Eating Local: Back to the Farm

By on 17 June, 2013 in Food, Heather Coleman with 2 Comments

Fresh and local. It seems like in a state known for agriculture that we would have easy access to fresh, inexpensive, local produce. Yet finding fruits and veggies grown in the River Region can prove challenging. Grocery stores may boast “Chilton County peaches” or “Alabama corn,” but the reality is that most of their products are shipped in from Mexico or California.

Farmers’ markets are making a comeback, and are probably the most consumer friendly option for local produce, although with limited days and hours, they are not always convenient. If it is organic that you are looking for, Eastchase’s Farmer’s Market is your best option, but they are only open Saturday mornings during the summer months from 8 a.m. until noon. Here you can also find handmade soaps, local goat cheese and honey as well as milk and meat. Get there early! Vendors often bring a limited amount of produce, so if you want the good stuff, you have to beat the crowds. Eastchase seems to be following Birmingham’s Pepper Place model by working hard to turn their market into a family friendly event with entertainment and food vendors.

Montgomery Curb Market has been a fixture in downtown Montgomery since 1947. Their hours are a bit better than the market at Eastchase: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. The curb market has always been my “go to” market. The people there bake and can, so you can buy anything from mayhaw jelly to caramel cake and almost always there is someone sitting and shelling peas or butterbeans. In recent years there have been more organic options, and typically there is at least one vendor selling fresh eggs.  They are truly a local growers’ market and remind me of rural Alabama.

If you have lived in Montgomery for very long, you remember driving down West Fairview Ave and seeing half a dozen farmers selling cantaloupe, watermelon, corn, collards, tomatoes and a number of other things out of the back of their truck. The Fairview Farmer’s Market was established to give these hard working farmers a safe, cool place to sell their fruits and vegetables. In 2011 the state decided to close it due to budget cuts, and Alabama State University stepped up and in partnership with the city took it over, creating a police substation in the front of the market, but maintaining the vendor area in the back. Flora Brown has managed the market through all of its changes, and does a great job attracting new vendors. For me, they are the market most convenient to Cloverdale and the Garden District, and the one that I will pop over to visit if I need cucumbers and tomatoes for a salad, or if I am craving fresh corn.

The State Farmers’ Market is the one that most people think of when you say farmer’s market. It has perhaps more variety than the other markets, but not all of it is local. Unlike most markets, they don’t require that vendors grow all of their own product. Wright’s Produce dominates the first section of the market. Wright’s does try and source products in the southeast, and do support small farmers, but some of their more exotic fruits and vegetables are definitely not local or even seasonal. Wright’s has an extensive outdoor gardening section, so if you are looking for landscaping items, their prices are definitely competitive. I should also mention that there are other vendors at the State Farmer’s Market — Posey’s produce had some beautiful variegated squash and a couple of different kinds of eggplant when I was in earlier in the week. The hours are also better than other markets — 7-5, Sunday through Saturday.

For people who enjoy a wide variety of vegetables, CSAs are a great option. CSA stands for community supported agriculture. Essentially the farmer at the beginning of the season figures out his or her operating cost for the season, and how much product that they can reasonably produce, and then they divide it into shares. People in the community purchase shares, and in return throughout the growing season they receive whatever the farmer picked that week. You don’t typically have a say in what is planted, and you are at the mercy of the elements to a certain degree. Even good irrigation can’t compete with the heat of Alabama summers! Participating in CSAs can be fun– it definitely challenges you to try fruits and vegetables that you may have never been exposed to before. There are several local CSA options — EAT South offers both a spring and fall option, but they are limited to 40 slots, so they tend to fill quickly. Red Root Farm is one of the more established CSAs in the area, with several dropoff points throughout the city. They also typically have around 60 shares available. Gary grows lots of roots and greens, so be prepared to be challenged!

Grow Alabama and Porch Produce (the new kid on the block) are not strictly CSAs. Instead they are more of a grower’s co-op. Like a CSA you get a box of fresh, local produce each week that varies depending upon availability, but unlike CSAs the items that you receive are from multiple farmers. The benefit of this is that if one farmer’s crops are producing less than anticipated, others often help fill in the gaps. Grow Alabama sources products from across the state. They are definitely more expensive than a CSA, with a box for a family of 2-4 coming in at $139.75 for a month’s worth of fruit and vegetable delivery. The CSA options typically are 25-40 per week, but with them you typically have to pay for the entire season at once. Grow Alabama also allows you to customize your box to some degree, so if there are particular items that you know that your family can’t use, you can omit them. You can add extra fruit or eggs to your order for an additional fee. There are multiple dropoff points in the city, or you can have the box delivered to your door for $36.00 more per month.

Porch Produce is similar to Grow Alabama in that is is a co-op of growers. Unlike Grow Alabama, most of them are from the River Region, so the produce is very local and very fresh. They also deliver to your door for no additional fee. Boxes are roughly $25 each week, and there is an option to skip weeks if you will be out of town (without being charged). There are often add-ons available — sometimes they are eggs, sometimes grits or strawberries. This week freshly baked honey wheat bread is an option! Their Facebook page always has an updated list of box contents for the week. Several friends have joined and their boxes look fantastic! If you don’t have time to hit the farmer’s market every week, I think that Porch Produce is probably the best option out there for fresh, local produce.

Most importantly, stop buying bland grocery store fruits and vegetables. There is an option out there for every schedule and every budget to eat great produce and support local farmers. Southern food is about more than fried chicken and gravy, it is about fresh, local produce picked at the peak of freshness. It is about knowing what a real tomato tastes like. It’s about plates heaping with vegetables fresh from the garden.

Heather Coleman is a freelance writer and part-time DIY’er who mostly manages to fit her projects in around her family and her volunteer work. She lives with her husband, two boys and two pets in Midtown. She is on Google+, Linked In, Twitter and Pinterest.

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  1. Carrie says:

    thanks for this great article. I am signing up for a local co-op right now!

  2. Hunter Oswalt says:

    Grow Alabama stopped delivering to my area this spring. At first, I was sad to miss my weekly deliveries. Now I am sad because Grow Alabama has still not refunded me for the month when they stopped delivering to my city! It has been 4 months and I have followed up many times. Jerry Spencer need to be an honest and dependable business owner and issue the refund due to this loyal customer – immediately.

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