10 months ago

Macon County organic farmer cultivates ambitions with ag startup

TUSKEGEE, Alabama – A startup, minority-owned organic farm in Macon County is expanding its crops and customer base, fueled by an ambitious vision to carry on the region’s rich history of agricultural innovation.

Lifetime Natural Organic Farm, which includes about 25 acres of raised-bed bio-intensive organic vegetables, this year invested an additional $500,000 to increase plantings and seek new business.

The move, which brought the farm’s total capital investment to $1 million, is paying off in a big way. Lifetime, already a supplier to Whole Foods stores in Alabama, recently began selling to the grocery chain’s Braselton, Georgia, distribution center that serves 400 locations.

The farm also is now selling to Albert’s Organics, one of the largest organic produce wholesale distributors in the U.S. It also supplies Publix stores and has begun supplying Alabama schools, with orders for nearly 30,000 heads of organic lettuce for Elmore County Schools’ summer feeding program over the next two weeks.

Lifetime is believed to be the largest USDA-certified organic farm in Alabama, and owner Nelson Wells wants to grow it even more, to the largest in the Southeast.

At the same time, he wants to deepen its roots in Tuskegee and Macon County. Wells was drawn to the area after one of his advisors invited him to Tuskegee University to watch a video about the institution’s history, its founder Booker T. Washington and the work of George Washington Carver.

Learning more about the famous African American scientist and inventor Carver – who developed hundreds of uses for peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans and transformed U.S. farming practices during his tenure at Tuskegee – struck a chord with Wells and his own biracial heritage.

“That changed my heart,” he said. “It made me want to be a part of the rich history of Macon County and Tuskegee, Alabama. I’m half black and half white, and I saw how important it was to continue the legacy of what George Washington Carver was to the world. He was at the forefront of modern agriculture.”

GROWING RELATIONSHIPS

Wells isn’t your typical Alabama farmer. The 6-foot-6-inch California native is a vegetarian and former surfer who played football for the University of Southern California before he moved to Alabama to be closer to his family.

Promoting healthy living through clean eating has been a lifelong passion for Wells. He and his family have been involved in running another organic farm in Verbena, and he and his partners courted Tuskegee for several years with their plans for a commercial organic farm.

Carver’s imprint on the region was a big draw, as was the opportunity to collaborate with agricultural researchers at Tuskegee University. Wells has begun building relationships with professors and students.

Lifetime started last year as a joint venture with the Macon County Economic Development Authority. The MCEDA provided the land, a former hayfield purchased and owned by MCEDA as a potential industrial site, as a “proof of concept” farm.

That growing season went well, and this year, Lifetime expanded its farming area from 10 to 25 acres and tweaked its crop mix to match the demand of its existing and targeted customers. Products include all types of bell peppers, sweet peppers, watermelon, tomatoes and leafy greens.

GAINING ACCESS

Across Alabama, there are 20 to 25 certified organic farms and possibly another 100 or so that follow organic practices but are not certified organic, said Don Wambles, director of Agriculture Promotion for the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries.

To his knowledge, Lifetime is the largest USDA-certified organic farm in the state, he said.

Wambles and his office assisted Lifetime with gaining access to markets and also provided direction on applicable USDA programs.

The state offers many advantages for all types of farmers, he said.

“Alabama has a great climate and abundant water resources to allow agriculture to be bountiful. We are a very diverse state, which allows producers to choose whether they want to grow organically or conventionally. We have an abundance of customers for either production system the farmer chooses and we support all farmers.

“With Lifetime’s commitment to grow even larger, they will be able to meet the demand for locally grown organic produce while creating jobs and assisting the economic health of their community and surrounding communities,” he said.

NEW GROWTH SECTOR

An organic farm isn’t a typical economic development project, but it’s one that is well-suited for rural areas, said Joe Turnham, director of the MCEDA.

“As economic developers, we’re all so programmed to go out and get industrial sites, and we should, but very rarely do we think about going out and getting a tract for an ag startup,” he said.

Lifetime has provided new jobs for 20 to 30 people in the community, and it represents new business for utilities and other local services, Turnham said.

Another notable benefit is that the type of products and processes involved in organic farming are not common in the South, so Lifetime is helping to forge a new growth sector.

