A diverse growing region that’s more than Vidalia onions and peaches, the state proudly promotes the many bounties of its local farms.
Whether regional or domestic, a product’s origin is powerful in the marketplace today.
Looking at the makeup of Georgia’s fruit and vegetable Farm Gate Value, blueberries are No. 8, onions are 18th and peaches are 35th in commodity rankings, according to the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA), located in LaGrange, GA.
Georgia has the unique ability to grow a vast array of fruits and vegetables, from blueberries to Vidalia onions, watermelons, Satsumas and sweet potatoes. The state’s varied soil allows for diverse production. Today’s consumers want to buy products they trust, and they seek a relationship with their food and strive to support local businesses. This is particularly evident with the success of the Georgia Department of Agriculture’sw Georgia Grown program.
“This is our economic development program for agriculture,” says the department’s commissioner, Gary W. Black. “Rather than this being a governmental program that prints up a bunch of stickers that are inventoried, which doesn’t work, we built the power of this program around a license to the use brand.”
Those that use the Georgia Grown label are businesses in the state related to agriculture, such as produce, food processing, forestry and protein production. Today, this program has approximately 900 license holders and continues to grow rapidly, mainly due to word of mouth.
Consumers Embrace Local Growers
“The focus on locally grown produce has really picked up and there is more consumer awareness of Georgia Grown products ever since Gary Black took office six years ago,” says Andrew Scott, director of marketing and business development for the Nickey Gregory Company, which has locations in Atlanta and Miami. “A new logo, a new website, as well as educating consumers in Georgia and around the Southeast helped increase the consumption and awareness of Georgia Grown.” Georgia Grown licensees can choose from a number of membership levels, from the Silver Basic up to the Founder’s Circle — each offering different benefits. “Those dollars roll back into the Georgia Grown commodity commission, which helps market and promote the program,” says Black.
Forest Park, GA-based J.J. Jardina Company, Inc., a third-generation produce wholesaler established in 1925, specializes in premium fruit and acquires product from around the world. “Commissioner Black is very supportive of the Georgia Grown industry and, from a legislative standpoint, he is very aggressive in creating favorable access and opportunities for growers and wholesalers like us,” says Matt Jardina, J.J. Jardina’s vice president of business development.
He touts Black’s 20/20 initiative, geared to allocate “20 percent of every meal in every Georgia public school every day to be comprised of Georgia products by the start of the 2020 school year.”
“This has put a big focus on Georgia Grown products,” says Jardina. “The challenge is how do we facilitate that goal by connecting the state’s growers with its buyers.”
There are still growers in the state that have not established relationships and outlets on the buying side to move product to a broader population. This results in many missed sales opportunities for Georgia Grown produce, so companies such as J.J. Jardina, which works with many supermarket chains and foodservice distributors, as well as other wholesalers, are helping facilitate the Georgia Grown produce movement.
While the benefits of Georgia-grown items include rich soil that creates high yields and cheaper freight due to the state’s centralized location, Brian Rayfield, vice president of business development at J & J Produce Inc., headquartered in Loxahatchee, FL, says the focus on locally grown products has created some loss of business to local deals in the Carolinas and states north of Georgia.
Still, he predicts Georgia Grown product sales will continue to grow. “I feel the future is very bright for Georgia Grown due to the quality of farmers in the state; the climate in the spring and fall months in Georgia; and the Georgia Department of Ag’s push behind the consumption of Georgia Grown products,” says Scott at Nickey Gregory.
At issue with the smaller growers are the food safety and certifications that are required, which are becoming a barrier of entry due to the price. “It’s necessary for Georgia growers that haven’t historically gone through the required certifications to now have this be on their radar to participate in a big way in Georgia Grown initiatives,” says Jardina. “Companies like ours spend a fair amount of time and money to ensure our certifications are in place from a storage and warehousing standpoint, but everyone in the food chain has to be looking at where they need to make investments to make sure their certifications are up to speed.” To accomplish this, there needs to be a greater level of coordination between growers and buyers to effectively deliver on the commissioner’s vision, he says.
