plentifully. So, starting new crops or expanding existing ones can be a tricky proposition.
Watson said Sweet Grown Alabama strives to help farmers make valuable supply chain connections.
“That’s our commitment. If farmers call and say ‘we have extra products,’ we’re going to do what it takes to help get that product sold, whether through grocery stores or farmers markets,” she said.
Another benefit of the USDA grant program is that the participating stores joined the Sweet Grown Alabama branding program. That means they can use the organization’s logo in their ads and aisles, and they are listed in a searchable database of where consumers can find local products.
“Not only are grocery stores reaping the benefits of this grant, but Sweet Grown Alabama farmers are as well, because we have so many new sales opportunities and connections,” Watson said.