Feb 13, 2023
Mr. Peach goes extra mile for industry

Attendance at the Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference, which was Jan. 5-8 in Savannah, Georgia, is back to pre-pandemic numbers.

Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Association (GFVGA), said attendance was more than 3,000, an increase of 12% from the 2022 show and in line with pre-pandemic attendance numbers.

Sam Watson, left, of Chill C Farms, is the new president of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association, with Chris Butts, executive director of the association. Photos: Chris Koger

“The 2023 Southeast Conference was a testament to the need growers have to come together in person to learn and gain insights that they can take back to the farm and put into use immediately for the 2023 season,” Butts said.

“We are able to bring together a wealth of information and networking opportunities for growers through the incredible support of our exhibitors and education partners,” he said. “We’re looking forward to 2024 bringing even more value to our attendees, partners and exhibitors.”

An auction netted more than $23,000 for association needs.

Along with the expo and dozens of educational sessions, GFVGA and co-organizer South Carolina Peach Council recognized industry members in the region that received accolades throughout the year, as well as presenting their own awards, during its annual awards breakfast during the conference.

Mr. Peach Award

Matthew Flemming, who owns Midland Insurance Agency in Columbia, South Carolina, was recognized with the Mr. Peach Award. Chris Yonce, president of the South Carolina Peach Council, introduced Flemming, noting that in 2003, his father, Larry Yonce (president of the peach council at the time) gave Flemming’s grandfather the Mr. Peach Award. Ray Flemming established the Midland Insurance Agency, which his grandson Matthew joined in 1999. Matthew Flemming took over the agency in 2003.

South Carolina Peach Council President Chris Yonce, left, and Matthew Flemming, who received the 2023 Mr. Peach Award during the Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference in Savannah, Georgia.

Yonce said Matthew Flemming’s passion is working on behalf of the farmers he represents.

“As an agent, Matthew is not obligated to fight to make disaster aid available to all growers or to lobby for better payment limits for growers, or to negotiate for fair-risk assessments of high-value specialty crops like peaches, but he did it, because that’s the right thing to do,” Yonce said.

“He didn’t have to walk the halls of Congress on behalf of producers regarding H-2A or farm labor needs, but he did,” Yonce said. “Matthew is steadfast in his commitment to agriculture, especially in South Carolina. It is in his blood, and you can thank his grandad for that.”

Matthew thanked Yonce and the peach council, and said the Mr. Peach award was his grandfather’s “most prized possession.”

Recognizing dedication to ag labor

A new GFVGA award traces its roots to Operation Blooming Onion, a multi-agency investigation that focused on labor law violations at Georgia onion farms and elsewhere. Authorities said 24 people conspired to smuggle Mexican and Central Americans and forced them to work. Butts said the GFVGA determined it needed a vehicle to recognize those in the industry that support ag workers.

“The award celebrates those who advocate on behalf of both employers and those who support opportunities for ag workers,” Butts said. “One person’s name comes to mind when you talk about leadership in the ag workforce.”

That person is Dan Bremer, president of AgWorks H2 LLC, Valdosta, Georgia, who the award is named after.

“He and his staff’s experience with H-2A and H-2BN has served our industry well,” Butts said. “In addition to his service to our industry and growers, he’s provided outstanding service to GFVGA.”

Bremer has donated his time as a GFVGA committee chair, event speaker and overall supporter of the association, and Butts said he’s the “go-to person” for all H-2A-related questions.

At the breakfast, the show also recognized individuals from other organizations who were honored throughout the year. 

Phil Brannen, a University of Georgia Extension fruit disease specialist, was honored by being inducted into the IPM Hall of Fame. Brannen develops IPM practices to solve disease issues and technology transfer of disease-management methods. The Southern IPM Center recognizes extraordinary contributions to the development and implementation of IPM measures.

Each year, the Southern IPM Center recognizes an industry member for extraordinary contributions to the development and implementation of IPM for the honor.

Ashley Hoppers, a Georgia Extension agent for Fannin and Gilmer counties, won the Donnie Morris Extension Award of Excellence. David Lillard, of Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Georgia, said in his nomination letter that Hoppers is “young, enthusiastic and very enthusiastic” and “always working to find answers for farmers.”

Other awards included:

  • National Friend of Extension Award: Bill Brim, president, CEO and co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms Inc.
  • Friend of the Georgia County Extension Agent Award: Charles Hall, GFVGA’s executive director emeritus.

— Chris Koger, managing editor


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