In addition to its buyer relationships, J.J. Jardina is establishing more relationships on the grower side to make this happen. Though Georgia Grown is a marketing campaign, not a produce certification, the program provides resources for its members to promote their certified fruits and vegetables that are Good Agricultural Practice (GAP) or Primus-certified. “We provide resources to help growers connect the dots to talk to proper entities and achieve whatever certification level their customers may want,” says Black. “We also work with certifying entities and match up growers.”
Develop A Safety Plan
For both large and small scale growers, meeting food safety regulations is a protocol driven by retailers and their requirements. It is standard for retailers, wholesalers and buyer groups to require food safety program third party audits from their suppliers.
The Produce Food Safety Services program, the food safety educational arm of GFVGA, provides ongoing assistance to large-scale growers needing to develop food safety plans, and to small-scale growers wanting to ensure produce meets retailer food safety requirements. “Food safety is the first step to selling produce and getting it to market,” says Beth Oleson, GFVGA’s director of food safety and education.
Recently, Oleson has been working with several food hubs and micro-farm coalitions around Georgia to provide food safety education, on-farm group trainings and creation/review of food safety programs for these small operations.
In addition to assistance with food safety initiatives, the Georgia Grown program also interfaces with retail partners, such as Kroger, which has been an avid Georgia Grown advocate. The chain has promoted these products extensively in the Atlanta market, in particular. “If a retailer wants to engage with producers, we’ve had successful source shows with chains, including Kroger, Harveys Supermarket and Bi-Lo,” says Black. “It’s a good way for us to introduce items and form relationships between retailers, producers and wholesalers.” This isn’t always easy. Like many other states, Georgia faces production challenges, such as unpredictable weather, access to legal labor and harmful weeds and insects.
“Sweet onions account for nearly a third of total onion category sales, with Vidalia’s totaling 62 percent of total sweet onion sales.”
— John Shuman, Shuman Produce
Additionally, Georgia growers continually are faced with new regulations to uphold to, federal programs to enroll in, and food safety standards to adhere to all in order to stay within the law and have a marketable crop.
An Abundance Of Products
Along with Vidalia onions and peaches, Georgia ranks as one of the nation’s top producers of pecans, peanuts and watermelons.
In spring and fall, the main produce items grown in Georgia include (Vidalia) onions, peaches, pecans, peanuts, blueberries, cabbage, watermelons, bell peppers, collards, carrots, greens, corn, cucumbers, eggplant, squash, tomatoes and sweet potatoes.
Roy Lee Smith Produce Sales has been in business since 1998 and is based in Americus, GA. The company deals mainly with green beans planted in Georgia, but he also handles a small amount of bell peppers. “The green bean crop fits in with the rotation of other vegetables, such as corn and cotton,” says Taylor Neighbors, president and chief executive. “We grow beans in Miller County below Camilla and move to Sumter and Lee counties as time progresses.” Green bean harvesting in Georgia runs from May 1 to July 1 and packaging starts on Oct. 1 and ends Nov. 15 and then in Florida runs from Nov. 5 to May 1. As a result, these states have green beans nine months out of the year. The company has a niche in spring and fall. It finishes up with Florida green beans and starts business in Georgia around May 1.
“In the spring, Georgia green beans are more coveted than Florida’s, but in the fall it’s reversed,” says Neighbors. Most of Roy Lee Smith Produce’s items are shipped north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as west and to Canada. The company is Primus GSF-certified. “It’s a step above Primus, and there has been more emphasis on this certification,” says Neighbors. “Even before we were certified by Primus 10 years ago and GSF four years ago, we’ve kept a very clean packing house.”
“The north Georgia mountains also grow quite a few apples in the fall,” says Scott at Nickey Gregory. “Some lesser known products that are becoming more popular here are broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, asparagus and even persimmons.” Growers say labor has been a big challenge for farmers in Georgia as well as inconsistent weather in the spring that can hurt the new crops.
