Originally printed in the May 2018 issue of Produce Business.
A look at the accomplishments of the Palmetto State’s longtime assistant commissioner.
On June 30, Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner South Carolina Department of Agriculture (SCDA), plans to retire. A Thomasville, GA, native, Eubanks’ first entrance into produce was loading watermelons for a harvesting crew at 11 years old. After graduating from the University of Georgia in 1983, Eubanks worked in the grain procurement business, selling chemicals, fertilizer and farm supplies for nearly four years.
Eubanks, 57, joined SCDA in 1986 as a marketing specialist working with the South Carolina Peach Council. He then expanded to watermelons and became assistant retail manager before advancing to retail merchandiser. Eubanks was promoted to director of marketing and assumed his current assistant commissioner position in 2006.
Eubanks and his wife, Karen, have three children. Son John Martin Eubanks works in produce packaging at Advance Packaging Corp., in North Charleston, SC. The elder Eubanks enjoys hunting, fishing and shooting sports and engages in his hobbies all over the world, including an African safari planned for August.
After more than 32 years working on the SCDA’s marketing efforts, Eubanks can look back on many industry accomplishments in representing the Palmetto State’s grower-shippers.
Q: What do you plan to do in your retirement?
I plan to take six months off and decide. I will catch up on some time with my family and go hunting and fishing. I’m not sure what retirement will look like.
Q: What drives your passion?
Serving people drives me. Just knowing I have an opportunity to make a positive impact by creating opportunities drives me. I was fortunate to learn a good strong work ethic at an early age from my parents.
My passion is getting up every day, trying to put a smile on my face and make a difference for someone. As I retire, I want to continue serving people with mission work through my church and local programs through Harvest Hope Food Bank.
Q: You were essential in developing the Certified South Carolina Grown program. How important are such programs to promote a state’s fresh produce?
After seeing the value, getting to know the retailers and attending PMA and Southeast Produce Council events, a lot of states have come along after the fact. New Jersey was the granddaddy of those programs. We mimicked a lot of their efforts when we began our program. They helped us get started.
For me, it’s been a labor of love. When I came here, I was green as a gourd. To grow with the growers and build those relationships over the years; they’re family. Farmers of all types are wonderful people to work with.
Q: How vital are state branding efforts to the states’ agricultural and overall business economies?
It has grown rapidly. It’s important for states to be proud of what they are, what products they’re known for and to promote those, which help the growers by creating more opportunities from increasing demand. You can make an impact on your state’s economy.
Q: You’ve been called the “Dean of SEC Agribusiness” for your creation of the Certified SC Grown Palmetto Series sports championship games between the University of South Carolina and Clemson University. How can such marketing help states (and the produce industry) promote their commodities?
South Carolina people are crazy about their sports. We saw an opportunity to take these sporting activities where there’s a lot of tailgating and a lot of food involved.
My opinion is I’ll try anything once. It’s important to try things out of the box. I never felt one should be afraid to make a mistake; that’s how we learn.
Q: For 50 years, South Carolina has supported the Eastern Produce Council by sponsoring its April dinner meeting. How important is involvement with regional produce industry groups such as the EPC?
We have made huge relationships through hosting those meetings of buyers and wholesale people in the industry. Keeping our face with that group has certainly helped us in the Northeast marketplace.
Q: As member No. 12 who attended the second meeting of produce professionals interested in forming the Southeast Produce Council, you were one of the council’s founders. What do you think about its success?
Like with our work with the Eastern Produce Council, I saw an opportunity there and wanted to be on the ground floor of something great. I personally worked retailers in the Southeast very hard to become partners with [the Council]. I worked with growers to join.
Look how it’s grown and the events the organization has been able to accomplish. To be allowed to serve as an officer, it opened the doors for other southeastern departments of agriculture to participate. It’s been more rewarding than anything I’ve ever done. It’s an accomplishment I’m proud of.
Q: Is there anyone inside or outside the industry who you consider a mentor?
My greatest mentor is Bob McCurry, a former South Carolina peach grower who’s retired. He came to work for the SCDA, and we traveled extensively. The way he handled himself and the way he dealt with people made a huge impression on me and the way I try to do things.
Q: How much pleasure does it give you to work on behalf of growers and promote their products?
All I’ve tried to do is create opportunities for our producers. If retailers had questions about a particular peach, watermelon or how to handle an Athena cantaloupe, they would call me because they knew I wasn’t trying to sell them something. I tried to help them get the best product to their stores.
It’s all about building repeat business. That’s repeat business, whether it’s a grower-shipper or retailer. It’s bringing that customer back to your store on a regular basis. I believe in South Carolina agriculture. I believe in what we’re doing.
Q: You are known for developing personal relationships with retailers. How important are such relationships for the produce industry?
It’s easy today to get on the computer and send an email. It’s critical the retailer knows you. I think old school is still the best route to go, to where you go to someone’s office, meet them and shake their hands so they know who you are. Building that personal relationship carries one farther than anything out there.
When retail friends call you or come see you during difficult times, it shows you have more than just a business relationship. It shows there is a friendship there. Building those types of relationships can carry one a long way in this business.