Originally printed in the May 2020 issue of Produce Business.
The state supplies more than peaches and sweet onions.
Georgia farmers harvest almost a billion-dollars’ worth of produce at farm gate prices, with over 170,000 acres in production, according to the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Association, based in LaGrange, GA.
The state is a major fruit and vegetable supplier to markets up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and it’s not all peaches and Vidalia sweet onions.
“Pecans, greens — especially collards and kale — blueberries, peanuts, watermelons and Eastern vegetables, including cucumbers, bell peppers, corn, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash and cabbage from Georgia are all worthy of a reputation, to name a few,” says Andrew Scott, director of business development at Nickey Gregory Co., headquartered in Atlanta.
In January, Nickey Gregory celebrated 20 years as a full line distributor offering overnight delivery from warehouse facilities in the Atlanta Farmers Market and Miami to retailers and foodservice purveyors throughout the Southeast of more than 400 fresh produce items sourced locally and globally.
With 150-acres, the Atlanta Farmers Market in Forest Park is one of the largest and most vibrant wholesale markets in the country. Strategically located near major highways in all directions, the market serves as a regional produce hub and has a welcome center, restaurant and garden center.
“Customers within states touching the borders of Georgia care if the produce is from here,” says Scott. “There are many definitions for what is ‘locally grown.’ We consider local as Georgia Grown, as the Nickey Gregory Co. is a platinum member of the [state’s branded] program, and we support Georgia Grown products. When in season, we try to exclusively purchase Georgia Grown products that we pick up with our own fleet of trucks.”
DIVERSITY OF PRODUCT
While Georgia peaches and Vidalia sweet onions are rightfully celebrated, other fresh commodities top the list of the state’s agricultural production. Georgia is perennially the Number One state in the nation in the production of peanuts, pecans, blueberries and spring onions, according to the state Farm Bureau. It is also at or near the top when it comes to watermelon, peaches, cucumbers, sweet corn, bell peppers, tomatoes, cantaloupes and cabbage.
At Dickey Farms in Musella, GA, visitors can rest a spell in a rocking chair in the oldest peach packing house in the state, watch the kids enjoy the new playground, or shop in Mr. Bob’s Market for preserves, jams, jellies or salsas. The more distant admirers of Dickey’s peaches shop via mail order, which accounts for a tenth of the farm’s sales.
“All of our mail order customers know it’s Georgia Grown,” says Cynde Dickey, secretary-treasurer of Dickey Farms. “If I talk to buyers from New Jersey, they probably don’t know the produce is from Georgia, but I let them know first off. We’ve got the perfect climate, and our state grows a variety of items all year round.”
“If I talk to buyers from New Jersey, they probably don’t know the produce is from Georgia, but I let them know first off. We’ve got the perfect climate, and our state grows a variety of items all year round.”— Cynde Dickey
Georgia Grown apples also are available from dozens of outlets ranging from the Farmers Market in Braselton, GA, population 7,511 at last count, to the Nickey Gregory Co. wholesale operation, serving the eastern half of the country.
Mark’s Melon patch in Sasser, GA, is a source for Georgia Grown blueberries, as is Nickey Gregory, and finds the name carries weight beyond the borders of the state.
Georgia Grown kale, turnips and mustard greens are available at Pittman Family Farms & Country Market in Lyons, GA.
Even peach or sweet onion growers, however, are quick to point out that the state also produces many other high-quality fruits and vegetables in abundance.
“There are many crops grown in Georgia that are loved by consumers—blueberries, corn, watermelon, yams, and more,” says onion grower John Shuman, president and CEO of Shuman Farms, Reidsville, GA. “Georgia is also the nation’s top producer of pecans, producing approximately 100 million pounds each year.”
And peach grower Dickey also offers kudos to many of the other crops grown in the state.
“I think they look for all of our items from Georgia—squash, tomatoes, greens and carrots. I don’t think a lot of people known about our chickens; Georgia is the poultry capital of the world,” she says.
In addition to its peaches, Dickey Farms grows fresh strawberries picked in the spring, and Vidalia-based Bland Farms recently added 1,500 acres of Georgia sweet potatoes to its sweet onion operation.
“Georgia peanuts and pecans are also worthy of reputations, just to mention a couple produce items, because Georgia has very diverse and wide-ranging capabilities,” says Troy Bland, COO of Bland Farms.
