Al Hooks Produce Expands Beyond Local Market
Al Hooks cuts greens by hand for local restaurant market.
By Fay Garner, Public Affairs Specialist, USDA-NRCS, Auburn, AL
Things are quickly changing for Alphonso (AL) Hooks, a farmer from Shorter in Macon County, Alabama. Through his farming enterprise, Al Hooks Produce, AL wanted to raise enough fresh produce to support his family, construct a processing facility, and help his friends and neighbors be successful in their farming endeavors. He had no idea this vision would lead him to the successful venture he has today.
In 2006, as an NRCS producer featured in a farmer magazine, he said, “I started farming full-time in 2002, and I’m just a small operation.” Back then his “Pick Today and Use Today” philosophy of marketing more than met his planting and harvesting needs. At that time Hooks said, “I don’t have enough produce to meet the needs of the community.”
Fast forward six years and you see a completely different operation. Today, he leads a community effort through the Alabama “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” and the USDA’s “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaigns to regularly supply fresh vegetables to restaurants, grocery stores, and farmer’s markets in his local county and as far away as Birmingham, Alabama.
In the summer of 2010, Al Hooks Produce joined the Tuskegee University Farmer’s Cooperative (TU Coop). They are now supplying fresh produce to the largest grocery retailer in the United States, the multi-chain store Walmart.
Hooks said, “When I started in the produce business, I had a vision. I did not want something that would be here today and gone tomorrow. I have been self employed since the early 80’s, and I have always wanted to own my own business.” His ownership of about 45 acres of fertile, productive land, and his love for farming, fueled his vision of expanding his operation to grow more produce and to have a place to conveniently process the crops for market.
Early in his farming career, Hooks learned about programs and financial assistance for New and Beginning, Limited Resource, and Socially Disadvantaged farmers available through the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). (A New and Beginning Farmer is an individual or entity who has not operated a farm or ranch, or who has operated a farm or ranch for not more than 10 consecutive years.)
He participated in a demonstration project with the Mid-South Resource Conservation and Development Council to install plasticulture with micro-irrigation on his land. The system worked well for him and he has since expanded his acreage on plastic.
Plasticulture is the practice of covering crop rows with plastic to help regulate soil temperature, slow loss of water through evaporation, and reduce soil erosion. Micro-irrigation is installing drip tape under the plastic to maximize water use by targeting the water directly to the roots of the plants along with applications of nutrients. Both plastic and drip tape are installed at the same time with a special implement pulled by a tractor.
(l-r) Demetrius Hooks works with his father to expand the farming business to supply larger markets like Walmart.
Al Hooks and his son hosts field days to share their success story with others interested in expanding their small farming businesses.
Hooks warned that using plastic is very expensive, and that you need to be selective of the crops you plan to grow on it. He said to be sure that it is something that is going to put some money back into the operation.
Mr. Hooks said that NRCS helped him develop a farm plan, and he has stuck with it. “We didn’t start out with ideas grown out of proportion, knowing that it was not going to be fulfilled,” he said. He indicated that NRCS has been a very good partner and are doing what they promised. He said that he is also implementing his plan as promised.
Mr. Hooks needed to grow more produce for the local markets and he needed a better way to grow them. He heard that NRCS has a program through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to help producers finance Seasonal High Tunnels, or hoop houses.
He applied and received financial assistance to construct a hoop house. The hoop house allows him to start producing crops earlier in the spring and harvest later in the season than traditional methods. He is so impressed with the hoop house that he wants to add two more to his operation.
Mr. Hooks’ son, Demetrius, has been working full-time with his dad for two years. After graduating from Auburn University at Montgomery, he was employed for almost 12 years and lost his job through downsizing. Mr. Hooks said that the farm had started to grow and he was glad that Demetrius came to work with him.
Demetrius helps with all aspects of the business, and is in charge of Marketing and Public Relations. As a graphic designer, he is instrumental in designing logos, labels, and packaging for the business. He also works to secure new agreements from area restaurants and other venues to supply their fresh vegetables.
Mr. Hooks said, “The Al Hooks Produce partnership is between just three people and me. If I need something for market and do not have it available myself, I call them and tell them what I need and they pick it and bring it to me. One farmer has a full time job and sometimes is not able to pick the crops needed in a timely manner. I will then take my pickers to his field. Each farmer has an agreement through Al Hooks Produce. I quote them a price per pound for an item, and I pay them.”
