On the Grow

C & B Farms

What do you get when you combine healthy and sustainable specialty produce with years of experience and a longstanding exceptional reputation? C & B Farms, a Florida and Georgia-based business committed to growing and providing a wide variety of safe, high-quality vegetables and herbs both organically and conventionally, with an express interest in environmental stewardship.

Founded in 1986 by Chuck Obern, C & B today produces more than 40 different types of herbs and vegetables including baby bok choy, red cabbage, eggplant, mint, Jalapeno pepper, thyme, sage, green beans, cilantro, kale and oregano – to name just a few. Obern’s dedication to safety – while still pushing limits and supporting continual growth and expansion – means constant vigilance in all areas of the business, from on-site composting to water reuse and following strict BMPs (Best Management Practices) such as irrigation management and water resource protection in order to reduce environmental impact.

Despite continued growth over the years, Obern is always looking to expand wherever possible while still maintaining the farm’s high standards.

“We’re getting more customers interested in our products, so we have more opportunities for expansion,” says Obern. “Examples are growing radishes without the top or the tail, increasing additional contracts with WalMart, and more sales to other chains and food service distributors.”

C & B is also gaining traction in the year-round sector. “Most buyers would prefer to have the same source of vegetables year round,” he explains. “We have a partner in Georgia and then we have three growers in North Carolina. When it gets too hot here we move to Georgia, and when it gets too hot in Georgia we move up to North Carolina, and then in the fall we move back. We’re initiating this plan and working with growers, sharing techniques and being completely open with the deals we have.”

At the moment, the farm also has plans for expansion of about 440 acres next season while also working on an innovative field stickering program.

“Most of our crops we harvest and pack straight in the field, and for best traceback information and for payroll info, we’re stickering in the field,” says Obern. “That means each crew will have a computer and a printer that connects to the internet, through the cloud and to our server where we can print out stickers in every field and every crop type they do. That has a barcode and we use a barcode reader to account for the product.”

This will give a GPS point where the stickers were printed and stickers where the field is located, so the farm will have a reference point it can always return to for traceability purposes. Every sticker has the name of the employee who actually packed that box, and it’s all compliant with international standards and the information requirements of various buyers. C & B is also looking into programs such as food safety logs being uploaded through the internet and retained digitally, and tasks being sent to field production workers via mobile phones.

“We’re really active in this whole digital age thing – except for me,” Obern jokes. “But I understand the power and usefulness at the end of the day, because it’s all about efficiency, and if you can increase efficiency by utilizing IT tools, that’s what we’re doing.”

C & B Farms boasts a robust food safety team, as well as another team that deals with labor and associated regulations. “We’re continuously being educated on regulations and compliance, so that’s always an ongoing element,” says Obern. “We’re also surrounding ourselves with younger people who are adaptable to this digital age, and who are also curious about learning and helping when it comes to compliance. So it’s pretty good developing that kind of a team.”

The farm works with various suppliers from local towns for parts and equipment, to state suppliers for boxes and fertilizer, and to national suppliers for seeds, tags and twist ties. International suppliers also import specific types of required seeds.

“We also work with international suppliers or competitors when it comes to vegetables,” says Obern. “What’s that old saying: keep your friends close and keep your enemies closer. Basically you need to know the competition, and you need to best situate yourself so you can advance. Our biggest challenge really is competing with other countries where labor costs are so much lower, so it’s good to be able to have conversations with them, or with buyers who also buy from them, to better understand the trends and the reality of what’s happening.”

Having to respond to increased regulations around issues such as food safety, labor, organic certifications and regulations is always difficult and ever-changing, says Obern. Businesses have to change with the regulator, and that means continual education as the changes take effect. The working VISA program, for instance, has created some challenges in its complexities that Obern hopes are streamlined soon.

Other challenges on an organic farm include dealing with drift from neighboring land. C & B is strict with the residues allowed on its products, and it works actively with its neighbors to try to reduce any drift on produce. A huge part of food safety involves traceback methodologies – which is the single most important aspect, says Obern.

“That has the highest impact in my mind, because you have to be able to trace it all the way back to the field if there ever was to be a food safety issue. When it comes to all regulations, the cost to meet the requirements, both in manpower and material supply, is daunting. We spend a tremendous amount of effort, time and money to try to conform to the regulations that are imposed on us.”