IT’S THE SOIL
Ask anyone involved in Georgia agriculture why the peaches and sweet onions have earned their sterling reputations and the conversation quickly turns to the soil.
“For Vidalia sweet onions, one of Georgia’s staple crops, it’s low sulfur soils that make the onion bulbs naturally sweet, unlike your typical onion,” says Bland. “Only 20 counties in Georgia meet the soil requirements to grow Vidalia sweet onions. The mild climate in Georgia also contributes to great growing conditions for Vidalia sweet onions.”
Vidalia-based Bland Farms is among the world’s largest grower-shippers of sweet onions from fields in Vidalia and, to offer year-round supply, Texas, California, Nevada, Mexico and Peru.
The onions that come from the low sulfur soils that Bland swears by are the stuff of which local legends are made. “Back in the 1930s and 40s, a man named Mose Coleman found out his onions were sweeter,” says manager of the Vidalia-based Vidalia Onion Committee Bob Stafford.
Growers established the Vidalia Onion Committee in the mid 80s to build their brand, maintain the quality of the product and establish the boundaries of what can be called “Vidalia” sweet onions. They also successfully lobbied to have sweet onions designated as the Georgia state vegetable.
The sweeter onions in Coleman’s field also got a little help from the weather.
“We get the right amount of water,” says Stafford. “You could have planted the same Granex onion in Texas or anywhere else, and it wouldn’t be the same. People would say if you’re going through Vidalia, bring back some onions. There was a fellow who started putting them in the Piggly Wiggly markets and promoting them… and the rest is history.”
The climate works perfectly with the soil because the rains wash out the sulfur that gives onions grown elsewhere their sting.
“The sandy soils of southeast Georgia, combined with the rainfall, allows sulfur compounds, the elements that make an onion hot or bring tears to your eyes when they’re cut, to wash away,” says Shuman. “This is what allows the Vidalia onions to remain sweet, mild and uniquely delicious.”
Shuman Farms sources sweet onions from throughout the western hemisphere in order to offer a year-round supply.
“We know that consumers across the country wait for Georgia Grown Vidalia onions to hit shelves in late April, and this is especially true for those in the New England, Mid-Atlantic and Southeast United States,” says Shuman. “In fact, New England consumers eat an average of 2.6 pounds of sweet onions each year, almost double the national average.”
You hear similar responses when you ask people in the state’s peach business how their fruit got to be so special.
“It pretty much is the dirt they come from.” says Will McGehee, marketing director of the Georgia Peach Council, Fort Valley, GA. “We got our reputation the old fashioned way.”
The Georgia Peach Council provides publicity and merchandising help for growers of one of the state’s two most famous crops.
“We have been growing peaches all across the state for many decades, but 95% of your commercial production comes from the Fort Valley plateau,” McGehee says. “It’s a belt about 40 to 50 miles north to south and 100 miles east to west. That’s where you will find the dense red clay and a little roll for drainage.”
A growing diversity of crops is a trend in Georgia agriculture, as acquisitions or mergers between sweet onion and a mixed vegetable operation have recently created at least two full-service Georgia grower-shippers able to offer fuller lines of produce.
Roberson Onion Corp. is a Vidalia Onion Committee founding member that offered year-round supplies of sweet onions by shipping out of Georgia, Peru, Mexico and Texas, and of sweet potatoes by shipping out of North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi.
The company expanded its operation by acquiring J&S Produce, which represents 50 farmers in Southeast Georgia that grow a variety of southern vegetables, including yellow crookneck squash; zucchini squash; green beans; hot peppers; Vidalia onions; blueberries; tomatoes; cucumbers; and bell peppers.
In another produce merger, Vidalia onion growers Coggins Farms and Stanley Farms, which also grows green beans, bell peppers, sweet potatoes, carrots, kale, blueberries, and watermelon in Georgia and Florida, formed Generation Farms, which was then acquired by California-based carrot giant Grimmway.
THE RIGHT STUFF AT THE RIGHT TIME
Many produce retailers within the state proudly display the homegrown fruits and vegetables, many of them with the Georgia Grown logo.
“Retailers now have local sections that promote Georgia produce,” says Bland. “At Bland Farms, we provide signage and point of sale (POS) materials to retailers to educate consumers about where the Vidalia onion comes from and what makes it special. We also offer ‘Meet the Farmer’ POS to promote Roots to Retail.”
