Southern farmers team up to create organic network
By PATRICK RUPINSKI
The Tuscaloosa News
MOUNDVILLE, Ala. (AP) — Don Chamberlain of Moundville has a growing network of small farmers with hothouse-produced certified organic vegetables to sell. Alan Rose of Asheville, N.C., provides field-grown organic vegetables to a growing number of Southeastern grocers who want more organic produce than he can provide.
The two men believe they can grow their businesses by teaming up.
Chamberlain is head of Southern Fresh Produce, a company that started last year in Moundville to set up a network of tunnel hothouses that can grow organic vegetables year round.
Chamberlain said in December when the first hothouses opened at an independently owned small farm about six miles south of Moundville that he hoped to have a network of 11,000 tunnel hothouses across the Southeast in ten years. There now are five independently owned tunnel hothouses in the Southern Fresh Produce network with five more planned by the end of the month.
“We are projecting that we will have 50 (tunnel hothouses) on farms in 11 months,” Chamberlain said Tuesday.
Driving that growth in part is Rose’s interest in getting a year-round supply of fresh organic produce to the Southeastern supermarkets he supplies.
Rose owns New Sprout Organic Farms LLC in Asheville. The farm has about 100 acres on which it grows organically certified produce.
“We have a short growing season. We plant in April and harvest in October,” he said.
Its crops are planted in fields and being in mountainous area, its growing season is shorter.
That limits the amount of fresh, locally grown produce it can get to customers. In the cooler months, his farm can furnish only sweet potatoes and potatoes, which can be kept in cold storage without perishing.
His customers —which include grocers like Whole Foods, Earth Fair and Ingles Market — have to get additional produce shipped in from parts of the country, he said.
“They (Southern Fresh Produce) have a more regional product,” Rose said. “It’s grown closer to its market and will be fresher and more nutritious.”
That’s important to customers who are willing to pay more for fresh organic vegetables.
Harvested fruits and vegetables lose nutrients the longer they are kept, he said. The goal is to get the produce to market and to consumers as quickly as possible after harvesting.
“People are more focused on their health and they are looking for ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle,” Rose said. “People know if they eat healthier foods they will be healthier and can save on health care costs.”
He said he was trying to find a way to meet grocers’ demand for more fresh organic vegetables when he read a newspaper story about Southern Fresh Produce.
He contacted Chamberlain about four weeks ago and the two decided they needed each other.
Rose said he has a truck that makes deliveries to a customer in Montgomery and then returns empty to Asheville.
In the future, that truck will carry produce from Southern Fresh Produce growers to Asheville for distribution to grocers there.
“The greenhouse growing model they (Southern Fresh Produce) use is more efficient per square foot (than growing crops in the field) and they can grow vegetables year-round,” Rose said.
“As long as they can provide a quality organic product, we definitely will have an appetite for it.”
Southern Fresh Produce’s existing tunnel hothouses are now growing tomatoes and cucumbers, which will be harvested in a few weeks, Chamberlain said.
Those vegetables will be taken to Montgomery and then shipped to Asheville. He said he is working with state agriculture officials to see if they could temporary use the Montgomery farmers market for distribution.
Chamberlain said once Southern Fresh Produce network grows to about 50 tunnel houses, it will likely set up is own distribution center and cold storage facility in Montgomery to handle the produce coming in from the Black Belt area.
Originally, Southern Fresh Produce planned to have its tunnel houses on small farms in Alabama and Georgia, but as word has gotten out, Chamberlain said he has gotten inquiries from small farms in as well as Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina.
“I am so excited for the Black Belt region — to give these folks a chance to get a good source of income,” he said.