There are pressures in the fresh produce industry to meet all regulations, so C & B employs various IT solutions in order to streamline its ability to meet requirements. Obern is also active with many local, state and national farm groups trying to express the difficulties of the regulations and explore how farms can respond to them and to political pressures. “We also work with the University of Florida quite a bit and private companies as well, trying to develop and continue to change our methodologies to meet these pressures that we feel.”

As with all service industries, customers are key, and C & B is no different. “I feel like we have an excellent relationship with our customers,” says Obern. “You have to realize, fresh produce is kind of like the stock market on steroids. Not only do prices change very quickly depending on supply and demand, but you’re also dealing with a perishable product, so you can’t just keep it until the market swings your way. We have to make quick decisions and work with customers to try to keep moving the product, and at the same time try to keep some sort of profitability built in.”

It’s a challenge every day, he says, and one that depends on who’s supplying, how much they’re supplying, and where they’re supplying. “You have to be able to respond, so that’s where good communication with the customers and gaining their confidence comes in. They know we’re here for them and will give them the consistent supply in quality that they want, so they’ll stay with us.”

That’s probably the most important factor, he says – having good quality and consistent supply. “If they have to go out and look for the product they’ve been buying from you somewhere else, then they might find somebody else and stick with them,” he says.

Good communication is also a top priority, despite the digital age and the convenience it provides. “Your profession is communicating,” says Obern. “Everybody says computers provide much better communication, but my personal opinion is people get stuck in front of a monitor reading data, but the personal communication isn’t there. It’s still probably one of our biggest challenges when it comes to sales – how to educate and communicate with customers to best paint a complete picture.”

Employees rank high as well at C & B, and Obern is engaged with all employees from sales, to production, to the harvesting team. He speaks Spanish, and is able to communicate directly with the majority of the workers whom, outside of administration, are all Hispanic.

“It’s an important tool to have good, understandable communication with the employees, and I’m always trying to develop intensive methodologies to try to keep the sustainability of the whole farm, starting from the quality and production being grown in the field, to the quality and quantity coming from the harvesters, all the way through QC and shipping.”

C & B has also developed methodology whereby employees are incentivized to perform to their best ability, with weekly meetings to ensure that everything is going well. “Employees obviously are key to every company and we’re developing a really good team of people. I’m really happy with how things are coming along.”

A portion of the farm’s business comprises aromatic herbs such as rosemary, thyme, chives, and oregano, and direct competition with countries such as Mexico, Colombia and Peru is one of C & B’s biggest challenges. But despite foreign competition, C & B continues to thrive where many other farms have failed in the last 10 to 15 years.

“We’ve kept our heads above water, and I think that in and of itself is an accomplishment,” says Obern. “We’ve also been able to build a good team of people to help sustain this farm into the future. I feel confident that with the team of people we’ve been to put together, our future looks good.”

This future includes a 52-week-per-year supply chain while also looking at increasing efficiency on the farm overall, whether in production, harvesting, or other labor-intensive aspects. Obern is looking to Europe for innovations in mechanical harvesters and other specialty equipment to help reduce labor requirements.

“The only thing I need is capital,” he says. “Hopefully we’ll raise enough capital and start branching out and looking at more equipment to help us on harvesting, so we can continue to compete with these higher and higher labor costs.”

Last but definitely not least, the environment plays a huge role in C & B’s daily functions, with numerous different projects undertaken over the years including a tail water recovery system, also known as reclaimed water, used for irrigation and other purposes; narrow bed technology using less plastic; cover crops; soil testing; and some slow-release fertilizers.

It may sound nerve-wracking, having major success factors outside of your control, but Obern says it’s only stressful if you let it stress you. “I’ve been doing it a long time and I don’t stress about it. I like to be very upfront and I like to educate the customers as to the challenges that we’re facing so they can have a better idea,” he says. “It’s better to have good discussions with customers as to what exactly is happening, whether it’s location, the supply or a quality issue they’re facing.”

“The challenge always is, even though we’re dealing with biology and weather and pests, you have to do the best you can on the supply side. That’s the challenge of the farm life — keeping a steady supply. It doesn’t matter if it’s too hot or too cold or too rainy.”