May 17, 2017
By Paul Hollis
Peaches are among Alabama crops with potential growth through further processing.
Fruits and vegetables are undeniably healthy, but these crops also boost Alabama’s economy, according to a recent analysis by Auburn University (AU) and Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station economists.
The report revealed the state's fruit, vegetable and nut industries have an economic impact of $161.5 million and are responsible for 1,121 jobs in Alabama.
“Specialty crops definitely are a potential growth area for Alabama,” said Deacue Fields, a study leader who chairs the AU College of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. “We grow a lot of corn, cotton, soybeans and peanuts (in Alabama), but in terms of profitability per acre, specialty crops rank highest.”
Production and processing of fruits, vegetables and tree nuts are important to both state and national agricultural and manufacturing industries, said Fields, who has studied the produce industry throughout his career. Alabama ranks seventh in the U.S. in sweet potato sales, eighth in pecan sales and 12th in watermelon sales. While a portion of fruits, vegetables and tree nuts enter fresh markets, other sales go to processors for freezing, canning, drying and pickling. Each sector creates economic activity and jobs within its own industry, he added.
The Alabama Farmers Federation’s Mac Higginbotham agrees most specialty crops grown in the state are for fresh markets.
“We’ve done an excellent job marketing and promoting local sales, and now we have an abundant supply of products that could be utilized through further processing,” said Higginbotham, the Federation’s Horticulture Division director and Alabama Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association executive director. “We’re selling a lot of high-quality produce at farm markets. If we could invest in processing infrastructure to use what’s not sold at fresh markets, it would create tremendous new opportunities for our farmers.”
A Specialty Crop Block Grant Program through the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries funded the study. Fields and co-investigator Zhimei Guo, a post-doctoral fellow, worked on the analysis nine months.
Fruits and vegetables are grown in sold in every Alabama county. While there's been an uptick in demand for organic specialty crops, consumers will pay even more for local products, Fields said.
“There are opportunities for serving these local markets — selling to individuals, restaurants and others,” he said. “When the water crisis hit in California, a lot of people were looking at Alabama because of our favorable climate. We have the capacity to grow our fruit and vegetable production, and that isn’t the case with some of our row crops.”
Click here for a full copy of the AU release.