“Our strategic plan has always called for an agricultural component of economic development in Macon County,” Turnham said.  “We’re the home of George Washington Carver, and we really wanted to have a purposeful, high-value project for that agricultural vision. This fits perfectly.”

In addition to the farm’s land, MCEDA has provided in-kind services and also helped the farm’s operators make valuable connections, such as those with state agriculture officials and others at Tuskegee University.

“Last year, they hit every milestone and had beautiful crops. It wasn’t quite what buyers wanted, but they proved they could do it. This year, they are growing to meet the demand profiles of Whole Foods and Publix,” he said.

Turnham said he is excited about the farm’s growth potential.

“We have a gentleman’s agreement that once they’re really profitable, maybe there will be a small rent or royalty that comes back to MCEDA that we can put toward helping the next company.”

BUILDING ON A LEGACY

Along with expanding its existing customer base, Lifetime aims to do more in promoting organic farming from its home base in Macon County.

The farm is participating in Sweet Grown Alabama, a new marketing effort by the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries to promote farmers and products across the state.

“Our goal is to have a vegetarian restaurant here in Tuskegee, and we would also like to do farming and cooking demos here,” Wells said. “We want to increase the understanding of the importance of healthy eating and its effects on the body and mind.”

Beyond that, Wells wants to continue growing ties with Tuskegee University and collaborate on research involving organic farming.

“My dream is to continue the legacy of George Washington Carver and Tuskegee University that was the forefront of modern agriculture at one time,” he said.

“This could change the world in organics.”

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

22 mins ago

U.S. Rep. Rogers on Liz Cheney ouster: ‘We’ve got to be fighting today’s fights and tomorrow’s fights, and not the fight of yesterday’

On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) is expected to be voted out of her position as House Republican Conference chairwoman, the third-ranking member of the House Republican caucus, and be replaced with U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY).

The move by Republicans has drawn very vocal reactions from the media and other Democrats, who allege that Cheney’s removal is a product of the GOP’s blind allegiance to former President Donald Trump. Cheney had been a frequent critic of the 45th president and remained so beyond his presidency.

During an interview that aired on Tuesday’s broadcast of Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Saks), the ranking Republican on the House Armed Service Committee, called Cheney “a close friend,” but acknowledged her comments about the January 6 incident on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. had a lot to do with her ouster. He argued Cheney should have had a more forward-looking focus in her leadership role.

307

“Everybody sees it coming,” he said. “Liz is a close friend of mine, but she has made a decision that she is going to use her position as conference chairman not to just promote the position and point out the shortcomings of the Democrat majority and the Biden administration, but rather continue to relitigate what happened on January 6. It is not the job of conference chairman. It is to be the voice of our conference in talking about why we ought to be in the majority and why this majority is wrongheaded, the administration is not doing what the country needs. She has made this conscious choice. You know, we had a vote on this back. I think it was in February. And she survived. And everybody told her then, ‘We don’t care how you vote on the impeachment or any of that. That’s all behind us. You need to be talking about the conference goals and agenda.'”

“That’s what that position is all about,” Rogers added. “She has chosen not to do that. I fully expect [tomorrow] she is going to be recalled, and Elise Stefanik is going to be put in that position because we’ve got to be fighting today’s fights and tomorrow’s fights, and not the fight of yesterday. She just won’t turn loose of it. Now at this point, because she’s my buddy, and I hate that she’s taking this course of action — but she’s a very smart lady, and this is a conscious decision on her part.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

14 hours ago

How the Regions Tradition led to Alabama’s star-studded vaccine PSAs

You already know the Regions Tradition’s reputation for competition. It’s the first major on the PGA TOUR Champions schedule in 2021, and it produces millions for charities.

But it’s also the place where things get done. And this year’s focus was intended to save lives.

The Bruno Event Team, which manages the Tradition, and the Alabama Department of Public Health used the annual Celebrity Pro-Am tournament as a stage to create a public awareness campaign encouraging Alabamians to get the COVID vaccine ASAP.

The idea, the pitch and the execution all came together in a week. And when approached, the centerpiece of the project agreed to participate without hesitation.

The centerpiece?

Alabama football coach Nick Saban.

