What an amazing trip it was!
Special thanks to Chest our bus driver for keeping us safe on the roads during the terrible weather!
It started off with Rick Estes of RPE taking the whole group to dinner! Rick had a special guest with him, Etika Gomez, which is on loan from California to get the Georgia facility up and running. RPE/tasteful selections planted 400 acres of conventional and organic potatoes which started harvesting in mid-May. We’re pretty sure he has turned her into a “Southerner” he actually even presented her an award stating that!
Up early the next morning, headed to L&M Farms where we were met with an elite team that gave us a very intense tour. Bobby Creel, Adam Lytch, Derek Ennis, Bert Knight and others were there to explain and answer any questions the group had. There was a lot of knowledge shared about peppers and cucumbers etc.
Then on to lunch that was provided by Southern Valley with “Good ole’ Southern Cooking” thanks Jon Schwalls and his helpers! No time for a nap….off to check out Southern Valley where we had a tour of squash, cucumbers and their processed vegetables. Once again, so much information was given to the group. Jon, Dug Schwalls and their team did an outstanding job. I love watching the group as they take notes and ask questions. Dug and Jon had no problem answering their questions.
Off to Baker Farms for yet another great learning experience for the group. Once again many questions were asked and answered on what the process is to put together “Bagged Greens.” It was very informative. Great family ran business. Thank you Heath Wetherington, Richard Baker along with their entire family and of course Linda Mahan!
Back on the bus and headed to Southern Woods Plantation where once again we had an amazing dinner and a great time of fellowship. It is amazing to watch how the “kids” (as I call them) come together and develop relationships that will enhance their careers immensely for years to come. I am pretty sure they got tired of me telling them how important relationships and communication is in our business.
Thursday morning we were a little slower getting back on the bus but, off to Local Bounti for yet another great experience. We witnessed leafy greens being grown in a large greenhouse where they explained the process of seed to packaging and living products kept fresh. Thanks very much to Brian Cook for a great tour!
Back on the bus to Leger & Son, Inc. where we now have a better understanding of growing watermelons and even how to pick out a good one at the supermarket! It was very interesting to see the process the watermelons go thru once harvested. Once again the notepads were out and the group had a lot of questions to ask Will Hinson, Cole & Bailey Leger, Jordan Carter and of course Greg Leger. Leger is three Generations of growing great watermelons.
Next, on to Alpine Fresh where we definitely have a greater understanding of berries, especially blueberries. Alpine Fresh, Inc. is a grower, packer, shipper specializing in seven major commodities. We had a few minutes after the tour to chat with their team and have snacks while asking additional questions….the notepads were out again. Thanks to their entire team for a great tour.
Back to Southern Woods Plantation for yet another amazing dinner! The fellowship continues and we also celebrated Mike Roberts’ Birthday! I really enjoy hearing the group continue to discuss what they learned, what they had never heard and the new found knowledge they are taking back to their companies with them. Especially the relationship & communication skill I keep stressing. The STEP-UPP program is all about being a liaison between the grower/shipper and this group that buys and sells the product. With each side learning from the other to build relationships and together make the produce world even stronger!
Friday morning, back on the bus and headed to The University of Georgia’s Tifton Campus. This is where Dr. Michael Toews, shared much information to the group about their campus and their Research, Extension and Education. We went out to see some of their research being grown and it was explained to us the “how and why” and what issues they are trying to solve. Of course the notepads were out for this one! To say it was very interesting and informative is an understatement. The group got to witness first hand how important research in produce is and how the farmer depends on the information they provide.
I also have to say that we did dodge a lot of crazy weather! Thanks to each facility we toured that had a backup plan when the heavy rain hit and the fields were too wet to go out into.
Thanks to Mike Roberts, VP of Produce Operations at Harps Food Stores, Inc. and Gary Baker, SR Director of Fresh at Merchants Distributors, LLC. For doing an amazing job with the STEP-UPP group! And of course SEPC for supporting it and David Sherrod for taking time out of his busy schedule to join us on the tours. Of course thanks for my new role as “Den Mother” and allowing me to still be involved with this wonderful program.
On a side note….those notepads that I kept mentioning will come in handy when Gary Baker starts sending out exams to the group. It’s not all fun and games. They will be drilled on what they learned!
Don’t forget SEPC is accepting applications for the STEP-UPP 2024 class now through Friday, July 7, 2023 before 5 pm EST. Only 10-12 students are accepted each year, so get your application in today!