Much like mushrooms following a heavy rain, locally grown farm markets are sprouting up across the state of Alabama.
Alabama fruit and vegetable growers have benefited immensely from this market growth in recent years. Until now, though, they lacked one critical ingredient: The ability to provide value-added products. These types of products afford growers two key advantages: High prices and an effective way to merchandise surplus or imperfect products.
This challenge prompted a coalition of Chilton County community leaders and an Alabama Cooperative Extension System food scientist to get creative.
With space provided by the local school system, organizers in Clanton have worked with Extension food scientist Jean Weese and members of the Extension food safety team to develop a processing facility that will enable growers to develop some of their produce into jams, jellies, salsa and other value-added products.
"Alabama growers are well equipped to sell fresh-grown products," says Weese. "What they've lacked is a means for selling imperfect products, which may have been pecked by a bird or slightly bruised.
"The damaged parts can be removed, providing the rest can be processed in some way."
Until now, local retail outlets in Chilton County have typically looked beyond Alabama, most often to growers in neighboring Georgia, to supply most of these value-added products.
The Clanton-based processing center will be designed and equipped to handle all acidified food products.
"They can either process these products themselves or leave them for our staff to do," Weese says.
The facility is funded through grants provided by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries. A partnership involving local leaders, Extension and the Alabama Agriculture Experiment Station is also providing legal and technical assistance and expertise.
Equipment to operate the facility is mostly surplus material donated by Auburn University.
Extension will provide a food technician for at least a year to provide technical assistance to growers.
In time, growers may also have the option of selling fresh-grown produce to the facility, which would then process and sell it in area markets.
Weese and other organizers believe the Clanton processing facility is only the beginning. They are confident the center will serve as a model for other local farm markets that aspire to go to the next level.
"There will be no other place like this anywhere in the state," Weese says. "We hope it will serve as a prototype for similar centers not only here in Alabama, but throughout the nation."