When people think of Georgia produce, three things typically come to mind: Peaches, peanuts and Vidalia onions. No doubt all of those say “Jawja” in a deep Southern drawl, but the Peach State’s agricultural diversity has broadened tremendously in recent years.
Georgia does lead the nation in peanut production and Vidalias are a homegrown product so that category’s a lock. There was a time when peaches were king here, but South Carolina long ago passed Georgia as the South’s leading peach grower (and California has lapped them both).
Over the last few years, blueberry and pecan production have skyrocketed – Georgia now leads the nation in both categories. Blueberry land is a hot commodity and in South Georgia, pecan trees are going in on every square inch of suitable land, including residential yards and lawns.
But Georgia farmers continue to redefine the state’s produce footprint.
If it can be grown for a profit, somebody in Georgia is likely growing it or is trying to. Pomegranates are a newer player on the scene – sort of. The fruit has been a backyard favorite for decades; in 2014 a group of blueberry growers near Alma, GA started chasing commercial success for the crop. A University of Georgia researcher began experimenting with a new variety of bananas in South Georgia the same year.
Olives have been grown in Georgia since Colonial times; now what started as a handful of commercial growers has coalesced into the Georgia Olive Association. In 2014, Terra Dolce Farms in Lyons, GA, an area best-known as a center of Vidalia onion production, won a gold medal at the New York International Olive Oil Competition. And truffle hunters and mushroom foragers are also staking out claims in Georgia.
Always Climbing New Mountains
Some Georgia crops have been stalwarts for years without getting the attention their cousins do. Bo Herndon has been growing sweet corn at L.G. Herndon Jr. Farms in Lyons for 30 years. He’s better known for the Vidalia crop he brings to market every year, but Herndon’s 900 acres of sweet corn make him one of the state’s larger producers.
“I’ve been growing corn for 25 years, a few years after I grew my first onions,” Herndon said. “I’d plant seven, eight, 10 acres at a time and put it in the back of a pickup truck and haul it to the Atlanta Farmers Market.”
Before long, Herndon added the infrastructure to sell to retail and the crop has remained an important part of his program. He also grows greens and “baby Vidalias” for cooking.
“One thing I learned when I got in the farming industry is you’ve got to be diversified to stay in it,” Herndon said. “If you’re going to farm, you’re going to have to always be climbing new mountains and trying to figure out things. I chose to be a farmer and I hope my kids choose to do it. Somebody’s going to farm because people have to eat. It’s a good life. We need to keep this going. You’ve got to have a plan.”
In Norman Park, GA, Southern Valley is a major year-round producer of Southern veg crops: bell peppers, squash, eggplant, hot peppers, cabbage, corn, green beans and the company’s trademark, pole-grown cucumbers. Southern Valley also grows in Yucatan (Mexico) and Tennessee to provide a 12-month deal for retail, but its roots run deep in Georgia’s red dirt.
“We’re growing on 1200-1500 acres here in Georgia for the spring and fall, this is our headquarters, this is where we got our start,” said Katie Murray, who handles public relations for Southern Valley, “so every spring is like a coming home for us, being able to start back where it all began. Everybody gets all hyped up. It’s our biggest season, it’s a very intense window of time.”
Southern Valley handles the entire farming process from seed in the greenhouse to developing its own fertilizer.
Georgia Farm DNA Is In the Dirt
“Being able to supply our product to retailers was really a game-changer for us. It’s not under contract, it’s our product from seed-to-shelf, started from scratch on our farms. It’s go big or go home.”
Southern Valley as a company is only 30 years old. But its DNA is in the dirt around Norman Park.
“Literally,” Murray confirms. “Not just immediate family but extended family members have invested a lot into this operation. When we moved into Yucatan it was extended family members who went down and kicked that off. It really is a family farm from start to finish. And they’re very committed to bringing on people who have the same vision and mindset and want to be in this community. Everybody’s a part of the Southern Valley family. And to be able to market our product as Georgia Grown is huge for us.”
