Aug 1, 2018South Carolina’s Titan Farms plows through obstacles to gain success
Titan Farms didn’t become the largest peach grower and marketer on the East Coast by happenstance.
In fact, just when the Ridge Spring, South Carolina operation – which bills itself as the second-largest peach grower in the U.S. – largely completed a $15 million remake of the organization, destructive cold weather in the Southeast threw it one last curveball.
“It hasn’t been an endeavor for the faint of heart, I’ll tell you,” co-owner Chalmers R. Carr III told an audience at the most recent Mid-Atlantic Fruit & Vegetable Conference. “You go and make this huge investment, have a $15 million investment sitting there, all built off that premise of having 16 weeks of peaches. We knew we wanted to expand but the model had to be right.
“What I didn’t figure in is Mother Nature coming in 2017 and taking our whole peach crop away,” Carr said. “If you have no peaches, you have nothing to run in this plant.”
“It’s had its challenges, but out of that we’re very excited about this year,” he said. “Sales and demand is good for us, so we’re looking very good where we’re at.”
Carr spoke about how the company became the largest vertically-integrated fruit production firm on the East Coast.
Titan Farms is owned and operated by Chalmers and Lori Anne Carr. With over 6,000 acres of peach trees, Titan Farms is the largest peach grower on the East Coast. In 2016 Palmetto Processing Solutions was formed and began processing the farm’s peaches in frozen slices, dices and puree in a greenfield facility alongside a new fresh packhouse.
Titan Farms also has market stands in Trenton, Aiken and Columbia, South Carolina.
Palmetto Processing Solutions, a completely vertically-operated system that puts traceability at its forefront, is Titan Farms’ fruit processing division, providing premium production in the frozen space.
Co-owner and president Lori Anne Carr leads the day-to-day business from production to distribution.
Chalmers Carr didn’t start out to be a farmer. But summers spent on his mother’s family farm led him to develop a passion for the trade.
The couple started their farming endeavors in Madison, Florida, with a peach operation. They knew their growth would be limited in that area, so when South Carolina’s largest peach operation offered Chalmers a management position, they moved north. After managing that operation for four years, they entered into a lease-to-own agreement in 1999.
“I’m a first-generation farmer,” said Chalmers Carr, who has become extensively active in representing the specialty crop industry’s interests on a national level. “I did not come from a farm background, but had the opportunity to work on farms and enjoyed it. Yes, there is going to be a lot of mistakes along the way, and yes, there were a lot of mistakes. But with a lot of hard work, you can do whatever you put your mind to.”
Titan Farms is a grower-packer-processor of peaches and vegetables, including about 6,000 acres of peaches, 6,000 acres of bell peppers and about 1,000 acres of broccoli.
“The first thing we had to do was diversify. We also had to convince the bank to finance us with 16 weeks of revenue. We grew peaches for 16 weeks, and we had to pay for 52 weeks of existence. That was a very tough sale. But we made it and got it started.”
In the winter of 1999, the Carrs, along with four key farm managers and one consultant met off-site to develop strategy for the company. Today, four of those five people are still working with them.
The first decision was to plant in the first year 30 acres of bell peppers, which Carr had done previously in Florida.
“Peaches have been very steady and methodical,” Carr said. “Vegetables, starting in 2007, were pretty heavy for us.”
The company now harvests and packs 38 weeks of the year, from mid-March until Christmas. Its peach acreage is four times more than it was in 2017, and vegetable acreage grew 45 times over.
“The other thing that was very important to this growth was our labor program,” Carr said. “When I took over the farm in 1999, labor was our biggest risk. We went to the H-2A program and have been in it for 19 years. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to grow.”
“We have a 98 percent return rate on our H-2A workers. That makes us very efficient in what we do.”
Titan Farms is one of the largest H-2A employers in the U.S., using more than 750 workers annually.
“Fast forward 10-12 years, we have a lot of acreage and we’re starting to become a bit more mature as a company,” Carr said.
The company hired a marketing consultant in 2012, and did an analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
“We took 45 people to this meeting, including H-2A workers, all the way down to harvesters and tractor drivers in order to get input from everybody. We wanted to start controlling our own destiny with our brand. We developed our own sales team in house to sell our products.”
Other objectives identified included:
- Installing a state-of-the-art peach packing line
- Constructing and bringing online a processing facility
- Expand the growing-area footprint to include farms in Manning and Santee, Florida, and Windsor, South Carolina.
- Improve sustainability by reducing water/irrigation consumption and chemical use.
“The packaging shed we built in 1997 was getting outdated. We started plans to build a state-of-the-art packing shed,” Carr said. “Then we started to talk about sustainability. It started by addressing our waste. We had discarded peaches because not every peach you pick makes it to the packing shed. We talked about building a processing plant. We talked about expanding into other areas, which we did through water and energy conservation and things such as that.
“All of these things were on a five-year goal,” he said. “In 2017, we completed all five of them.”
Carr said the most difficult decision involved moving away from longstanding external sales agents that were used by the company from 1999-2014.
An in-house sales team was constituted to have a direct relationship with customers, provide custom marketing programs for those customers and emphasize quality and brand. They also increased the product menu with value-added packaging.
“This was one of the toughest business decisions I ever made, but it quickly proved to be one of my best,” Carr said. “It lowered our cost of sales.”
“Our sales agents – who were the best around – were not yet looking at value-added packaging, and the brand itself,” Carr said. “About 8-10 years ago, it became very important for the retailer and consumer to know your farm. It called for a big change, probably the hardest thing that we did.”
“I spent the next three months off the farm talking to our retailers,” Carr said. “That put me in direct contact with them, and we started to develop very good relationships. The marketing plan for retailers emphasized our brand and quality.”
Carr said Titan Farms’ 2018 goal was to have 70 percent of its peaches sold before it begins picking.
“Our number one goal was to lower our cost of sales. We’re saving quite a bit on sales commissions. That allows us to put that back into the farm to help our growth.”
The company also sought to enhance its value-added packing program, including bags, baskets, clamshells, club packs and one- and two-layer systems.
“Value-added packaging diversifies the revenue stream,” Carr said. “We had to learn how to develop other brands to diversify the selection for various stores. A lot of it goes with contract pricing, and it’s a way to get pricing up for your peaches. You’re getting a premium by developing diverse packaging strategies.”
Sales this year are projected at 4.5 million, two-pound packages.
“All of our sales are driving a greater return to the farm. Prior to 2014, we didn’t pursue specialty packs. Now, they are a big part of our revenue source. Our goal this year is to have 45 percent of our revenue come from value-added packaging. This is all in relation to peaches.”