516

RELATED: College football’s biggest names turn out for 2021 Regions Tradition Celebrity Pro-Am

“Research told us you don’t use national celebrities,” said Gene Hallman of the Bruno Event Team, which produced the spots. “You use local doctors, nurses and healthcare workers. Or you use local celebrities. And in this state, no one is better known than Coach Saban.”

In fact, according to a Montgomery pollster the Bruno team consulted, there’s no one more respected throughout the state than Saban. John Anzalone told the Wall Street Journal that Saban’s favorability rating is the highest in the state – 77 percent. That means that even Auburn fans who root against him each week still respect him.

Or, as Anzalone told the Wall Street Journal, “He is a God.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health reached out to the Bruno team to create a marketing campaign for the state’s underserved population, intending for the spots to motivate Black, Latino and tribal populations to get the vaccines. The public awareness videos will run on television and radio stations statewide, as well as on social media.

But as the campaign expanded, the goalpost moved. With federal and state grants provided for that specific reason, “we’re going to try to reach a very broad audience – the entire state,” Hallman said. “We’re not hammering people. We just want to provide an education on the science of the vaccine, so people can make an informed decision.”

And, since it’s Alabama, there’s also another lure: the opportunity to pack college football stadiums at 100% capacity next fall if enough people get vaccinated.

It’s not the first time the tournament known as the Regions Tradition proved to be a catalyst for change.

When the Champions Tour first came to Birmingham in 1992, Hallman’s group was called in to help with a very hush-hush operation. They were told an unnamed group of visitors from Europe, interested in bringing business to the U.S., would be coming to town to see what Alabama had to offer. No other information was provided, but they were to be shown a good time.

Only one problem.

The first tournament was held in August, a notoriously bad time for southern hospitality – at least for people used to cooler weather than the notorious sticky, 100-degree days. But, as luck would have it, an unusual cold front swept in at the start of the tournament, providing record low temperatures that created perfect temps for the visitors.

So, the secret entourage spent a week at the tournament, got to meet popular Champions Tour legend Chi Chi Rodriguez, and spent a day touring a large plot of land outside Tuscaloosa, less than an hour away …  land that would eventually become the site of Alabama’s first automotive manufacturing plant.

As for the vaccine spots, once Saban came on board others followed. The list includes an NBA legend, a college conference commissioner, a U.S. Senator and other coaches. All recorded their parts while participating in the Regions Tradition Pro-Am.

“We asked and they answered in two seconds,” Hallman said. “There was no hesitation. We got them all on camera that day.”

(Courtesy of Regions Bank)

15 hours ago

Governor Ivey urges Alabamians not to panic-buy gas

Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday spoke with the U.S. Department of Energy on a call regarding the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack, which has caused a shutdown of the pipeline operations.

The pipeline, which is the largest system for refined oil products in the United States, is 5,500 miles long and can carry 3 million barrels of fuel per day between Texas and New York. It is operated by Colonial Pipeline Company, which is headquartered in Georgia.

The pipeline runs through Alabama, as people may remember from a Shelby County leak in 2016 that caused gas shortages in the region. The county is home to the Colonial Pipeline Co. Pelham junction and tank farm.

However, Ivey wants to assure Alabamians that the temporary pipeline shutdown should be resolved in the coming days and that any potential gas shortages have not reached the Yellowhammer State.

294

“Please do not fill up your car unless you need to and do not fill multiple containers. Overreacting creates more of a shortage. Please use common sense and patience!” Ivey said in a social media post.

The governor’s spokesperson reiterated Ivey’s message.

“She was assured that the pipeline should be operational in a few days,” said Gina Maiola. “She is urging Alabamians and others to not panic and to use good judgement. A shortage has not reached Alabama at this time, and she reminds us that an overreaction would only lead to that. Be courteous, only fill up if you need to, and do not fill up multiple containers. Governor Ivey urges patience and common sense.”

Public Service Commissioner Jeremy Oden echoed Ivey’s words.

“While the state of Alabama is fortunate to this point to not be suffering from gas shortages, there have still been reports of panic-buying and gas price increases,” he said in a statement. “I echo Governor Ivey’s request that Alabama residents refrain from panic-buying, which would only cause more anxiety in the market. As Colonial has stated publicly they are working vigorously to reestablish service.”

