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Q&A with CEO Troy Bland
For many, 2020 was like ten years of change forced into one single year. Emerging trends, like increased demand for grocery delivery and remote working were supercharged this year. Given all this change, we sat down with Troy Bland, Bland Farms CEO, to get his take on the state of the business and his insights on moving forward in 2021.
What was 2020 like for Bland Farms?
I think 2020 continues into 2021. There is good news that a vaccine has arrived, but in the meantime, we still must continue to take the same precautions that we have been taking. Our business requires the work of a lot of employees and their health is critical to our success.
How did your business fair in 2020?
Despite the overall hit to the economy, the sweet onion market was very good. Overall supermarket sales did really well in 2020, especially in consumer staple items. Sweet onions are a key staple item, and consumers really stocked up on them. Our largest volume month ever was last March and our second was just before Thanksgiving. I’m cautiously optimistic going into 2021. After all, it’s the produce business and anything can happen.
How were you able to meet the increased demand?
When COVID19 really hit last year, we made some aggressive moves in Peru anticipating an increase in demand for sweet onions in the Fall, and it paid off. We are also making tremendous changes in Georgia that will enhance our Vidalia program in 2021 and beyond.
Vidalia Brands’ Sweet Potatoes were back in 2020?
We reintroduced our Georgia-grown sweet potato program again in 2020. Our Vidalia Brands’ team is doing a great job of driving it. We are optimistic about that business going forward too.
How were you able to adjust so well with all the uncertainties and challenges?
I think as an industry, the produce industry was the most prepared industry–even though no one prepares for a global pandemic. Change and uncertainty is the nature of our business. In the produce industry, we deal with different challenges EVERY day. No two days are alike and new challenges are constantly coming at you. You either adapt and overcome or you are gone. I love it.
Speaking of adapting, you have two sets of twins.
I don’t know if that’s adapting or just hanging on!? Yes, we have 4 still in diapers. Rubye Kate and Harris are 3 in May and Lilly Beth and Mary Ella are 1. It’s a team effort with Mary Katelyn doing the heavy lifting at home. We also thank God for family. DB and Mom are doting grandparents for sure and there are others always around to lend a hand.
Was this part of the 5-year plan?
In my 5-year plan, I may have spaced them out more, but I really wouldn’t change a thing. It’s like the produce business. You better be ready for anything.
As you look forward to 2021, I understand one thing to look forward to is the opening of your new packing facility.
Yes, this is exciting. The state-of-the-art facility is entirely CA (controlled atmosphere). There is nothing like it in the sweet onion industry. The onions will remain in CA from the moment they come in from the field until they are loaded for delivery. This will result in less damage, improved appearance, increased pack-out and longer shelf-life.
What else can you tell me about it?
It is a giant leap in the industry. The industry has been sizing and packing in open-air buildings. Having a complete CA facility allows us to precisely control the humidity, airflow and temperature throughout every stage of the drying and packing process to deliver a better-quality sweet onion. The custom-designed workflow will also mean less handling; which will reduce damage and improve quality.
What does this new facility mean for your customers?
It means a better cold chain. For our retail customers, it means more consistency in appearance and better overall quality. They can also expect improved shelf-life.
What does it mean for the consumer?
A consistently sweet-tasting Bland Farms Vidalia® sweet onion.
Do you consider your new facility to be part of Bland Farms efforts to be more sustainable?
Of course, by investing in this new state of the art facility it will also improve our environment. The entire facility will be computer-controlled, reducing energy use and waste. All the new forklifts are electric.
Bland Farms has been investing in “sustainability” long before it was a buzzword. We have long tried to protect the environment with conservation easements and land trusts to ensure farmland and forests don’t become parking lots.
Being efficient and good stewards is just part of what we think is good business. In addition to what we’ve done for years to protect the land and the investments we’ve made to improve the efficiency of our operation, we continue to look for ways to reduce packaging waste. As an example, we offer an e-pack bag that uses 80% less plastic and is 100% recyclable over the traditional full wrap bags.
Bland Farms has been a family farm for almost 75 years, and you have grown up in the business learning from your father (Delbert “DB”) as he did from Mr. Raymond. What has that been like?
I’ve learned a lot from my father. He’s the eternal optimist and the greatest salesman I’ve ever seen. DB and I spent a lot of time working together at the farm during the lockdown. There were long hours with lots of new challenges that needed to be solved. It was also confirmation that I am doing what I love.
Your new packing facility isn’t the only thing new for 2021. Congratulations on being named CEO.
Thank you. I’m humbled to be taking over now. Bryce (Edmonson), Delbert and I have been planning this transition for a year. I don’t think you ever feel completely prepared, but after 2020 I think I am ready for anything! At Bland Farms we have great people at every level, so I know I’m not doing this alone. In addition, Bryce will continue to stay involved as Senior Advisor and I also have DB to lean on too. I want to acknowledge what Bryce has meant to me personally as a mentor and all that he’s done to lead Bland Farms for the last 2-1/2 years. We wouldn’t be where we are today without him. Of course, I want to thank my dad, DB, for all he’s taught me about the business. He’s shown me how to balance what you love to do with the people you love, family. And he’s not going anywhere either. We will continue to grow and embrace innovation to meet our customer’s ever-changing needs; while remembering our roots in family and faith.