Thursday September 3, 2009

Georgia Onion Growers Take Over Zappala Farms Operations

Bland Farms enjoying bountiful onion crop this year
By Lou Sorendo

    Representatives from Bland Farms LLC in Glennville, Ga., were the only bidders for the farming operations of Zappala Farms, LLC in Cato and Sterling, including its “Empire Sweets” trademark, in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Northern District of New York, in Syracuse, last spring.

    Delbert Bland, chief executive officer and president of Bland Farms, said efforts have been made to retain existing personnel.

    Former co-owner Jim Zappala is serving as general manager. The farm employs nine, although that number was expected to rise.

    “We’ve been able to take equipment and personnel and incorporate that with what they are already doing. We’ve formed a very good team,” Bland said.

    “It was an opportunity to have a friendly acquisition of an existing business,” he said.

    Bland acquired Zappala Farms for $4 million, and has since invested another $2 million into the operation. “We’ve spent a lot trying to make upgrades,” he added.

    Bland said he was not surprised to be the only bidder at bankruptcy court.

    “There’s very few people in the position to buy 2,000 acres of muck land and take care of an onion operation,” he noted.

    “The fact is we’re onion people. That’s all I know how to do,” Bland said. “Very few people would be in a position to take ownership of the operation unless they are very heavy into the onion business.”

    Bland characterizes the quality of this year’s onion crop as “excellent.” His 24-year-old son, Troy Bland, has been involved in the Oswego operation since March.

    Bland said of the three major onion-growing areas in New York state, Oswego County has fared the best in terms of favorable weather conditions this year. “We’ve very fortunate and blessed with the weather conditions. The environment has been conducive for an excellent onion crop,” he added.

    Bland Farms was started by Bland and his father Raymond. They started on a five-acre farm growing Vidalia onions in 1983, and now grow 42 percent of all onions in Georgia.

    Raymond Bland semi-retired in 1990, but helped on the farm until his passing in February. The 81 year old was inducted into the Sweet Onion Hall of Fame in 2006.

    Expansion mode

    The former Zappala Farms is Bland’s sole holding in New York state.

    Bland has also purchased farms in Georgia, Texas, Utah and Mexico, and also does significant growing in Peru.

    He said the business is doing about 5,000 to 6,000 truckloads of onions this year. He anticipates that 1,000 truckloads will come out of his new farm in New York.

    Bland said the location of the former Zappala Farms is excellent being that “the majority of the population is in the Northeast.”

    “We’re not too far from New York City and Boston as well as a lot of other people,” he said. “The area is ideal for growing onions and shipping because it will not require so many fuel miles to get to the customer.”

    “I like the muck land. We don’t have any of that in southern Georgia,” he said.

    Bland said comparing the onion industry in New York with that of Georgia is like comparing apples to oranges.

    “In Georgia, we grow a flat, sweet onion called a ‘short day’ onion because it grows during the short days of the year. It grows all winter and is harvested in the spring. The New York onion is what we call in the industry a ‘long day’ onion because it grows during the long days of the year. They are transplanted and seeded in the spring after the cold weather,” Bland said.

    Bland said he has agronomists on staff that work year-round. Agronomists are scientists who specialize in agronomy, which is the science of utilizing plants for food, fuel, feed, and fiber.

    “We’re there to continue the good relationships that Zappala has had for many years,” Bland said. “We hope to continue that.”

    The acquisition represents about 1,700 acres, about 850 of which has been planted with onions due to fallow fields and space that is not tillable.

    When the New York fields are not producing, Bland will bring onions in from its other sources such as Vidalia, Ga., or Peru, for repacking and distribution. The acquisition of the farm, which raises hybrid red, hybrid yellow and “Empire Sweet” onions, “diversifies our operation in the onion business,” Bland said.

    For related stories, see the next edition of Oswego County Business Magazine scheduled to be distributed soon.