When it comes to Georgia produce, most would be hard-pressed not to think about the sought-after Vidalia onion. “Sweet onions account for nearly a third of total onion category sales, with Vidalia’s totaling 62 percent of total sweet onion sales,” says John Shuman, president of Shuman Produce, located in Reidsville.
Known for the mild, sweet flavor and versatility in cooking applications, Vidalias can only be grown within a 20-county region in Southeast Georgia in a total area of approximately 6,000 square miles, or approximately 10 percent of the state of Georgia.
There are roughly 100 growers who farm Vidalia onions on about 12,000 total acres each year. This year, Shuman Produce anticipates good volume of RealSweet Vidalia onions from its 2,300 acres, which equates to roughly 20 percent of all Vidalia onions shipped annually.
Weather fluctuations continue to be a challenge for Vidalia onion growers.
“This year, we experienced almost near perfect growing conditions in March, however last year rain caused some quality issues early in the season and contributed to some additional concerns with the storage crop last June and July,” says Shuman. “Additionally, both labor and fuel costs continue to be important issues affecting the Georgia produce trade and the sweet onion industry.”
L. G. Herndon Jr. Farms in Lyons is one of the last growers to produce baby Vidalias, also called Lil’ Bo’s Sweet Petite Vidalias. The farm hand-harvests this product, which is planted after Thanksgiving. “Retailers get excited to promote Vidalias in spring and summer,” says John Williams, L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms’ sales and marketing manager. “We’ll have a Georgia Grown day, bringing in vendors to talk about what they’re looking for.” The farm started growing sweet potatoes about six years ago and has had strong support from the Kroger chain.
Recently, L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms also started growing organic produce, including greens and onions. “The humidity and insects can be challenging in the summer, although it’s not bad in the winter,” says Williams. “Retailers tell us year-round sourcing for organic produce is difficult.”
The farm has a designated staff member oversee food safety. Its products are Primus-certified and several audits are done annually.
Georgia Is The New California
“There has definitely been a big push for local produce, which is growing as fast or faster than organic,” says Vince Stanley, general manager at Generation Farms, which is the result of a recent merger between Stanley Farms and Coggins Farm and Produce Inc. Located in Lake Park, GA, Generation Farms’ retail packaging uses the Georgia Grown logo. Among Generation Farms’ products are Vidalia, red and organic onions, as well as carrots and sweet potatoes.
Although the state continues to have environmental constraints, its farms are dedicated to be good stewards to the land. “Georgia is the new California without the water shortages and agricultural restrictions,” says Stanley. “We’re truly in the vegetable belt, which provides a variety of soil, plentiful water and good weather.”
The farm has third-party audits in place and is Primus and SQF (Safety Quality Food) certified to be compliant with the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).
Both a Vidalia onion and watermelon grower, Hendrix Produce Inc. in Metter, GA, harvests its onions in April and finishes up in June. These are then stored cold for availability until Labor Day. “Supermarkets are looking for more local products, pushing these items and using signage for promotions,” says Kevin Hendrix, vice president.
Bland Farms in Glennville, GA, started as a sweet onion company and transitioned to also include condiments made with Vidalia onions as well as sweet potatoes. The East Coast is its biggest selling region for sweet onions due to the proximity. “During the fall, we market sweet onions and sweet potatoes in the same bin,” says Delbert Bland, owner of Bland Farms. “We also produce a Vidalia onion kit to make onion blossoms and sell onion straws made from Vidalias.”
“Retailers get excited to promote Vidalias in spring and summer. We’ll have a Georgia Grown day, bringing in vendors to talk about what they’re looking for.”
— John Williams, L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms
These items are incorporated with fresh onions in the produce department for increased visibility. The farm also offers a coupon where customers can get $1 off a bag of fresh onions with the purchase of an onion snack.
Although weather is always a factor, after three decades in business, Bland Farms has processes in place to deal with all types of environments. “We can adjust our operation at any time to handle the elements that are coming,” says Bland. “It can be wet here one day and too hot the next, so learning and having experience in dealing with crops is one of the most important things to being successful.”
