Growing off the beaten path

PHOTOS BY DON DALE.
Bill Brim, holding a jalapeno pepper transplant, says that experimenting with small veggie crops is a good way to find successful big crops.

It would seem to be an odd crop to grow in Georgia, but jalapeno peppers provide a window into the operations of a very successful farm, which uses seemingly out-of-place vegetables as part of a cropping and marketing strategy for the future.

Lewis Taylor Farms in Tifton, Ga., has about 4,300 acres of crops, all vegetables or related crops, including 300 acres of peanuts. Bill Brim is president and co-owner of the company with Ed Walker.

“We do about 50 acres of specialty peppers like jalapenos, hot banana peppers and long hots, as well as some cubanelles,” says Brim. Most of his acreage is in unrelated crops. For example, he has 600 acres of cantaloupes, 250 acres of watermelons and almost 600 acres of broccoli this year. Bell peppers, squash and cucumbers are also big. The remarkable thing is his major crops also started out as small acreages that became successful.

The farm is a supplier of fresh vegetables to stores and restaurants, and often a crop like jalapenos is started based on market demand or the ability of the farm to grow them in the soil and climate. Ultimately, the crop must be adaptable to both the farm and the market. The situation with jalapenos is similar to that of the farm’s broccoli.

“We started growing it 10 to 15 acres years ago, and gradually increased it,” Brim says of jalapenos, which is exactly what happened with the broccoli. The farm started a small experimental patch of broccoli and now is a major producer of this produce.

Greenhouse transplants supply not only Lewis Taylor Farms, but also several other farms in the Southeast.

Even the experimentation is an integral part of the plan. Brim has two employees, one an agronomist, who look at new crops and raise dozens of small plots every year to test their compatibility with the farm. “We do that with everything we grow,” he says, and that process can go on for years before a particular vegetable gains a marketplace and significant acreage.

If all goes well with a new crop, he starts out testing several varieties and selecting the ones that grow and sell the best. Over a period of years he tries to “increase the acreage a little every year and decrease the number of varieties.” By building sales at the same time he is building production, he often ends up with a large crop of one type of vegetable that has an established and sustainable market.

This kind of diversification is also a security move, insurance against the high input costs for vegetable crops. With many types of produce growing, he is much less likely to suffer damage to everything if disaster strikes. That was proven this year as bad weather, including nearby tornadoes, set his farm back, and rising water from the river reduced his jalapenos from 20 acres to 10 in April.

“If the peppers are bad, maybe the squash will be good,” Brim reasons. This isn’t a new concept, but it is carried to extremes here. There will always be new crops coming in and increasing in acreage. Even within crops, he seeks to diversify. He will have three varieties of jalapenos this year, for example, and all have been selected according to factors such as yield, crispness and heat quotient. The harvest of specialty peppers goes from the first of June to the end of July.

Melons, like these cantaloupes, are started early by planting transplants under plastic mulch.

Most of the farm’s crops are grown on a uniform system that is easily adaptable to a new variety. Brim utilizes a raised bed that is 5 feet across, planting a row of plants on each shoulder with a line of drip irrigation tape in the middle to water them. With about 80 percent of the farm now in drip irrigation (he gets four crops out of his tape), all of his peppers are grown this way.

Like the rest of the farm, they are rotated in a cycle that includes cucumbers, cabbage and squash, which minimizes soilborne and other diseases that focus on one crop if grown continuously.

With jalapenos, Lewis Taylor Farms is competing with big pepper crops from California, Mexico and even other farms in Georgia, so he gets started early in the year. Part of his program is the use of greenhouses to grow transplants for his fields, and he also uses white plastic row covers to boost soil temperature. He also grows transplants for the fields of many other vegetable growers. His greenhouses produce about 150 million transplants of several vegetables for his own farm, as well as other Southeastern farms.

Brim used to sell all of his own produce, but now uses a Florida company, Rosemont Farms Corporation, to do his marketing. It has reduced his stress and the company takes a financial stake in some crops. It also helps him discover and supply new markets.

“It just helps you develop a program,” he says of the experimental crops. Nowhere is this more apparent than with jalapenos. Part of the strategy is to grow minor crops that help make up a truckload when delivering to stores. It’s difficult to get an order for a semi load of squash for one store, for example, but if the farm can also sell small orders for several other minor crops, that helps fill out a load of cucumbers or broccoli.

That is good for both the seller and the buyer, who often buys jalapenos as a value-added item. Meanwhile, the truck may only have to make one stop, which is important to Brim since he owns some of the trucks doing the shipping and is always looking to cut costs.

Tomatoes are only one of many vegetable crops grown in Tifton, Ga.

The farm has developed contacts with several stores that keep a bin of fresh jalapenos for sale in season, and if Brim can line up enough of them, he can sell the 2,000 boxes per acre that he will harvest of the hot peppers. His experience with the cubanelle peppers is similar. Much of his harvest, about 50 percent, goes to the Caribbean.

“Over the years we’ve developed a little niche down there,” Brim says of the cubanelles, and it has led to sales of some squash, bell peppers and cucumbers in the islands. Finding niches for one crop—the curly long hots and the Hungarian peppers go primarily to the Northeastern United States—is a way of getting the farm’s foot in the door in different regions.

Brim’s strategy for jalapenos may be helping the only salsa processor in Georgia. Bill Reynolds, owner of Salsa Y’All in Watkinsville, buys his jalapenos and other ingredients like tomatoes primarily from wholesale distributors. But, if he needs some in a hurry, he goes to the local market and buys some right out of the bin.

“As far as I know I’m the only salsa maker in Georgia,” Reynolds says, but there is a growing market for the condiment in the Southeast. He markets mild, medium and hot salsas in five states in the area.

Brim’s strategy has been sound so far. By testing the vegetables that will make good yield and quality on his farm, and matching those to small niche markets at first, he can come up with viable crops. He’s proven it with squash, melons, broccoli and many other crops, and one of his most promising crops now is lettuce. It’s a small crop, but he sees a lot of future in it.

Jalapenos also have a shot.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.