Working the Land

Begin your photo tour of Alabama land-based enterprises with two Southern staples, cotton and pecans. Four million acres of Alabama were planted in cotton a century ago. Today all agricultural crops come to a total of 1.3 million acres. Alabama has 43, 500 farms on 8.6 million acres yearly producing over $3.3 billion in commodities. Broilers and eggs account for 65 percent of those sales, cattle and calves 11 percent, nursery and greenhouse crops 8 percent and cotton 4 percent.

Alabama has 22, 000 acres planted with pecan orchards and ranks eighth in pecan production in the U.S., averaging 6.8 million pounds a year. In recent years, exports to China are “the biggest thing ever to happen to the pecan industry, ” pecan grower Bill Goff told Business Alabama in 2011. The Chinese developed a health food fad for pecans. At Goff’s Riverbend Pecans near Lowndesboro and his other orchards in Georgia and Mississippi, he produces 2.5 million pounds of pecans a year, all now going to China.

Almost 200, 000 Alabama acres are planted in peanuts,  producing 400 million pounds a year, valued at around $100 million. The top peanut producing counties are Houston, Baldwin, Henry and Geneva.

Two thirds of Alabama, 22 million acres, is forestland, and private landowners own 75 percent of that total. Forestry is the state’s largest industry, producing approximately $13 billion a year in sales. Alabama forests consist of 35 percent pine, 45 percent hardwood and 20 percent mixed pine and hardwood.

The Alabama Department of Agriculture’s U-Pick consumer bulletin lists farms in 14 counties where you can pick your own strawberries: Baldwin, Blount, Chilton, Cullman, Etowah, Geneva, Houston, Jefferson, Lawrence, Macon, Marshall, Morgan, Madison and Tallapoosa. High strawberry season is April and May.

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Catfish farming began in Alabama in the 1960s in west Alabama. Hale County is the largest producer. The number of farms has ranged from a high of 230 in 2003 to around 200 in recent years—producing more than $220 million in annual sales to processors, who add another $250 million a year to the state economy. 

Ninety-seven Alabama farms harvested more than 23, 722 acres of sod in 2007. Photo shows a swatch of one of the largest sod producers in the U.S., Woerner Farms, based in Foley, in Baldwin County. The family-owned business is more than 80 years old and, beside Alabama, operates farms in Florida, Louisiana, Colorado and Hawaii.

Three companies operate three quarries that work the 36-mile vein of marble outside of Sylacauga. Italian-owned Alabama Marble Co. cuts slabs for architectural and monument uses. Swiss-owned Omyra Alabama Inc. produces calcium carbonate filler for coating paper and packaging. French-owned Imerys U.S.A. Inc. is the world’s largest miner of calcium carbonate, pulverizing the marble for use in some 150 applications, from drywall to caulk to the stuff that keeps chewing gum from sticking to your teeth. 

In 1630, longleaf and other pines (these are loblolly) and a variety of hardwoods covered over 29 million acres in Alabama, according to the “Encyclopedia of Alabama.” Today, Alabama has more acres of trees than at those times of early European exploration, but the forests are now almost exclusively of one or two species of pine.

Lay Dam, on the Coosa River in Coosa County, was the first of Alabama Power Co.’s 14 hydroelectric dams, which generate 6 percent of the company’s power. Completed in 1929, it is named after Capt. William Lay, who organized the utility company in 1906.

Peach production in Alabama is valued at $6 million a year, totaling more than 6 million pounds and ranking Alabama 17th in the nation. Chilton County is the center of Alabama peach production. Among other horticulture crops, Alabama ranks 16th in the U.S. for fresh-market watermelons, 12th for fresh-market tomatoes and 12th in blueberry production. 

Headquartered in Union Springs, Bonnie Plants is one of the largest suppliers of seedlings to retailers across the country, including big box stores like Lowes. Founded in 1918, the company now has more than 70 greenhouse locations around the country, with 500 sales reps peddling vegetables, herbs and flowers to 10, 000 accounts throughout the U.S.

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