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Vidalia industry banquet a 'home run'

by | February 28, 2011

The theme of the 2011 annual Vidalia onion industry banquet was baseball -- “What a Team When We All Play Together.” According to Vidalia Onion Committee Executive Director Wendy Brannen, 2010 was one of the more exciting marketing years for the commission -- a “home run” for the famous Vidalia sweet onion.

The success was due in large part to everyone along the supply chain, starting with the growers and packers, then their sales teams, packaging vendors, and others involved all the way up to Vidalia’s retail partners, participating in the 2010 industry campaign. Ms. Brannen attributed the record number of attendees (over 250 people) at the Feb. 5 event to pride in that success.

Among those in attendance at the event were the new 2011 Vidalia Onion Committee executive committee members: Aries Haygood of M&T Farms in Lyons, GA, chairman; Michael Hively of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, GA, vice chairman; and public member Myrtle Jones of Toombs County Ag South Farm Credit, secretary-treasurer.

The banquet was both a celebration of the success of the sweet onion marketing in 2010 and an optimistic look ahead to the new 2011 marketing plan. It was also the time when the committee acknowledged some individuals involved in the deal that were deserving of some recognition. At the banquet, the committee announced the 2010 award recipient for Grower of the Year and its latest Hall of Fame inductee, Delwin Dowdy of Dowdy Farms in Reidsville, GA, whose wife, Mary, accepted the posthumous award for her late husband.

Delbert Bland of Bland Farms LLC in Glennville was the recipient of the Grower of the Year Award. “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes,” is the motto Bland embraced in 1982 when he and his late father Raymond D. Bland co-founded Bland Farms in Glennville, according to a Feb. 24 press release issued by the committee. It further said that Mr. Bland continues to use that philosophy to guide the daily operations of Bland Farms, and the scenery at Bland Farm changes frequently.

The father-son duo began growing Vidalia onions on five acres in 1982. Twenty-eight years later, Bland Farms plants over 1,700 acres of the sweet delicacy and markets an additional 2,000 acres for Vidalia growers annually. In 2008, Bland Farms opened Bland Distribution Services in Donna, TX, a cross-docking and packing facility on the border with Mexico. During 2009, Bland Farms continued its historic pattern of growth and expansion with the purchase of Zappala Farms, the “Empire Sweets” brand, and the construction of Bellville Agri-Solutions, an agricultural fertilizer, chemical and services facility located in Bellville, GA.

Bland’s domestic and international production operations reach far beyond Georgia into Utah, Pennsylvania, New York, Idaho, California, Texas, Mexico, Ecuador, Oregon, and Peru, with Bland Farms shipping sweet onions to retailers 52 weeks of the year.

In 2008, the Georgia Senate honored Delbert Bland with a resolution in recognition of commitment of time, talents and energy towards the betterment of his community and state.

In 2009, Bland Farms was named one of the fastest-growing privately held companies in America by Inc. Magazine.

Every week, Bland Farms supplies 4,000 pounds of sweet onions to America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia Food Bank, whose mission is to feed hungry people and strengthen communities in the food bank’s 21-county service area. Bland Farms also has a three-year sponsorship agreement with St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and this year, two Raymond D. Bland Agricultural Scholarships will be awarded to high school seniors in the Glennville area who plan to pursue post-secondary studies in agriculture or agriculture-related fields. Most recently, Bland Farms has joined The Breast Cancer Research Foundation in the fight against breast cancer. And 2011, the firm will mark the first year of Bland Farms’ corporate sponsorship of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Mr. Bland cited his religious beliefs as sustaining him through his more difficult times. His wife, Sandra, and children Landis, Troy and Courtney join him in the business.

The 2010 Hall of Fame award recipient was Delwin Dowdy of Dowdy Farms in Reidsville. Presenting the award was Reid Torrance, Tattnall County Extension Service & Area Onion Manager. The press release quoted him as saying, “This award goes to someone who was a very dear friend of mine. He taught me a great deal about onion production and the onion business. And he taught many of you as well.”

Mr. Dowdy is remembered as always being willing to share his knowledge with other growers. He assisted many of the growers when they first started growing onions as long as 30 years ago. Many sought his input regularly, wanting to know his opinion of the season’s crop and looking for advise on farm management.

Mr. Dowdy was known as a good grower and for packing very high-quality product, but also he was revered as a strategic marketer and a wizard of financial management. His wife, Mary, routinely said, “Everything he touches turns to gold,” according to the release.

Other traits he possessed included an eye for detail. Mr. Torrance was quoted in the release as saying, “He spent more time looking at a field of onions than anyone I know. He taught me, as a young county agent, to look closer, and closer still. This benefited me throughout my career in troubleshooting problems in fields.”

Mr. Dowdy also had a good recollection of previous seasons, remembering small details such as specific temperatures and their durations or how long soil freezes lasted. He would use that knowledge to better respond when he saw similar scenarios in later seasons.

Because of Mr. Dowdy’s expertise and commitment to detail, the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension service often used his farm for research projects and field days, and he had a great willingness to cooperate with these endeavors.

Mr. Dowdy died two years ago in January 2009, at the age of 69.

The Grower of the Year award recognizes overall achievement and success as a Vidalia onion producer with an emphasis on quality production and compliance with the marketing order.

The Vidalia Onion Hall of Fame award honors a person who has significantly and positively impacted the Vidalia onion industry.