C&B Farms Inc.: Fresh Family Produce

Chuck Obern founded C&B Farms Inc. (C&B) in 1986, and he still runs the farm with his two sons: Charles Jr., nicknamed Boots, and Michael. C&B consists of a produce farm located in Clewiston, Fla., which grows a wide array of specialty produce from melons to peppers. Chuck’s organic fruits and vegetables are popular locally, but he says it took a long time to get there.

Chuck’s interest in growing things started after his first semester of college at American University in Washington, D.C. “I couldn’t stand it, and I quit,” he recalls. That summer he started working at a local nursery, where the plants piqued his curiosity. “I was raised in a very liberal family,” explains Chuck. “My father instilled that it wasn’t so important what my grades were, but that I explored my own curiosity and ambition.” So Chuck started to explore.

“I wanted to challenge myself to work faster and more efficiently,” he explains. “I started to learn about plants, started growing them myself and experimenting with water, fertilizer and pesticides. I was learning more about greenhouses.” Chuck’s employer allowed him the opportunity to produce his own plants at the company’s second greenhouse. “I enjoyed it,” he says. “No one was forcing me to do it; I did it because I wanted to.” Chuck remained at the nursery for one year, making minimum wage until he decided to return to school to pursue his newfound passion.

Sprouting Talent

Chuck attended the University of Florida at the recommendation of a family friend, Dr. Mason Marvel, who had worked in Vietnam while Chuck’s family was living in Kuala Lumpur. Chuck worked through school at odd jobs, including time as a swimming pool technician, while attending classes full time and assisting respected professors with research projects.

“I actually did really well,” says Chuck. “I made the President’s List with straight A’s; pretty good for a kid who scored so badly on the SATs. It just goes to show you that kids will figure it out. If you find something you’re into and you’re hungry, you know, you’ve got to work for it, it works out pretty well.”

As time went on Chuck worked for a few growers, the first of which recruited him before he had completed college. Chuck implemented a research project in place of the three elective courses he needed to graduate. “I never went to my graduation,” reflects Chuck. “It just wasn’t important to me. The experience was important to me.”

Chuck took his time working for a handful of farmers in the area, applying his studies to developing their businesses. He was offered a land share with another farmer in 1986. “I had another job at the time, so I went to talk to my boss,” he says, “He told me to go for it, he even offered me an existing farm, but I said no. I wanted to make it on my own.” Thus began C&B.

Practically Perfect Produce

Today C&B produces over 35 different vegetables and herbs. Chuck has implemented an on-site composting operation where he transforms yard waste into a soil amendment that improves Florida’s naturally weak soil, allowing better water and nutrient retention.

Chuck is always looking for something new, although he says he’s learned from a few mistakes. “We tried growing these green flesh Japanese cantaloupes around 1988,” he elaborates. “We grew a nice crop, the buyers loved the external appearance, but when people cut it open they were put off by its color. It was green, so they thought it wasn’t ripe and he didn’t sell any of the melons. It was a marketing lesson in specialty produce.”

The staple of C&B’s business remains in specialty produce. Popular vegetables include arugula, baby bok choy, flat green cabbage, cantaloupe (but not the green kind), as well as an assortment of peppers, squash, tomatoes and watermelon. In addition, lately Chuck has been expanding his yield of organic herbs. “We’re up to about 70 acres, and it’s our No. 1 profit center,” he says. “We’re growing dill, cilantro, mint, thyme … we ship those all over the U.S.” He also says the company “grows weird stuff like Indian eggplant” sometimes, too.

Chuck is focused on delivering new products to fit trends in the food market. “We take trips every year to markets to visit with customers and compare notes with the other specialty growers,” he explains. His organic products have grown in popularity, although the company is dealing with some pressure from the economic downturn. Like many farmers, C&B is sustained on credit. Financial strain on banks has led to a tightening of purse strings. However, Chuck has established an efficient system and grows only what will sell. Chuck has retained buyers, but has established contracts. “Everything is sold before it’s planted,” he explains.

C&B is focused on safe, healthy and sustainable food, allowing Chuck to establish a longstanding reputation in produce agriculture. His ongoing dedication to quality foods is carrying the company through rough times and into the future. Chuck has even instilled a dedication to hard work and a passion for making things grow in his children; this commitment to quality carries C&B Farms Inc. into the next generation.