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Troy Bland stepping in, pushing forward and learning every day

"When I was very young, I would ride through the onion fields with my grandfather Raymond Bland," said Troy D. Bland, manager of Bland Farms New York LLC. in Sterling, NY. "We called him Gran-Gran. I remember eating raw Vidalia onions right out of the field, and I used to enjoy playing with the seed stems."

Raymond Bland died Feb. 19, 2009, following an extended illness. Troy Bland and his grandfather were extremely close, and the memories of the many days they shared made an indelible mark on his heart.

Mr. Bland said that he also remembers thinking his name was Troy Bland Farms because he was so closely attached to his family's business, Bland Farms, in Glennville, GA. As he grew up, there were a few months a year when the company was so busy that his parents, Delbert and Sandra Bland, had to work on the packingline to keep things running smoothly.

"I could not ask for better parents, and I always wanted to be with them," said Mr. Bland. "When I had time, I was in the packinghouse with them. I also wanted to be right in the middle of the action. I always knew I wanted to be involved with the business."

Bland Farms is one of the larger producers of Vidalia onions, and it operates a year-round sweet onion program. It owns numerous farms in the United States and Peru, and it has grower-partner relationships in Guatemala, Mexico, Texas and Utah, including organic onion producing partners.

Delbert Bland is the chief executive officer and president of Bland Farms. Sandra Bland operates Vidalia Brands Inc., a supplier of a wide range of processed sauces, mixes, dressings, batter mix and other products that include Vidalia sweet onions.

In March 2009, the company purchased Zappala Farms LLC in Cato, NY, including the "Empire Sweets" trademark. The acquisition diversified Bland Farms' operation in the onion business. Bland Farms also produces conventional onions in New York, so details fell into place easily for utilization of the newly acquired facility. Troy Bland was appointed manager of the newly acquired operation.

Following high school graduation in 2003, Mr. Bland attended the University of Georgia majoring in agribusiness and agriculture economics. Then he joined the family business.

"By 2005, we were actively gaining some contract growers," he said. "I went to work at one of them, Dowdy Farms. Delwin Dowdy, the owner, had been growing onions even longer than dad and Gran-Gran and was known as a pioneer in the Vidalia industry. I worked with him until 2007, and it was a great experience."

Mr. Bland's sister, Courtney, studies childhood development at Georgia Southern University. His brother, Landis, helps to handle the accounting for one of the company's major accounts.

Despite the non-stop, year-round production and marketing of onions, Mr. Bland makes time for an active, interesting and diverse personal life. He enjoys attending football games, primarily those that the University of Georgia's Bulldogs play. He said that he is looking forward to a great, even a bit competitive, experience when his father and brother, and a friend who went to Arizona State University, attend the Georgia Bulldogs vs. the Arizona State Sun Devils later this month.

"I also like to play golf," said Mr. Bland. "The cool thing about golf is that I can play in any location that I'm working in, as long as I have my clubs."

Mr. Bland is also passionate about duck hunting. His father also likes to hunt, and they frequently go together, sometimes with friends or staff members, and generally in Arkansas or Mississippi. Duck hunting season starts just before Thanksgiving, and they try to go close to or at Christmas time. Mr. Bland said it is great to spend time with his father.

Glory, Mr. Bland's Labrador retriever, is a two-year-old master hunter. "She has a dog trainer, Ray Shanks, with Swamp Run Retrievers in Union Point, Georgia," said Mr. Bland. "We run [American Kennel Club] hunt tests with Glory. It is amazing to watch her do her thing. She will be running in the Master National Retriever Club's Master National, a hunt test conducted under the rules and regulations of the AKC Hunt Test program, on October 25 in Paige, Texas."

Dogs must pass five hunt tests to qualify for the weeklong event. Glory will be required to watch three birds be shot down, mark them and remember the location of each. She has to retrieve all of them and bring them back without the guide of hand signals.

"Then she has to perform a blind run," continued Mr. Bland. "She must retrieve a bird that she had not seen go down. There is an orange or white marker - colors that dogs cannot see - that shows me where the bird is located. I line her up with the marker, and then give her a command word to hunt. She can tell by the volume and tone of my voice where the bird is located. If she is on the wrong track, I blow a whistle and she'll stop in her tracks. She'll look back at me for a hand signal telling her where to go."

In the meantime, Mr. Bland is busy producing onions in New York. "We are producing the 'Empire Sweet' onion, which was developed by Jim Zappala, former owner of Zappala Farms, in 2000," said Mr. Bland. "Jim continues to work at the facility as general manager. These are handled much differently than other sweet or conventional onions."

"Empire Sweet" onions have a nice following in the Northeast. Combined with Bland Farms' marketing skills, Mr. Bland feels the company can do a lot of building on what Mr. Zappala created. Bland Farms plans to increase planting at the New York facility to meet Mr. Zappala's previous peak production, and Mr. Bland said that it is another learning experience for him.

"Vidalia onions grow in sandy soil," he said. "Here in New York, the soil is muck. But I'm enjoying the education. It's important for me to learn as much as I can about every aspect of our family business. This is our newest program, and it presents an opportunity for me to learn more. We have a great relationship with Jim Zappala, and Bland Farms is the kind of company that is hands-on with its partners. We try to help our farmers, and the result is that it benefits both us and the grower-partner."

As for his future, Mr. Bland wants more opportunities to work directly with his father.

"Dad is an industry great," he said. "I hope to someday be half the man he has become in this business. I want to help carry on the company's growth and put myself in a position to never hold back the natural evolution of the company. And I will do my best to be prepared in every way for whatever situation might surface."