by Treva Bennett/web editor
In an effort to support Alabama agriculture and clearly label local products, the Sweet Grown Alabama (SGA) program was launched in August 2019. Director Ellie Watson said SGA started accepting membership applications from growers in September and the program is “rolling right along.”
Watson said SGA has more than 50 members at this time, and the focus will be on heavily recruiting members through March. At that time, SGA will launch its online database. Recruiting farmers also is a priority right now, and SGA will move toward more consumer engagement in early spring, Watson said.
“A lot of our recruitment is happening at different trade shows and industry events,” Watson said. “That’s kind of been our lifeblood so far. One of the biggest areas moving forward that we are going to heavily start promoting is the recruitment of different grocery stores and markets.”
While having farmers participate in the program is key, it also is essential to have the retailers onboard who are going to sell the products direct to consumers.
“We are currently looking for great grocery stores, great farmers markets, even traditional, small hometown stores who sell products to consumers. We’re looking for those folks to join our program so that we can get Sweet Grown Alabama branding on the shelves and on displays to really get the message out to consumers,” Watson said.
The SGA program got started after several grocers in the state began asking the Alabama Department of Agriculture about state branding. Many other states have a similar program, where they identify their agricultural products under one central label, such as Georgia Grown in neighboring Georgia.
“The grocers are used to this concept and wanted something that would represent the state of Alabama,” Watson said. “The department of ag approached several other industry groups, including the Alabama Farmers Federation, and the two groups really decided it was time to make this work and to provide this brand for the state of Alabama, for farmers to participate in and consumers and retailers to benefit from.”
Watson said the first thing she did after being named director of SGA was to reach out to other state branding programs to learn from them.
“Each of the state branding coordinators have been very cordial and willing to work with me and help me, since we’re…kind of the new kid on the block here. They have been super helpful,” she said. “We did go visit with Georgia Grown, and they told us things that worked and things that didn’t work, and it was a huge help to learn from such a successful program…We’re not in competition with any of the other states. Our competition is foreign imports to our market. Being able to work with other state branding programs, especially those in the Southeast, to strengthen all of American agriculture is a big benefit of these programs.”
Watson said while there will be a bit of a lag time from when farmers join SGA until their products are individually labeled in the store, she already is working with member retailers to go ahead and get signage up in their stores.
“We can get shelf signage and bin signage up in the individual grocery store to go ahead and get this message out,” she said. “We’re ready to start giving that logo out to those that join the program, and they can go ahead and start printing materials that work for their particular space.”
Sweet Grown Alabama has active Facebook, Instagram and Twitter pages. It also is participating in general media, traditional newspapers and other outlets to spread its message.
“We’ve also seen great response from our industry as far as food and agriculture and economic development in the state of Alabama are concerned,” Watson said. “We do have seven founding members that have committed to our program at the $25,000 level annually. That has been a huge boost and really goes to show that these organizations are willing to put their reputation behind what we’re doing here at Sweet Grown Alabama. We’re here for the long term. This is not a fleeting effort; this is something that we’re committed to, and the industry is committed to making work for farmers and grocers and consumers.”
Watson also said SGA is committed to help increase produce supply in the state of Alabama.
“We do not have the same infrastructure as Georgia does right now for produce production, but we know that for our grocers, they want to see an increased supply. We can manage things a little better in store and get products into consumers’ hands more efficiently. We are committed as an organization to help equip our farmers to grow more products so that we can get more consistent produce in the hands of Alabama consumers.”
She said the Alabama Department of Agriculture has staff that will be helping both educationally, to learn how and why they should grow more, and also help with connecting farmers to the grocers, which Sweet Grown Alabama also will help facilitate. A network of Extension agents in the state and Alabama Farmers Federation staff also are committed to help farmers produce more efficiently and take advantage of some diversification in their markets.
For more information on the Sweet Grown Alabama program, contact Watson at [email protected]