Developing a Marketing Network for Central Alabama

2005 Annual Report for CS04-032

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2004: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Karen Wynne
Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network

Developing a Marketing Network for Central Alabama


A group of farmers in east-central Alabama came together to form a marketing cooperative, using SARE/SRDC funds to create a part-time position of marketing coordinator and purchase marketing and production supplies for members of the group. The marketing coordinator worked to connect rural growers to alternative markets for organically-grown produce and cut flowers in the Birmingham area. We hope to encourage growers by developing alternative markets that deliver higher prices and encourage environmentally benign production methods.

Objectives/Performance Targets

ASAN and its partners will use SARE funds to create a seasonal position of marketing coordinator for the next two years and provide start-up supplies for members of the network. The coordinator will work to assess produce availability from participating farmers, take orders from local restaurants, and collect and distribute produce and payments. The coordinator will also work as a liaison between buyer and seller, receiving feedback on the quality of the produce and requests for new products. Beginning with a few restaurants that have been enthusiastic buyers, we expect to create a structure for group produce sales. After two years to develop and grow this structure, we hope to have enough growers and buyers to create an official marketing cooperative with a democratic decision-making process and producers as owners. We can then use this project as a model for other growers attempting to work together to market their products.


In 2005, five farms worked with Robert Dickey, the marketing coordinator, to sell $6200 worth of produce and cut flowers, primarily at the Birmingham’s Pepper Place farmers market and upscale restaurants. Each member of the group grew heirloom tomatoes, basil, arugula, sweet peppers, patty pan squash, filet beans, and cut flowers for direct marketing. Two of the farms, the Avery Farm and The United Christian Community Association (TUCCA), grew out transplants for the group in their greenhouses. RoughHouse Farm and Ford Farm Jubilee were primarily responsible for farmers market sales, assisted by Gus Heard-Hughes from Heifer International, TUCCA, and WAYS Home for Girls. Delivery of the product from the Black Belt to Birmingham rotated among RoughHouse Farm, Ford Farm Jubilee, Gus and WAYS; they used a delivery van loaned by TUCCA. The spirit of cooperation was evident. Unfortunately, it was not a good production season, with a very wet spring followed by a very dry early summer, and yields were low for most farms in the region. Some farmers that were interested in the network were not able to participate this year.

The group formed a cooperative in its first year together, the Star of the Black Belt, Inc. In its initial planning stages, the group discussed different structures and decided that the cooperative corporation would be most appropriate. Four cooperative members formed the board of directors. Charlotte Ham, an economic development specialist from Tuskegee, assisted with the bookkeeping. Dr. Rao Mentreddy, professor of crop science at Alabama A&M University, provided supplies and seeds for alternative Asian crops. Gus Heard-Hughes, Southeast Program Coordinator with Heifer International, and Andrew Williams, Outreach Coordinator with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, also worked closely with the group in its development. Heifer also contributed funds to supplement Robert Dickey’s marketing coordinator salary.

In addition to cooperative marketing efforts, SBB members participated in a number of workshops on greenhouse production, sustainable pest control methods, and post-harvest handling. Working with ASAN’s Farmer-to-Farmer program, Robert Dickey and other experienced producers were able to provide additional technical assistance to SBB members to help ensure a high quality product. The staff at Tuskegee University is working to compile footage from the workshops to create a DVD on post-harvest handling of different vegetables and flowers.

While much was accomplished in the first year, the logistics of selling as a group and transporting such a diversity of produce and flowers to Birmingham proved more complicated and less profitable than we had hoped. For 2006, members are planning to concentrate on local markets and providing fresh healthy food to their neighbors and communities. Coordinated marketing efforts will involve less group deliveries and more group publicity, while each member works to build up production levels and markets close to home.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Fifteen farmers came to the initial planning meeting for the marketing network; twelve were involved in planning the cooperative structure. While a smaller number materially participated this year, the interest and potential is there. The opportunity to bring fifteen farmers together to discuss group marketing is exciting in itself. Now SBB members have one year of experience working together, comparing notes and developing plans. As the second season progresses, we will see what new challenges come up.

Working and selling as a group is always a challenge, especially when decision-making is a democratic process. As more farmers work out the logistics of group packing and distribution, they learn lessons that can be passed on to the next cooperative that forms. We look forward to sharing the SBB’s learning experiences with other growers interested in doing something similar.