Bland Farms supports the popular locally grown programs, but only a small amount of its products are sold in the state. “I feel like locally grown is overrated when looking at the big picture,” says Bland. “We need the best product available, and if it’s from two states over at a better price, that’s where buyers have to discriminate.”
Georgia Grown produce is not just about Vidalia onions. The state also is well-known for its peach production. Dickey Farms in Musella, GA, primarily grows peaches, which flourish in Georgia and the Southeast and are known for high quality and a sweet taste. This fruit also can be quite labor intensive.
“There is a real push from consumers across the country seeking locally grown produce,” says Lee Dickey, the farm’s general manager. “People have an enhanced interest in knowing where their produce comes from.” He says more retailers also are making an effort to visit individual farms, rather than going through a broker, to save on shipping expenses.
In Georgia, growers sometimes contend with late freezes, which can be detrimental to peach production. “In the past three to four years, we lost 30 to 60 percent of our crop, which is fairly common,” says Dickey. “It can be challenging compensating for this, so it comes down to managing business and labor.”
The farm is expecting a full crop for 2016, which hasn’t happened for the last five seasons.
Dickey Farms is Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certified and is audited on an annual basis. However, this is not heavily promoted, due to the lack of inquiries from its customers. “It’s more regulation-driven,” says Dickey. “We have a dedicated food safety director in our business who keeps up with what’s going on in terms of regulations to ensure we’re at forefront of this and staying on top of it.”
Lane Packing Co. in Fort Valley, GA, grows peaches and pecans, which benefit from the state’s climate and soil. “The climate is outstanding, since we usually get sufficient cold weather and peach trees need sufficient chilling for a bud break,” says Mark Sanchez, Lane Packing’s chief executive. “Peaches require a certain amount of chilling hours below 45 degrees from mid-October to mid-February, and we recently had just under 800 hours of chilling when 1,000 hours is typical.”
Peaches thrive in cooler nights and hot, dry days, and the state gets enough rainfall at the right times for this fruit. Farming has challenges every year in terms of crop production, and the weather is always the biggest unknown. With this past season, El Niño was in full force, with barely enough chilling hours this year due to warm, wet weather. “Now we have a great crop coming,” says Sanchez. “But we will see some effects [on supply] later in the season.” He has seen locally grown peach sales increase, especially in the past five to six years, as consumers want to know where their food comes from and minimize their carbon footprint.
The farm mainly supplies peaches to the Atlanta and Florida markets. “A good number of our peaches are sold here in the Southeast at Wal-Mart, Kroger, Publix and Winn-Dixie markets,” says Sanchez.
Lane Packing has promoted its produce with marketing campaigns that include photos and stories about the farm for store produce sections. This has been effective in terms of building trust with consumers as well as highlighting the business’ food safety initiatives.
GAP is a critical part of Lane Packing’s business and becoming more important every year. “For many years, we’ve had a comprehensive food safety program in place,” says Sanchez. “We conduct third party audits every year, and we were one of the first peach growers to get Global GAP certification.”
A Look at Retail and Foodservice
Georgia’s retail and foodservice operations have profited from the many produce opportunities offered by growers in the state. As Lakeland, FL-based Publix Super Markets’ stores look to purchase fruits and vegetables, the 1,110-store chain first looks to the areas in which it operates. The states that are local to Publix include Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina and North Carolina. The chain has 182 stores in Georgia. If the product is not available in one of these states, the chain expands its search across the United States. And if the product is not available in its operating states or across the U.S., then it will source produce abroad to meet the customer demand. “As the weather starts to warm up, the growing season shifts from Florida to Georgia for many crops, including blueberries, Vidalia onions, zucchini, yellow squash, watermelon, peaches, cucumbers, bell peppers and beans, just to name a few,” says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets. “As an aside, we also offer our customers At Seasons Peak, a program designed to remind customers of the true seasonality of fruits and vegetables, when their produce will be at the absolute peak of season, ripe and fresh and best to eat.” The chain also runs Georgia Grown ads to support produce from Georgia. Piglet Supermarket, a single-store operation in Soperton, GA, purchases about 90 percent of its produce outside of Atlanta on the off season. However, produce manager Ricky Reese also works with local growers and gardeners to source many of the store’s produce items. “We’re such a small town, most everyone knows who I buy our products from,” says Reese. “I have two people who sell okra when the heat doesn’t kill it and another customer who grows corn for us.”
