A successful farmer in Reidsville, GA, and a friend to all, Buck Shuman’s fortunes took a turn for the worse when his kindheartedness left him overextended in the early 1990s. While his farming efforts never failed, as the owner of Shuman Fertilizer, Inc., he sold other farmers everything they needed to plant, grow and harvest a crop — often on credit, a practice that would cost him dearly. By 1994, after putting his four children through college, he was stone broke.
But the story does not end there. Mr. Shuman rallied. He launched a second career as the Vidalia onion representative for D. Palmer Seed Co., a post he has held for 19 years. Today, his varieties represent one-third of the total Vidalia onion production, including the namesake variety D. Palmer named in his honor, the “Mr. Buck.” The “Sapelo” variety, developed under Mr. Shuman’s careful eye, now has more acreage in production than any other Vidalia variety and is named after a beloved Georgia river. Mr. Shuman also named another popular variety after his only granddaughter — “Ms. Megan”. In February, Mr. Shuman’s peers elected him to the Vidalia Onion Growers Hall of Fame.
John Shuman, Buck Shuman’s middle son, looks back and wonders how it all came to be.
In 1994, he was fresh out of college and working in the family business when his father sat his children down and announced that economic hardship was forcing him out of the business where John and his brothers had worked and always planned to make a career.
John had a choice: follow his sister and brothers into other lines of work, or stay home and do what he loved most, despite the fact that he had no resources. John went to a local bank for a loan, where he met with an officer he had known his entire life and graduated high school with. She turned him down flat. He had been looking for the grand sum of $15,000.
With nowhere else to turn, John went to his grandmother, who cosigned the loan. It was a pivotal moment for the family — and for the Vidalia onion industry.
Today, the company John founded with that $15,000 stake has become one of the largest and most successful players in the international sweet onion game, Shuman Produce Inc. and its “RealSweet” brand.
“I was very ambitious, very young and very naïve, and I had no idea what I was getting into,” John recalled. “I can honestly tell you if you said, ‘Hey John, you get to go back and do it all over again,’ I would tell you no thank you — it has come at that great of a personal sacrifice. And I don’t say that lightly. If that opportunity was offered to me again I would seriously have to do some very deep soul-searching about going through that again.”
The early years were worse than mere struggle for Shuman Produce — and the family. Already separated by necessity, Buck Shuman was staggered by the tragic loss of his wife of 37 years, and the children stunned by the loss of their mother in 1996. On the business side, John Shuman created partnerships with local growers to provide Vidalia onions for him to market because he did not have the financial means to establish a growing operation himself.
Those were trying times and even now John Shuman is unsure how he got through those difficulties. He gives much credit to his wife, Lana, and even more to God.
“From the late 1980s to 2002, there was a 14 year stretch where it was damn tough. There were not a lot of happy things happening. All the pain and all the loss just ripped the heart out of our family,” John Shuman said. “I had a lot of people tell me Shuman Produce simply was not going to work. I had a lot of naysayers. It was so tough in the early days that I really don’t understand how my wife and I made it through the early years of our marriage. We met at college and she was not accustomed to this lifestyle and the time and work it required, and it got to the point that I didn’t know why she was staying with me. I was miserable, I was stressed out and battling all the insecurities of the early years. She’s definitely been the rock, I can tell you that. She’s my magnetic north; she has kept me pointed in the right direction.”
Fortunately John had partnered with a group of excellent growers in Alan Sikes, James McClain and David Jarriel. These growers remain very much a part of the Shuman deal, even after John has been able to re-establish the family legacy, Shuman Farms, and return to his roots and heritage as a grower himself.
“We’re very blessed,” John said. “And I was just stubborn. All I knew was Vidalia onions. One of the things I’m proudest of that we’ve been able to do was over the years integrate back into farming, which is basically going back to our roots. We’ve made some great relationships with our growers and as we continue to integrate back into farming with Shuman Farms and rebuild that entity that is in our heart and soul, we are very careful that it blends.”
“It’s not just about us,” he continued. “We’ve got special relationships with folks like Alan Sikes, James McClain and David Jarriel back to the days when we couldn’t afford to grow onions ourselves. For the past 18 years we’ve been very loyal and dedicated to each other, continuing a very close relationship in our business.”
That loyalty — and John’s tenacity — provided the backbone that built the “RealSweet” brand.
“All I ever saw my dad doing was being a farmer and being in the fertilizer business, we were around everything to do with farming 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” John said. “Our good Lord and Savior gets all the credit for any success.”
“As far as what little bit I did,” he continued. “It was just a combination of staying committed to doing things right, staying committed to being loyal and faithful and staying committed to operating a business with integrity.”
“It takes you a lot longer to get where you’re going that way, but once you get here you have a solid foundation and that’s where we are today.”