Greens have been a Georgia staple as long as there have been Georgians. The rising popularity in recent years, thanks to great nutritional news, has led some growers, like Herndon and Baker Farms in Norman Park, to change their approach to retail with pre-packaged ready-to-eat variety greens. Greens have gone from backyard staple to retail boom.
After years as a leading grower of bunch greens, Baker Farms spent a million dollars on a new processing plant and brought its first private label product to market three years ago.
“It was a big investment but we believed in what we were doing and what we grow and that convenience is the future for greens,” said Joe Baker, who along with brother Richard runs the seed-to-shelf farm their father Terry started in 1970.
In fact, it was the brothers who brought greens into the picture in the 1990s. Now Baker Farms grows more than 3,000 acres of variety greens and ships well over a million boxes of premium product to retail annually.
“I wish I could say we had a crystal ball and saw what was coming for greens. But it was just something that could make a year-round crop and something that was part of Georgia agriculture,” Baker said.
Onion Growers Lead Ag Experimentation and Exploration
Sweet potatoes are another traditional Georgia favorite that have experienced a revival and a new boom, helped in large part by glowing nutritional reports in recent years.
“The sweet potato market is huge. They’re planting 100,000 acres in North Carolina now. At one time Georgia was the largest sweet potato producer in the East,” said Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, one of the nation’s largest onion growers.
Three years ago Bland dipped a toe in the sweet potato pond. He found the welcome so warm he dove in in a big way. Production has boomed.
“It’s a natural product for Georgia. But you’ve got to have field bins and storage facilities to cure them in. When we get through harvesting onions and we’re emptying out the storage from the Vidalia crop we’re immediately putting sweet potatoes back in. It fits our overall company like a glove. We’ll be up to 2,000 acres this year.”
And while the Vidalia growing region is understandably famous for the sweet onion grown there, some growers are putting in other varieties. At Generation Farms’ Lyons, GA location, while about 80 percent of the crop is Vidalias, another 20 percent is now dedicated to traditional, red, yellow and white onions.
Reds and yellows have been part of the program for roughly a decade, but last year, “We decided to look at white onions, we just grew a handful of acres which were really received well by the retail world, so we said, ‘Why not?’” said Vince Stanley.
The traditional onions also fit in with Generation Farms’ processing side, Vidalia Valley, which creates everything from dressings to chopped frozen onions for retail and foodservice.
“They’ve got more of that cooking appeal and it helps us on the processing side as well,” Stanley said. “A lot of our industrial customers want a little more heat, a little more sizzle than Vidalia. Retailers want that sizzle too and demand is absolutely growing. We can give them four different onions plus organic and be a one-stop shop for our customers. We’ve always looked at, ‘Hey, what can be next?’”
Lessons Learned Take Time and Money
Experimentation and agricultural diversity will continue to be the name of the game in Georgia.
John Shuman of Shuman Produce Inc. in Reidsville, GA, has one of the largest year-round onion operations in the nation. His father, Buck, developed several varieties of Vidalias; about one-third of all Vidalia acreage comes from stock he helped create.
But Shuman also has his hands in several other pots. He has land devoted to pine trees for poles, seed and straw. He’s accumulating pecan acres by the score. He has marketed sweet potatoes for other growers for two years and this season will bring his first homegrown crop to market.
Last fall he planted broccoli for the first time. The crop was so bountiful he’s harvesting a spring crop even as his bumper Vidalia crop is coming in.
“We’ve been looking around for a number of years trying to diversify, trying to find things that fit our business and leverage our resources. We’ve got a lot of concrete and steel in our various farm operations, we’ve got a lot of ground, some of the best farmland in South Georgia, we’ve got a lot of access to water, so we’re always looking for opportunities to leverage our assets.”
Broccoli is uncommon in Georgia, but Shuman knew it could grow here.
“We saw some of the water issues on the West Coast, we saw some of those vegetables moving East, and we saw an opportunity with broccoli. I think it’s going to continue to grow in acreage and volume. I see it as being a long-term crop. It’s a short season but it fills an important window, it’s got its spot on the calendar. So we’re wading into it and learning our way. You have to spend time and money to learn those lessons.”