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Southeast Alabama Economy Boosted by Agriculture Heritage

Southeast Alabama's rich farming tradition has kept the agriculture and food production sector of the region's economy well stocked.

By Gary Wollenhaupt on October 14, 2014

Food and forestry production have always had a strong legacy in Southeast Alabama region, and that continues to grow. With more than 7,600 farms and 1.9 million acres of farmland, the region produces a variety of farm commodities. Peanuts, cotton and corn are the major crops raised in the region, and poultry and cattle are the major livestock.
With such an impressive agricultural presence, an array of food production companies have sprung up across Southeast Alabama. Peanut and poultry processing companies are key players in the region, along with a variety of food manufacturers that have established operations locally.
With an average temperature of 66 and 47 inches of rainfall annually, Southeast Alabama’s climate is ideal for both farming and forestry. The region’s location is also advantageous, with farm commodities shipped efficiently via a strong network of highways, and Gulf of Mexico and Mississippi River ports are just a few hours away.
A Leader in Agriculture Production
Several Southeast Alabama counties are leaders in agricultural production.
Geneva and Henry counties rank among the top five peanut producers in the state, and Barbour and Geneva counties rank in the top five as producers of catfish. Geneva County is also a top five cotton producer.
One of the most successful food production companies in the region is Kelley Foods, established more than 57 years ago. Kelley Foods, based in Elba, is a regional pork-product manufacturer and food distributor with about 160 employees.
Its pork products include ham, sausage and hot dogs. With distribution in a 150-mile radius of its headquarters, the company serves customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.
“We have found that Alabama is a very favorable climate for business,” says Eddie Kelley, president and CEO of Kelley Foods. “We also have excellent cooperation from the local community, and it’s a great place to work and live.”
With a robust peanut farming sector, processing peanut-related food products has grown dramatically over the past several years. In 2012, Golden Boy Nut Corp., opened a nut butter production plant in Troy, producing private-label peanut butter to major companies across the United States.
The 70,000-square-foot plant, with about 100 employees, is a boost to region’s peanut growers.
Poultry Processing Bolsters Economy
The poultry industry is also a major part of the agricultural and food production sector of the region. Leading poultry processing firms have set up shop, with Wayne Farms and Keystone Foods operating three processing plants in the area.
Other food-related companies in Southeast Alabama include Southern Classic Foods, Sister Schubert Rolls and Blue Spring Water.
Southern Classic established its business in Brundidge in 2001. The company makes a variety of products, including vinegar, dressings, barbeque sauces and marinades that are sold to retailers and food service companies.
Southern Classic officials say the most important factor in selecting Brundidge was the availability of an experienced workforce, owing in part to Pike County’s decades of manufacturing experience in food processing.
Southeast Alabama is also a major contributor to the state’s growing forestry and wood product industry. Paper mills, like International Paper and Huhtamaki, operate facilities in the region and wood products makers, like Coastal Forest Products and Structural Wood Systems, are growing in the Southeast.
Coastal Forest Products has announced a $20 million upgrade of its complex in Butler County that includes an expansion of its dryer system at its plywood plant. The Chapman complex also has a sawmill. Upon completion of the expansion, Coastal will employ 340 workers at both facilities.
“The resources base in the region, coupled with a strong customer base regionally and access to the port in Mobile, made this location ideal for our purposes,” says Travis Bryant, president and CEO of Coastal Forest Resources Co., parent of the Alabama unit.
While the start-up and initial investment in the plant in 2009 were challenging, Bryant says, the company received tremendous support at both the state and local level for its initiatives.
“The Alabama Industrial Development Training program was extremely helpful in getting us staff for the mill, initially providing extensive help in recruitment and training as we started up operations,” Bryant says.

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