February 5th, 2015- Baldwin County Farmer and Chef Excitement for Foley Produce Hub
Baldwin County farmers, chefs begin to see game-changing potential of produce distribution hub in Foley
Foley, AL (February 5th, 2015) Marc D. Anderson- Like a quarterback in the middle of a huddle, Larry Lovell stood in Gulf Coast Produce’s refrigerated room Wednesday surrounded by fellow Baldwin County farmers. Lovell, whose family has farmed Baldwin’s soil for five generations, is diving headlong into his dream of putting control and hope back into farmers’ hands after decades of corporate manhandling.
Through a coordinated effort between the wholesale produce distributor and the city of Foley, Lovell is spearheading the creation of a food aggregation hub where farmers within a roughly 150-mile radius will be able to bring their fruits and vegetables to be sorted, packaged and sold to area restaurants, grocery stores and eventually hospitals and schools.
On Wednesday, Lovell was giving tours of the 94,000-square-foot former Peavey Electronics building that opened last year as the fourth distribution center for Biloxi, Miss.-based Gulf Coast Produce Distributors Inc. Other facilities are in Biloxi as well as Destin and Tallahassee, Florida.
The tour was part of an open house held at the distribution facility on East Section Street, east of U.S. 98 near the police station.
Lovell explained that the long-planned aggregation operation will function within space Gulf Coast Produce leases from Foley via the Coastal Alabama Farmers and Fishermen’s Market.
“This is about a 25-year dream for me,” Lovell said. “I’ve come a long ways with it and it’s only been the last three years that it’s actually taking hold and the city of Foley is a big part of it. A small operator like me and most of these other farmers … don’t get money, you have to work out of your back pocket. And to get somebody like the city of Foley to get behind a program like this and then move these wholesalers in to say, ‘yes, we’ll take everything you’ve got.’ That right there is an open door — wide open. “It’s a dream coming true.”
A core piece of the hub — a machine that will grade, sort, size, wash and package whole fruits and vegetables — was recently delivered. The cost of the machine was covered by $100,000 grant awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the nonprofit farmers market.
Throughout Wednesday afternoon, city officials, farmers, chefs, and other linked to grocery stores, restaurants and caterers took part in the open house.
Mike Alise, vice president of Gulf Coast Produce Distributors, spoke during an informal opening ceremony that started with a prayer led by former NFL player Art Moore.
“We are so excited about the opportunity and growth potential here with the city of Foley and the farmers,” Alise said. “I think we’re onto something that is very explosive. And I think in the next four or five years we’re going to see a lot of opportunity here coming into this facility”
Since the Foley distribution center opened in September, Alise said the payroll has surpassed $1 million with more than 20 people employed. There’s potential for the facility to sell upwards of $60 million in produce annually with a service area stretching east to Destin and north to Montgomery and possibly to Birmingham, according to Alise.
“We’re excited about the next phase in Foley with the farmers bringing the product in,” Alise said. “There’s a lot of good stuff happening. We have a great team in place. I can’t wait for the beach to get busy and start warming up a little bit. What makes it nice is we’re 20 minutes to the beaches by truck so we will outservice anybody that challenges us in the food business.”
Jeff Rouzie, Foley’s director of economic development, said the city is committed to supporting farmers.
“Baldwin County has a great history of farming,” Rouzie said. “It’s very important to our area, so it’s something we want to try to promote and help the best we can.”
Lovell said the seeds for the aggregation hub’s success were literally being planted in the form of tomatoes and potatoes that will be some of the operation’s first crops.
Pointing out a father and son, Mike Fincher and 11-year-old Matthew, Lovell said they are one of the first farmers to take on the hub-supported plantings. He was particularly happy about having the younger generation involved.
“If you don’t bring these young boys on and these school programs,” Lovell said,” in my opinion, in another 10 years it’ll be lost. China will be feeding us and Russia or something like that. Then you’ll have no choice; we’ll have no choice.”
Fincher said he and his son were “jumping in head first” after growing crops for years and selling them on a roadside produce stand in Loxley.
