By Edwin Marty
Moving back to Birmingham from California eight years ago, I was shocked by local grocery stores advertising their “California grown” produce. Having farmed in California, I knew that there was great food grown out there using the best farming practices. I also knew that most of the benefits of that produce were lost when it was transported across the country, burning up fossil fuels and losing nutritional value by the mile. However, what really astounded me was that a state like Alabama—with an agricultural heritage rooted in centuries of Southern hands digging into fertile red soil—was not advertising its own produce.
Fortunately, a lot has changed in the last eight years. Both community grocers and Whole Foods Market are promoting the benefits of locally grown food, and farmers markets are popping up across Alabama faster than anywhere in the country. Community supported agriculture (CSA) programs that offer customers boxes of fresh, local produce are now easily available, and community gardens are sprouting up on vacant lots in cities all over Alabama.
But there’s still a lot of work to do. Some estimates have Alabama currently importing over 80 percent of its food. That translates to millions of pounds of fruits, vegetables and grains rolling down Interstate 20 every day, and then millions of dollars leaving the state. That’s thousands of jobs not being created and thousands of kids not experiencing a connection to their food. Now that there have been clear correlations established between obesity and the level of access to fresh healthy food, supporting local agriculture should be a public health initiative. With some counties in the state dealing with over 20 percent unemployment and obesity rates well over 50 percent, a return to our agricultural roots seems imperative.
To achieve this, farming in Alabama in the 21st century needs to look very different than farming in the 20th century. The good news is that this change has already started.
There’s Michael Dean of Michael Dean Farms growing superb, high-quality vegetables in his Leeds backyard and selling them to the best restaurants in Birmingham.
There are production non-profit urban farms tilling up vacant land in the west-side of Birmingham, downtown Tuscaloosa and Montgomery.
There’s a composting company called J3 Organics turning Birmingham’s organic waste into black gold for growing food.
There’s Grow Alabama, which is providing a marketing network for farmers from all over the state.
There are urban gardens growing food specifically to feed the hungry in Huntsville, Sylacauga and Mountain Brook.
And there are networking organizations, such as Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners, working to create public policies that will encourage more of all this great stuff.
Even with all this cool, new farming happening around the state, there is the opportunity to do a lot more. There’s a school garden in almost every public elementary school in California. There are less than a dozen in Alabama. The Alabama School of Fine Arts has a great model garden that’s fully integrated into the school’s science curriculum. We should be pressuring our school boards to support these developments. There are opportunities to turn the toxic “brownfields” scattered all over Birmingham into sunflower fields that supply oil for bio-diesel—something that is already happening in Pittsburgh, Pa. There could be a farmer’s market in every community every day of the week. It could even be legal to have chickens in your backyard.
With so many exciting ways to re-localize our food system, and so many benefits to our community, to our health, and to our kids, it’s time we all put our fingers back where they belong, in the dirt.
To read more about these exciting ideas, I suggest that you check out the following web sites:
For information about urban farming, visit our Jones Valley Urban Farm web site at www.jvuf.org.
To learn about local markets for local produce, visit www.localharvest.org.
To find the locations and other information for farmers markets across the state, go to the web site for the State of Alabama Farmers Market Authority at www.fma.alabama.gov.
Learn more about food systems at the web site for Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners at www.gbcfp.org.
The web site for the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network has a wealth of information about local sustainable agriculture. Visit www.asanonline.org.
For information about those exciting efforts to turn abandoned industrial brownfields into sunflowers fields, go to www.gtechstrategies.org. GTECH Strategies is a Pittsburgh-based non-profit dedicated to building community, reducing blight and growing the green economy.
Jones Valley Urban Farm is located at 701 25th St. North in Birmingham. To learn more about JVUF, call (205) 439-7213 or visit www.jvuf.org.
Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.