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Southern hospitality

Our hosts in South Carolina and Georgia rolled out the red carpet for VALOR fellows. Everyone was so welcoming and open about their businesses. They shared about their successes and challenges. Everyone’s passion for agriculture, their families and serving their community shined at every stop. Here are a few of my take-aways from the trip:

Labor is a universal challenge

Labor for caring for and harvesting our agricultural products is a challenge that does not know state borders. We discussed it in several stops in South Carolina and Georgia. Titan Farms, which produces and processes 7,000 acres of peaches and vegetables, has a huge need for labor. They posted 800+ job openings, had 13 applicants, 8 showed up for work, and only 1 lasted more than two days. Because they are unable to find local labor for harvesting and processing their crops, they rely heavily on the H-2A program. They have also installed a lot of equipment that automates processing.

McCorkle Nursery also relies on the H-2A program for labor. Of the nursery’s 180 employees, 72 are H-2A workers. The program does have it’s challenges, such as the lack of flexibility in what the workers can help with, but it is essential to the business.

One of the dairy farms we visited, Hillcrest Farm, is installing robotic milkers to help with labor issues. They will have fewer employees after the transition is complete and it will give family members and managers more freedom.

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Georgia has a knack for marketing

Everybody knows Georgia is the peach state, right? While that may be the image, Titan Farms, a family farm in South Carolina, produces more peaches than the entire state of Georgia. Meanwhile, Georgia continues to promote itself as the peach state.

Georgia has also done an excellent job marketing Vidalia onions. Like Champagne and genuine Smithfield ham, Vidalia onions are only produced in a defined area in Georgia in a limited window of time in the spring and summer.

While a lot of states have marketing programs to promote their products, most of the efforts I’ve seen are within the state. Maybe there are opportunities for producers or states to build markets for products.

Passion contributes to success

I’m a believer in Simon Sinek‘s model for leadership that starts with asking why? You can check out his TED Talk here. Several of our hosts made their “why” clear during our visit. Perhaps the most clear “why” was Jon Jackson’s. He founded Comfort Farms, a therapeutic farm for veterans that grows a diversity of vegetables, herbs and livestock. Jon is a veteran himself and has overflowing passion for serving fellow veterans.

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Jarrod and Becca Creasy are a young, hard-working couple with four businesses – beef, hay, fencing and a butcher shop. They have a drive to succeed as young, first-generation farmers. It’s evident that they are seen in the community as hard-working business owners with high integrity because when Mr. Fries was looking to pass his butcher shop business on to new ownership, he called on Jarrod and Becca to take the reigns. They have been able to retain highly skilled and knowledgeable employees while incorporating progressive improvements to the business.

Yon Family Farms had a similar situation when they first started their business and again more recently. At a time when Kevin and Lydia were in need of a new opportunity, a customer of the business they had previously managed reached out to them saying they wanted to exit the business and offered to sell them and finance 100 acres. They have grown to over 4,500 acres today. They started with 100 cows in 1996 and now have 1,500. In 2015, their 93-year-old neighbor needed someone to take over his pecan farm and store – right before harvest nonetheless – and he called on the Yon family. The Yon’s commitment to their family and community shined through during our visit.

At Happy Cow Creamery, Tom Trantham unintentionally discovered the benefit of perfectly timed grazing when the cows broke out and got into a hayfield in April 1989. They had a two-pound average increase in milk production the next day. Since then, he has worked to create 12 Aprils by planting rotational grazing fields to give the cows the best nutrition every day of the year. They also process their milk at the farm. They sell it through a farm store and self-distribute it locally. These unique practices allow the business to be profitable. Tom shared the sad reality that South Carolina had 500 dairies when he got started and now there are only 42. Tom is passionate about dairy farming, running a profitable business and sharing his nutritious product with his community.

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We visited several other interesting businesses throughout the trip and had gracious hosts at every stop. We got to know each other better and enjoyed the local fare (if you ever find yourself in Dearing, GA, check out Deep South Cheese). I’m looking forward to our next seminar and a bit shocked that we only have a year left in the program!

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