“We got 200 pounds of potatoes in the ground already, so we’re trying to get started,” he said. “We’ve got another hundred pounds of potatoes to go.”
About 1,900 tomato plants of varying varieties will be planted by the Finchers in April, too.
“We’re going to be ready to go,” Fincher said. “We’re going to give it a shot. The main thing is we’ll have somewhere to go to get rid of our product. The way I understand it you’re supposed to have help with Auburn (University). That’s going to be a nice deal. If you have a problem, they can help you out. I think it’s going to be a real good thing. I hope a lot more younger kids like (Matthew) here get into it.”
According to Lovell, the aggregation hub will work with farmers from the ground up, making equipment available to new and existing farms, providing seeds and plants, and guiding them through the USDA-approved Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program in handling fruits and vegetables in the safest manner possible to minimize risks of food safety hazards.
Lovell said it going to take a couple of years for the operation to really warm up, but the demand is there.
“Most of that (crop) that will be coming out immediately will be going to those restaurants that have been sitting here barking, trying to get it,” Lovell said. “So that’s going take these farmers changing their minds and there are some of them in here today who are skeptical. Most farmers are in a wait-and-see attitude before they ever do anything.”
Mike Murphy, general manager of Gulf Coast Produce’s Foley operation, said he already has strong interest from Cain’s Grocery and Rouses Market to sell some of the local produce with the planned “Fresh from Foley” label. “We don’t do much with retail at this point, 95 percent is food service,” Murphy said. “All of our chefs are excited about local products, specialty products.”
Some of the company’s customers include Lulu’s at Homeport Marina in Gulf Shores, the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, and Cobalt and Cosmo’s in Orange Beach. Murphy said the real stability for farmers will come from the large redistributors throughout the Southeast that Gulf Coast Produce is already using. Murphy is as passionate about the farmer-focused endeavor as Lovell. Murphy said when he worked with a produce distributor in Pensacola he couldn’t help but think of the potential in Baldwin County during his commute.
“I would sit there on California product, a truck load of onions would cost us $5,500; freight would be $6, 500,” he said. “I’d drive back home — I live in Daphne — through Baldwin County and see all these shutdown subdivisions that were stubbed out, you know, all this fine soil we’ve got here. Why could we not grow this here?”
He said the city piqued his interest in 2012 when it announced plans for the farmers market on Baldwin County 20. From there everything began to come together with Gulf Coast Produce, Lovell’s connections and work by Foley City Administrator Mike Thompson and Rouzie to pursue federal new market tax credits that made the project viable.
Among those checking out the facility Wednesday was Mike Myers, head chef of Flippers in Orange Beach. “It’s going to be a little juggling contest here to see how they pull it off,” Myers said. “I took off of work today to come check it out. I’m looking forward to it, plus it’s kind of nice to see their inner workings of their produce shelves and see how they run their business. I don’t do any business with these guys but I’m not adverse to swapping produce companies if I can have the same competitive prices but a product that I feel is far superior.” When he first arrived, Myers had some skepticism about the farmers’ end of the operation, wondering how the hub plans to pull off large harvests.
“Is it a tiger by the tail? I don’t know,” he said. “Would it be great if they could pull it off? Yes.”
About an hour into his visit and after touring the facility with Lovell, Myers said he was “jazzed.”
The elephant-in-the-room question was answered with plans by Lovell to provide housing for temporary agricultural workers who are part of the federal H-2A program.
The program allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring foreign nationals to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website.
“It’s basically a guest worker program,” Myers said. “You see how ambitious they are when you see that they are going to provide housing. Let me tell you, that’s California-like, Bakersfield mentality and that’s what it’s going to take for something like this to succeed. You’ve got to think like a California grower. … I’m just the salt-and-pepper guy but these guys, they’ve got genuine foresight in how to handle this.”
The key to the produce hub’s success will be Lovell showing farmers that it’s the real deal. With about 40 farmers touring the facility Wednesday and roughly two dozen already on board, confidence is building.
“When the first new pickup is bought then there will be a lot of them ready to go,” Lovell said with a laugh.
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