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Bland Farms' purchase of Empire Sweets a done deal

by Daniel Jalil | March 26, 2009
On Feb. 19, representatives from Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, were the only bidders for the farming operations of Zappala Farms LLC in Cato, NY, including its "Empire Sweets" trademark, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of New York, in Syracuse, NY.

The deal, which has been in the works for four or five months, "is official now," said Michael Hively, chief financial officer and general manager of Bland Farms, which succeeded in purchasing the onion-growing farm. "We have been funding the operation for about three weeks," he said March 25. Delbert Bland, chief executive officer and president of Bland Farms, said, "We have already employed the people up there," including Jim Zappala, the former owner, who will now be general manager.

"The majority of the people who were with the farm before will stay in their same positions," Mr. Hively added, which is currently about nine employees, though that number is expected to rise. Duane Norton, who was a salesperson for the New York farm before the deal, "is going to be the [only] on-ground salesman" at the farm, said Mr. Bland. "He will answer to our sales manager [in Georgia, Richard Pazderski], and we will also be selling from out of here ... so he won't be the only salesman [of the farm's onions], but he will be the only one located at that facility."

Joining Mr. Norton in New York will be Mr. Bland's son, Troy Bland. He will be "learn[ing] all about the operation."

Planting in New York is underway and should conclude in mid-May. Bland Farms "hired [the transplants] to be grown a good while back, so we've got everything in place to make the operation click immediately," said Mr. Bland. Harvesting is expected to begin in late July or early August.

The acquisition represents about 1,700 acres, about 850 of which will be planted with onions due to fallow fields and space that is not tillable.

"Our intent is to run a 12-month operation up there," primarily servicing customers in New York, Boston and throughout the Northeast, said Mr. Bland. When the New York fields are not producing, Bland will bring onions in from its other sources such as Vidalia, GA, or Peru, for repacking and distribution.

The acquisition of the farm, which raises hybrid red, hybrid yellow and "Empire Sweet" onions, "diversifies our operation in the onion business," Mr. Bland said. "We like to stick with what we know how to do, and that's market and grow and ship onions. So this is the part of the business that I feel like we have been lacking on, and that was the hybrid side so to speak. We have not really gotten serious about reds and whites and just regular three-pound onions. We've mostly been concentrating on sweets in the past. But we will be expanding into the hybrid market now with this."