Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable
From seedlings just starting in the greenhouse to rows upon rows of pole-grown cucumbers, Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable (Southern Valley) has made a mission of growing, packing and selling one of the most sought after labels of cucumbers in the produce industry. Growing on more than 2,000 acres in Norman Park, Georgia, as well as farms in rural Tennessee and in the Yucatan, Southern Valley is a major player in the produce industry.
As a year-round grower and shipper, Southern Valley has attained a high level of vertical integration. “We blend and make our own fertilizer here and we start all of our plants from seed in our greenhouses,” explains Katie Murray, director of marketing and public relations for Southern Valley. “From there we transplant by hand into the ground. Once crops are ready we ship and can either send them out on our own trucks or through broker trucking companies. We carry the process all the way through.”
Streamlining operations to keep costs down and quality up has been the goal of Kent Hamilton, president and founder, for Southern Valley since day one. The company has been growing vertically since 1987.
“Like most families in this region, Kent’s family has been farming for generations – six generations to be exact,” shares Katie. “He grew up helping out his Uncle Joe on the 250-acre family farm growing cotton and peanuts.”
In the late 1980s, Kent decided to make a go of growing on his own. “I joined up with my father and brother and we decided to venture away from row crops and get into vegetables,” tells Kent.
Turning it upside down
While it’s not necessarily uncommon to grow climbing vegetables vertically, Kent was the first to start and name the official pole grown or monoecious cuke in Georgia, a state that’s more commonly known for peaches, pecans and Vidalia onions. “We were looking for something we could not only do well, but excel in,” says Kent. “We started experimenting and found that growing cucumbers off the ground keeps them away from excess moisture and disease.”
The prolific, climbing variety, while more expensive to grow because they require the construction of trellises and netting, yields a very straight, dark green, unblemished cucumber. Kent was also one of the first growers in the state to utilize plasticulture, positioning a layer of plastic beneath the pole-grown cukes to ensure they don’t come in contact with the ground.
“Using plastic results in a cleaner, healthier product,” tells Kent. “Drip irrigation allows us to irrigate under the plastic and the plastic also aids in keeping fertilizer near the roots of the plant.”
Beyond the company’s signature pole-grown cucumbers is a broad selection of year-round produce, including 12 types of hot peppers –jalapenos to serranos, poblanos to cherry hots and more; bell peppers, zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant, tomatoes, cabbage, butternut squash and green beans. “35 to 40 percent of our acreage is pole-grown cucumbers, but Southern Valley also grows, picks, packages and ships everything from bell peppers to sweet corn, pickles, acorn and spaghetti squash,” shares Kent.
To handle packaging and shipping to customers across the Eastern Seaboard, as well as Texas and other specific requests, Southern Valley has significantly expanded its packing facility. “When the company started out we only had about 9,000 square feet of packing area,” tells Katie. “In 2012, Southern Valley performed a total expansion, growing to a 250,000-square-foot state-of-the-art packing facility.”
Setting the standard
Kent’s goal is to use the company’s high-quality vegetable production, high tech cooling capabilities and modern packaging facilities to continue to supply and service retail, wholesale, and food service communities. However, there is one thing he is not willing to do for more business, and that is sacrificing the quality and integrity of products.
It comes back to the company’s mission statement: “To consistently grow and package safe, high-quality perishable commodities that we can be proud of by using experience, technology and innovation in order to repeatedly provide our customers a product of high value and quality.”
And Southern Valley does so in a manner of integrity and honesty with a team who tends to customer relationships. “We want to be a company people want to do business with, because we are people they trust,” measures Kent. “We strive for excellence and being the leader in everything we do and we strive to define the future of product quality.”
Even with the pressures of government regulations and labor shortages pushing down on Southern Valley, Kent says staying afloat is easier with good people and even better relationships. “Our goal is to make sure our people are happy and have a chance to grow,” he says. “We want to add meaning to their work and life.”
Kent also currently serves on the board of directors for the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA), an organization that strives to further Georgia’s presence in the national produce industry and advocate for local growers. With more than 170,000 acres in production, Georgia is producing much more than peaches and pecans and Southern Valley Fruit & Vegetable is a prime example of a thriving Georgia-based growing operation.