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Next generation of Blands starting to come into their own for the sweet onion giant

Though Bland Farms LLC has become an international giant in the sweet onion industry, the empire was built on Vidalia onions and they remain at the top of the pecking order at the company’s Glennville, GA, headquarters.

Bland is the world’s largest grower-shipper of Vidalia onions and has a 12-month sweet onion program with farms around the world. But owner Delbert Bland is planning for even bigger and better things.

Mr. Bland’s marketing savvy helped propel Vidalia onions into the national spotlight in the 1980s. In the 1990s, the company took control of that market. In the 2000s, it expanded operations to become a 12-month supplier of sweet onions with operations in Georgia, Texas, New York, California, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile and Guatemala.

Bland-2Delbert Bland and wife Sandra Bland, who heads up the company’s Vidalia Brands subsidiary. “We know a lot about how to grow onions,” Mr. Bland said, “but when you go to the next level and are managing a multimillion company you have to have people who are expert in their fields to assist you, that’s for sure. I learned a long time ago you best hire people who’re smarter than you are if you want to survive.”

Over the last 24 months, Mr. Bland has built a top-notch team of executives to help lead Bland Farms into the future. But he is equally excited about the promise sons Troy and Landis, who have been with the company for several years now, are showing in the deal.

“You’ve got to love what you’re doing or you can’t do it or won’t be good at it, you’ll just do it because you have to, you’ve got to love what you do. What’s exciting to me now is watching my sons get involved in the business and they have the same passion I do and that really makes you feel good,” Mr. Bland said.

Mr. Bland also knows his sons will benefit and learn from the executive team he has put together.

“There ain’t nobody any better than the people that are around them every day,” Mr. Bland said. “People are really, really dedicated to this company. It makes a tremendous amount of difference. At the end of the day that’s what it’s all about. It don’t matter where you’ve been or where you’re going — who you love and who loves you is all that matter when it’s all over with.”

Despite his success, Mr. Bland realizes constant innovation and progress are key to staying at the top of his game.

“It’s what life’s all about —it’s the old cliché, the famous saying I always like to use, ‘You may be on the right track but if you don’t keep moving you’ll get run over,’” he said.

Bland has expanded its “Vidalia Brands” value-added product line, which includes onion products, condiments, dips and dressings and recently entered into a licensing agreement with specialty food manufacturer Inventure Foods of Phoenix, AZ, to develop a line of prepackaged snacks for vending, grocery and convenience store distribution.

The first product introduced was “Vidalia Sweet Onion Petals,” a baked snack made with real Vidalia sweet onion puree that is extruded in the form of an onion stick. It features zero trans fats and just 130 calories per serving.

“As far as the growth of the company, Vidalia Brands no doubt is projected to grow faster percentagewise than the rest of the company,” Mr. Bland said. “We’ve got our onion straws, which are delicious, and also potato chips dusted with Vidalia onions as well as onion ring [snacks] dusted with Vidalia onions so there’s a lot of exciting thing happening with Vidalia Brands, that’s for sure.”

Meanwhile, Bland will soon start shipping its cornerstone Vidalia onions and this year’s deal is coming together well.

“We’re coming off a little early,” said Director of Sales John Cameron. “It’s going to be a good crop. The quality is going to be good, the sizing is going to be good, so we’re really excited about it. We’ve had a lot of good visits with customers about it so we think it’s going to be a good crop for us and a good season for us.”

Recent rains have been just enough at just the right time to provide one final shot of sweetness that could make this an excellent year for Vidalia onions in terms of quality.

“We were waterlogged for a few days but we had some wind come through there to help dry it out, we’ve been able to get out there and do some spraying and we haven’t seen any problems so I think we’re going to have a really good Vidalia crop and we’re really excited about that,” Mr. Cameron said.

Bland has also created new partnerships with producers of other items in the produce department to create additional marketing opportunities and drive sales for retailers.

“We’re working with our customers now with different programs and different partnerships in the produce department that marry up other foods and sweet onions. We’ve engaged tomato companies, mushroom companies and others to do some cross-promotions and add value to the basket for consumers,” Mr. Cameron said. “Consumers are looking for value, not necessarily just price, but what they can get for that five dollars. You can do more when everybody puts a little bit of money into it, you can drive a ‘buy this, get that’ or a ‘meal deal.’ It makes it work for the retailers really well, tells a good story and brings a lot of excitement into the produce department. When I was running produce departments at United Supermarkets we did a lot of deals like that and the guys get excited. A regular ad at 99 cents, okay that’s great, but put something with it like a bell pepper or mushroom and tie it in — build a better pizza — the guys really get behind it.”