By John Peck, The Huntsville Times Link To The Original Source Of This Article HUNTSVILLE, Alabama _ There’s an untapped industry in Alabama that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars and is as close as our dinner plate. It’s the local farm economy, and efforts are under way to tap into it. That interest was evident Thursday night at a packed public meeting to hear national food system expert Ken Meter explain an exhaustive study he did for the North Alabama Food Bank.

The study of seven area counties looked at what area farmers are producing and how the vast majority of food that we buy comes from far away places – often from other continents. In fact, only 10 percent of the milk and dairy products area residents consume, 7 percent the vegetables and 2 percent of the fruits come from this area. If North Alabama residents purchased just 15 percent of their food for home use directly from North Alabama growers at farmers markets, co-ops and other outlets that carry local meats and produce, $214 million in new income would be generated.

Consumers spend $2.4 billion for food annually in North Alabama. Since the bulk of it is shipped in, $2.2 billion of that flows outside the region to the network of handlers that got it here, he said. That makes for an inefficient system that wastes energy and often compromises nutrition and food safety. “The current food system takes worth out of our communities,” Meter told the audience of farmers, nutritionists, health experts, organic growers, business people and others.

It is not reasonable to expect a self-contained region that produces every food product it consumes. We will still need our supermarkets. But it is not a stretch to create a food supply network that encourages entrepreneurs, spurs corroboration within the farm-to-market chain, and informs consumers where to purchase local foods.

As the North Alabama Food Bank says, we all know that what we eat directly affects our health, but we often don’t think about who else benefits. Eating locally produced food has the potential to improve our economy and support jobs, not to mention the health benefits. (see Meter’s study at

The Alabama Legislature is taking steps to help local growers expand production. The Alabama Senate recently passed a bill that provides an income tax credit of up to 12.5 percent of the cost of the purchase and installation of irrigation systems or the development of irrigation reservoirs and water wells. The sponsor, Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said adding irrigation to row crop production could add hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the economy through better yields and protection from drought. “It just provides the insurance of irrigation rather than have to rely on rainfall and a prayer,” Orr said. Buying more food locally and irrigating crops are a recipe to help Alabama’s economy rebound. By John Peck for the editorial board. Email: [email protected]