Growing plants under plasticulture with micro-irrigation helps target nutrients and water directly to the roots of the plants
Al Hooks Produce has been supplying the Kellogg Center in Tuskegee with fresh produce for about four years and delivers to the Whole Food Market in Birmingham. They supply Jim ‘N Nick’s Bar-B-Q in Prattville with cut greens and plan to provide snap greens, peas, okra, and other vegetables in the summer. They also supply special event venues like Southern Homes and Gardens in Montgomery. One of the newest contracts is with Embassy Suites in downtown Montgomery.
Local farmer’s markets are a big part of their marketing outreach. The Tuskegee Farmer’s Market and the Valleydale Farmer’s Market in Birmingham are just a couple they work with. Mr. Hooks said he used to work with anywhere from seven to nine farmer’s markets per week. Some weeks during the summer he still does.
This increase in demand allowed Hooks to execute another of his visions--to build a produce processing facility on his property. He said his reason for developing the facilities side of the business was that, “I wanted to do something beneficial for my family, as well as the community, and the people who want to be a part of it. At the same time, I wanted to do it in the right way. I did not want something that would be here today and gone tomorrow. My vision was to build an approved facility where we can process the crops ourselves for a variety of markets.”
To aid in this part of his plan, Mr. Hooks researched the type, size, regulations, and financing for the facility. After deciding on a design, Mr. Hooks turned to the USDA-Farm Service Agency (FSA) for financing.
At a recent farm tour, FSA State Executive Director Daniel Robinson said, “We are certainly excited about Mr. Hooks’ concept of a processing facility and what it means to farmers in the area. There was a real need for this type facility. There is always a demand for fresh products whether they are chopped greens or some other vegetable. We are happy that our agency was able to assist Mr. Hooks in financing this facility.” He continued, “We envision this facility is going to increase his acreage and allow more rural farmers to get involved.” Mr. Robinson encouraged farmers on the tour to get involved and expand their farming operation. He reminded everyone that FSA can assist in financing processing facilities like Mr. Hooks’ and other farm expenses.
Mr. Hooks said that the processing facility was built according to all of the requirements of the federal, state, and the county health department. He consulted experts to tell him exactly what was needed to design and safely operate the small facility. The first thing he was asked was how many people was expected to work in the building at one time. He explained that there are nine heating units and vents in the top of the building. Regulations require that each individual worker have a heating and cooling space. He also built the work area to code with washable walls, drains in the floor, a handicapped accessible bathroom in the work area, and other requirements. All of the equipment in the work area is stainless steel for ease of cleaning and sanitizing.
When the word spread about his processing facilities, Al realized that there were other producers and friends who did not have the funds to even rent a building, much less build one. He discussed it with his farming group and they decided to allow others to use the building.
A Seasonal High Tunnel, built with financial assistance through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, helps the Hooks start producing vegetables earlier and grow later into the season.
Inside the processing facility there is a cooler that holds the cut and packaged cabbage, collards, and other items for restaurants. Mr. Hooks said, “The restaurants want different cuts, some in strips, others in squares. We do not machine cut our greens. I hand-cut every pound of greens shipped out, sometimes 300-400 pounds a week.” Al Hooks Produce has a large cooler adjacent to the processing facility that can hold up to eight pallets of processed vegetables. It is tall enough that a tractor can enter and pick up the pallets to load them on a truck.
During the summer, Mr. Hooks brings in two pea shellers that are stored in another building. During the harvest, after each partner brings in peas, the plastic drums are thoroughly washed before the next batch can be shelled. He said, “We do not want to transfer bacteria from one batch of peas to another.”
Because of the success of his farming operation and his processing facility, last year Al Hooks Produce was in a prime position to accept another marketing opportunity.
In October 2010, Walmart started the Heritage Agriculture Project intended to help limited resource farmers expand markets and get more income for produce. In turn, Walmart receives the benefits of having locally grown fresh produce to stock the shelves of their grocery stores.
The Alabama Small Farm Rural Economic Development Center at Tuskegee University started The Tuskegee University Farmers Cooperative (TU Coop) and secured a contract in the program to supply two distribution centers in Alabama--Opelika and Brundidge--with seasonal produce. Walmart sends a list of items they would like to have to the TU Coop and they in turn notify the farmers. If the farmers do not have a requested item at that time, the TU Coop simply marks through that item.