But the state’s agriculture also has a story that travels well to consumers all the way up the Eastern Seaboard.
“This is our fifth generation, and I think it makes a huge difference that we are still working as a family to produce the best fruits and vegetables,” says Dickey. “In everything we do we say Georgia Grown, Georgia produce, Georgia anything.”
The two best known crops from the state both have the good fortune of arriving as most consumers turn their thoughts to sunnier times ahead.
“Georgia peaches are synonymous with the start of summer, and most people get pretty excited about summer,” says McGehee. “A lot of the country loves our peaches. You’ll see displays of Georgia peaches in Schnuck’s in St. Louis, Whole Foods up in Cheshire, CT, and Kroger’s in the Midwest.”
Vidalia onion growers have the similar good fortune of beginning their harvest as Easterners are ready for something special to cook outside.
“Our onions come in the spring, and it fits right in with grilling season,” says Stafford. “We produce five to seven million 40-pound units a year. People plant enough that they can harvest in six to eight weeks before it gets too hot, and we store 3 to 3.5 million bushels, so we have enough to last until Labor Day.”
The Vidalia growers are preparing to expand their markets to include more consumers west of the Mississippi. “Most of our customers are on the East Coast, but we’re picking up new markets,” says Stafford.
With a crop that has earned a reputation, these sweet onion growers are uniquely positioned to scale their production levels to fit the market.
“We’re working now on getting better yields,” says Stafford. “Two years ago, we had 11,500 acres, and last year we were down 2,000 acres and got the same tonnage. We have 9,300 to 9,400 acres this year. We figure if we plant less acreage, we can make more money.”
IT PAYS TO PROMOTE
An abundance of high-quality fruits and vegetables is the beginning, but the next step for retailers is letting customers know you’ve got the good stuff.
“Presentation is major,” advises Jordan Carter, director of sales and marketing at Leger & Son, Cordele, GA. “Therefore, there is a lot of emphasis on attractive displays. Many retailers are utilizing the Georgia Grown brand to promote local grown in the produce section. Because trends show that consumers like seeing where their food comes from, local farm signage is being used to attract and retain customers.”
The presentation is a team effort involving retailers, the state, farmers and wholesalers.
“Signage in some stores, including pictures of local Georgia farmers in the fields, is used to promote Georgia produce,” says Scott of Nickey Gregory. “The Georgia Grown logo is used in local retailer ads and on billboards. With the Nickey Gregory Co. being a wholesaler, we work closely with Georgia farmers and partner with these growers.”
Shuman is among the state’s grower-shippers that view promotion of local produce as a partnership with its retailer customers “We make it easy for retailers to promote Georgia Grown by including the logo on our RealSweet Vidalia bags, packaging, display bins and in-store signage,” says Shuman. “We also encourage retailers to include the Georgia Grown logo in their ads on the items that are grown in Georgia.”
Growers have stories that can be an important part of the merchandising program for Georgia produce.
“We have created digital content and in-store POS that tells our Shuman Farms’ story and shows consumers how Vidalia onions are grown,” Shuman says. “Sharing grower stories with consumers and showing them the farm-to-table journey their food takes is equally important.”
Many retailers, both local and up and down the Eastern Seaboard, find it a plus among their customers that fruits and vegetables are from Georgia.
“Georgia’s own buy local platform, Georgia Grown, and brand embody all crop groups in the state of Georgia,” says Leger’s Carter.
Leger & Son has grown to become one of the leading watermelon grower-shippers in the Southeast in the 55 years since current company treasurer “Buddy” Leger started the firm.
Carter is quick to point out that, in addition to Vidalia sweet onions and the state’s renowned peaches, Georgia is also number four in the nation in watermelon production.
“The Georgia Grown program is a marketing and economic development program,” Carter says. “The goal is to aid agricultural economies by bringing together the entire supply chain from producer to consumer in one statewide community. Georgia Grown is also a brand that businesses can use to market their products.”
“Since Gary Black took office as the Ag Commissioner of Georgia, the Georgia Grown program has gained worldwide attention,” says Scott. “His office has redesigned the logo and website, promoted Georgia Grown products to a broader audience of buyers and partnered with the Georgia port authority to export more products from the state.”