The store will buy 300 to 400 ears of corn. Reese also purchases tomatoes from area growers. “In the summer, we get the majority of produce from people in town,” says Reese. “These items are fresher, more popular and cheaper, and much of it is organic, which is what the majority of people are looking for today.”
A number of Georgia’s restaurants are highlighting produce from local growers. The restaurant Five & Ten in Athens was built as a community foodservice establishment where locality mattered. It opened in 2000 before the term “farm to table” became commonplace. “It was a restaurant where I planned to learn more about food and the area that I call home,” says Chef Hugh Acheson.
The menu is a constant mashing of Southern history of food with the principles of French and Italian food, which helps set this eatery apart. “I have always cooked seasonally, I can’t think of any other way to cook,” says Acheson. “I would get bored cooking the same things every day, but seasonal change makes cooking bloom every day. When I think of produce I naturally want to find what’s nearby, and in the agrarian landscape of Georgia, that is a lot.”
Five & Ten’s dishes incorporate local blueberries, asparagus, strawberries, lettuces, okra and beans, in addition to wheat of all shapes and sizes. “It is an endless field that we use in different ways,” says Acheson. “Knowing the name of a grower gives food a story and a narrative. It gives the hands that plowed a better reason than just a transaction. Food should be more than a transaction.”
The restaurant plans on expanding its use of Georgia grown produce, as it is invested in the state and local product, he says. “We really just want people to assume we use the best products and are happy to prove it every day,” says Acheson. Opened two years ago by Jamie Allred and Jack Nolan, Fortify Kitchen & Bar in Clayton, GA, has partnered with 20 Georgia farms, many of which are less than an acre. “We pick and choose which ones we work with, since certain ones specialize in different produce items,” says Allred.
Approximately 80 percent of Fortify Kitchen’s menu ingredients are sourced from either Georgia or North Carolina, although in winter, only between 25 and 30 percent of produce is sourced from its home state.
The restaurant’s menu features three vegetable sides nightly that were grown in the state. The restaurant also holds its Fortify Farmers Wednesday program each week. With this initiative, farmers hold court at a table in the front of the restaurant to talk about the items sourced from their land. The menu expands to include a tapas special that offers four or five produce items from the farm.
“Farmers meet with our customers to answer questions about how they grow their produce and where they’re located,” says Allred. “It’s a good promotion for these farmers.” The items Fortify Kitchen incorporates in its dishes includes kale in the spring and local lettuce for salads. Squash also comes in at this time, as well as a large supply of beets and turnips. Carrots are popular, too. “Locally grown carrots are much different than conventionally grown and easier to cook with,” says Allred. “The flavor is 40 times more intense and more like a carrot should taste, with a better flavor and crunch.”
The biggest challenge in utilizing local produce is due to Fortify Kitchen’s location, which is in the northeast corner of the state. “I try to use produce from as many local farmers as I can, but because there are such small farms in our area, I can sometimes only get half as much product as I need,” says Allred.
As a result, he’s had to reach out to farmers to ask if they can add a crop to supplement the restaurant’s supply. Many times, the growers will stagger the planting to keep Fortify Kitchen in steady supply of necessary ingredients. “There are a couple farmers I meet with once a season to talk about items they’ll plant, and I’ll use on the menu,” says Allred. “I plan out if I need 10 pounds of tomatoes a week or 20 pounds of collard greens and will make sure we have enough for the season.” The most recent challenge many of Fortify Kitchen’s farmers are dealing with are the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) rules and regulations.
“These small farmers are having trouble adapting to these changes, as they are barely making a living as it is, and the new requirements then make it harder for them to turn a profit,” says Allred.