The Colonial Pipeline shutdown comes as the average price of gas in the U.S. has risen from $2.112 per gallon before President Joe Biden was elected to $2.985 per gallon this week.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

16 hours ago

Vocational center for construction, electric vehicle, aviation technology fields coming to DeKalb County

Governor Kay Ivey on Tuesday announced a $1 million grant to help the Fort Payne Board of Education construct a new vocational center aimed at training students in careers that include construction, electric vehicle and aviation technologies.

The funds come from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), an economic development agency of the federal government and 13 state governments. The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs administers the ARC program in Alabama.

The new DeKalb County vocation center will prepare Fort Payne high school students and adults for the future while helping to meet the needs of Alabama’s workforce in several career fields.

“Alabama is sounding the call for a skilled workforce and the Fort Payne Board of Education is responding to that demand,” Ivey said in a statement. “This program will ensure that students graduating from high school will be ready for rewarding and high-paying jobs, and that employers will be hiring a qualified workforce to move our state forward.”

117

RELATED: Guest: Electric vehicles important for Alabama’s automotive industry

The new Building, Electric and Aviation Technology Center will provide students with a rigorous training program in a workplace environment to ready them for careers.

“The path to rewarding careers does not always go through colleges and universities,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell added. “I applaud the Fort Payne Board of Education for offering other options for students who have the same dreams for successful careers but choose a different path to get there.”

The project is supported by Sen. Steve Livingston (R-Scottsboro), who chairs the Alabama Space Authority and the legislature’s Aerospace and Defense Caucus.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

16 hours ago

Alabama State Senator Andrew Jones running for reelection

State Senator Andrew Jones (R-Centre) on Tuesday announced he will seek reelection to a second term in the 2022 election cycle.

As a freshman member of the legislature’s upper chamber, Jones currently serves as chair of the Children, Youth, and Human Services Committee.

“We’ve accomplished a lot in the last 2 ½ years,” he stated. “I ran for the State Senate because I had seen first-hand as a business owner and farmer how government impacts hardworking Alabamians. I have worked hard to be the people’s voice in the Alabama Senate and bring much-needed resources back to the people of Etowah, Cherokee, and DeKalb.”

Jones will kickoff his reelection campaign at respective events in Etowah and Cherokee Counties on May 25 and June 3.

412

Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed (R-Jasper) offered his support for Jones’ reelection bid.

“Senator Jones has quickly learned to navigate the ins and outs of the Alabama Senate. He is known by his colleagues as a capable and effective Senator who will do whatever it takes to fight for his district. Andrew is not afraid to take bold, decisive action to meet the challenges our state faces,” Reed said.

Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield (R-Guntersville) echoed Reed’s comments.

“Andrew has been a key voice in our Republican caucus for conservatives policies to improve the lives of everyday Alabamians,” Scofield commented. “Senator Jones is a champion for his local folks, but at the same time he has also won the respect of his colleagues. He has the full support of our caucus in his reelection effort.”

Elected in 2018 in his first run for public office, Jones campaigned on economic development, infrastructure, education and protecting Alabama values. Progress has been made, he now says, on all of those fronts.

“During my campaign, I talked about three infrastructure projects in my district. The U.S. 411 expansion project between Etowah and Cherokee Counties is currently underway, which is a $43 million project. We also recently secured $2 million for the engineering design of the I-759 Eastern Connector, and we are working with local leaders on multiple applications for funding for the Southside Bridge project. Last year, that same application made it to the final round,” Jones advised.

The freshman senator also touted a $2.7 million investment at the Etowah County Little Canoe Creek Megasite through the Growing Alabama Tax Credit Program, an investment which was made possible through an amendment that Jones negotiated to prioritize megasite properties over 1000 acres. He has also supported broadband expansion, incentives for small businesses and workforce training efforts in the Senate, as well as education initiatives to expand pre-K, provide teacher raises, and recruit math and science teachers. Additionally, Jones has backed pro-life legislation, election security measures and Second Amendment protection bills.

In the Senate, Jones has also authored legislation to support the military, incentivize adoptions, promote small farm wineries and repeal the grocery tax, among various other causes. Locally, the Republican has led an effort to repeal occupational taxes in five Etowah County municipalities. In 2020, voters approved a local constitutional amendment sponsored by Jones to designate surplus prison food funds for law enforcement purposes, including school resource officers.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn