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West Alabama Organic Farm Group Expands

Organic Farm Urbanites Farm manager David Cook inspects an ear of corn that his team of volunteers will harvest at the World Hunger Relief farm dining room in Elm Mott, Texas, Tuesday, July 1, 2008. (Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News/MCT) Tuscaloosa News

Five farms in West Alabama have now joined a group that works with small farms to help them grow organic vegetables in tunnel hothouses year-round for sale to Southern supermarkets.

The privately owned farms in Hale and Tuscaloosa counties have affiliated with Southern Fresh Produce, a recently formed company that partners with farmers in the venture.

“The fifth farm that came in to raise certified organic vegetables gives us 201,600 square feet in hothouse operations,” said Don Chamberlain, chairman of Southern Fresh Produce.

That square footage will provide the needed amount of produce to begin looking at having a cold storage facility where the farmers can ship the produce for organic certification, packaging and distribution to grocers, Chamberlain said. It also will provide enough produce to attract supermarket chains, which want a consistent supply of organic produce. Chamberlain said the management from Whole Foods, a leading seller of organic produce, viewed the expanding operations last week and have shown an interest in buying fresh organic vegetables for their stores in the Southeast.

He said he also is working with the Alabama Agriculture Development Authority in Montgomery to get help in finding a cold storage facility.

Southern Fresh Produce unveiled its business plan in December at an open house at Havana Junction Farm near Moundville. Chamberlain said at that time his goal is to have a network of 11,000 small farm affiliates over the next decade in the Black Belt, an area in central Alabama and neighboring states that takes its name from the dark soil.

Southern Fresh Produce — a consortium of businesses that build the hothouses and their drip irrigation systems and then furnish the soil, seeds and organic fertilizers — operates similar to a McDonald’s, which supplies the basics and assures the quality of the production. The farms are like a franchise, Chamberlain has said.

The farmers’ return on their investment comes from sale of the produce.

A unit of four tunnel hothouses will fit on 0.77 of an acre. A unit of eight hothouses will fit on 1.54 acres. The cost of unit of four hothouse ranges from about $540,00 to $85,000, Chamberlain said

In addition to Havana Junction Farm, the other farm affiliates are: Big Sandy Farms in southern Tuscaloosa County; Silver Lane Farm near Greensboro; Black Warrior Farm and Hale County Organics, both near Moundville.

Since the unveiling of the Havana Junction Farm hothouses in December, Chamberlain said he has had inquiries from people in several states interested in affiliating with Southern Fresh Produce. Though he initially said he wanted to concentrate on working with small farms in Alabama and Georgia, he said he has received much interest from Mississippi. He said that state’s agricultural officials have asked him to do a presentation on his company’s set-up for Mississippi farmers in the near future.

Published: Friday, March 7, 2014

By Patrick Rupinski
Business Editor

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