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Make yours in Alabama

As we move into the dog days of summer, the one thing we can count on, besides the unrelenting heat, is fresh produce from our Alabama farms. All kinds of fruits and vegetables are coming in, and right now is one of the best times to enjoy locally grown food.

Alabama produce is not only the best tasting; it is also an important part of our state economy and helps the environment. It is not hard to find — the state has more than 200 farmers markets and roadside stands that feature fresh locally grown products. Whether you are in the city or in the country there are farmers markets and stands close by.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries has done a lot to promote and create markets for Alabama produce, from rehabilitating buildings for vegetable stalls, to launching statewide campaigns highlighting the best our state has to offer. Nationally, farmers markets have grown into a billion dollar industry, and continue to expand even in this economy. To find a state sponsored market near you, go to the Alabama Farmers Market Authority website at HYPERLINK “http://www.fma.alabama.gov” www.fma.alabama.gov.

Last week, Agricultural Commissioner Ron Sparks issued an “Eat Local Challenge,” and provided daily tips on becoming a “localvore.” People have heard of carnivores and herbivores, so the department used the “localvore” to highlight local fares and ideas on how to prepare them.

Some of the items the challenge featured are things Alabama is known for, like catfish, chicken, tomatoes, and peaches. However, there were other things that would surprise most Alabamians. How many of us knew that there was a growing Alabama wine industry, with eight vineyards dotted across the state? There is now an Alabama wine trail for folks to tour, bringing them to the different growing areas.

You don’t have to stop at a roadside stand or a farmers market to get Alabama produce; you can find it in your local grocery store too. Shoppers should look for the “Alabama A+” or “Buy Alabama’s Best” logo if they want local produce, it will displayed right by the strawberries, squash or watermelons grown in-state.

On grocery shelves you will find a lot of famous Alabama-based food producers that use local products. Companies we are all familiar with like Golden Flake, Mayfield Dairy, Dairy Fresh, Zeigler Meats, Conecuh Sausage, Alaga Syrup & Hot Sauce, Milo’s Tea, and Mrs. Stratton’s Salads are just a few of the state-based brands that also use state grown products.

While eating locally grown products give us the best taste, it also has a big impact on our state economy, and helps reduce our energy use. Buying local reduces the need for shipping and therefore saves energy. Most importantly, money goes to our family farmers, sustaining them and their communities.

It hasn’t been easy for Alabama farmers over the past couple of years. Extreme drought ruined crops and baked the soil. Although rainfall is much better this year, much of the state is drifting back into drought, and may cause real problems at the end of the growing season. The U.S. Drought Monitor reported last week that 10 percent of our state is being classified as extreme drought, and more could be added.

So when we buy local it helps our neighbors, preserves our family farms, and moves our state economy forward. But best of all, we get the greatest tasting food in the world.