Mr. Hooks said, “Last July 2011, we started selling peas to Walmart through the TU Coop. My growers bring their items here to process and we store them in the cooler until pickup.” We have to go through the produce to make sure that there is no problem with the weight or cleanliness of it.
Demetrius said, “When we first started with Walmart, they had never bought peas processed in a small facility like this. We created the packaging--a clam-shell plastic container--that the peas are sold in. We did not know how much refrigeration was needed to keep peas fresh, or how they needed to be handled in the store. Walmart was real patient with us in working out the needed cooling method. Hopefully, when we get started this summer with peas, we will have everything in place and we won’t encounter any problems.”
Demetrius said that the pick-up process for Walmart is convenient because they use what is called a “back haul.” He said, “Walmart has no problem picking up small quantities, if it is a back haul. At our place they will pick up as little as one pallet. The way it works is, trucks leave the distribution center fully loaded and disperse products to area Walmart stores. Empty trucks heading back to the distribution centers can easily pick up our local produce with little time lost and a much lower cost for product transportation since we are so close to the Interstate.”
One requirement for supplying pallets of vegetables to Walmart is that the farmer has to load the truck. Mr. Hooks is a limited resource farmer and could not afford a front-end loader to pick up the pallets and load on the trucks. He designed and fashioned a fork-lift type attachment for his tractor. To move the pallets around within the trailers, he purchased a smaller pallet mover that he lifts into the bed of the truck with his tractor then removes it when the loading is complete.
After a shipment is picked up and accepted by Walmart, they notify the TU Coop. The Coop pays the local producer so they can have operating funds and are not hindered by a long-term payment process. Walmart pays the TU Coop directly.
This year Al Hooks Produce is supplying Walmart and other markets with cool season greens of kale, mustard, collards, turnips, and cabbage. Mr. Hooks and his growers have separate lot numbers. That way, if one farmer’s product is rejected for a particular reason, the others may not be. When the summer season starts they anticipate selling peas, green beans, okra, lettuce, broccoli, onions, corn, and English peas. They already have a list of produce their vendors will need.
The farmers in the TU Coop are cautioned to be as careful as possible in picking and processing their produce. Neither Walmart nor any other vendor wants a product that is sunburned, has insect holes, or is not fresh. A lot of quality control and inspection takes place on the farm and in the processing facility. The farmers in Al Hooks Produce usually arrive with their products in the afternoon, take it into the processing facility, remove bad leaves, and do other things necessary to make the product suitable for sale. Each grower has a batching number to track which field the crops come from. Walmart does not require that greens be washed. The leafy vegetables are mostly grown on plastic so there is not a lot of dirt to begin with and they do not require a lot of washing. They do run water over them. The greens are packaged in 3 ½ to 4 pound bundles and the pallets are packed with flake ice that melts and helps further strip the leaves of dirt. Then the pallets go into the cooler to await pickup.
Al and Demetrius have plans for expansion. They are securing additional acres to plant. The Hook’s name has gotten around in their community. Mr. Hooks said, “People call me all the time when they want fresh produce.”
Demetrius said, “We are just starting out, but we are growing fast. We are providing a service to a larger customer base which in turn provides services to their customers. They want fresh local produce, and we want to be able to supply them.”
NRCS State Conservationist Dr. William Puckett said that, “Al Hooks Produce is a prime example of how limited resource farmers can help meet a larger demand for fresh produce.” He said that before farmers get to the packing and shipping stage of business, they have to produce the crops. He encourages farmers to see how NRCS can help get ready to grow crops for different markets. NRCS can help with micro-irrigation systems, hoop houses, irrigation ponds, and watering facilities and fencing for livestock.
Mr. Hooks said, “The partnership with USDA-NRCS has been very good.” Dr. Puckett said, “NRCS is here to serve the farmers, our customers.”
To see if you qualify for NRCS financial assistance through these programs, contact your local NRCS office listed in the telephone book under U.S. Department of Agriculture or online at http://offices.sc.egov.usda.gov. Individuals are not eligible for EQIP until they have completed the Farm Bill eligibility requirements. USDA is an equal opportunity employer and provider.
The Hooks built a state-of-the-art processing facility to help meet their vegetable production demands
Produce for market is stored in a cooler next to the processing building and is loaded on Walmart trucks using a tractor with a fork-lift attachment built by Al Hooks.