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Finding the Sweet Spot with Shuman Produce

verything is sweeter in the South. There’s the sweet drawl of a southern accent; the sweet demeanor of southern hospitality; and there’s sweet tea, the unofficial drink of the region. And then there’s the Vidalia® sweet onion, the rare gem of southern agriculture—which some say is so sweet you can eat it like an apple—along with the sweet taste of success for the man who persevered to become a leader for the variety.

John Shuman can teach you a thing or two about sweet onions. The President of Shuman Produce—purveyor of the RealSweet® Vidalia sweet onion brand, and protector of the Vidalia namesake—joined me to peel back the layers on what success looks like in this niche market. The first lesson being that in true southern dialect, Vidalia is pronounced “Vie-Day-Yuh,” at the risk of sounding like a neophyte if you say it any other way.

John was born in the small rural town of Reidsville, Georgia, where his father, Buck Shuman owned and operated Shuman Fertilizer, Inc and Shuman Farms, Inc. Growing up in the quaint, one-stoplight town, John and his two brothers, Ben and Mark, were immersed in the agriculture business around the clock. Here, they learned the basic tenets of business from their father: integrity, trust, relationships, and honesty.

“For my entire life, the plan was always to join the family business, so I went off to college to sharpen my acumen. When I came back, due to financial hardships there wasn’t a company to run. The local agricultural economy had taken a sharp turn. The fertilizer business had gone under, and the farm was lost,” John recalls about his roots. “I made the best of it and evaluated my options. That’s when I decided to start my own venture in the Vidalia onion industry.” 

Those familiar might already know that this allium variety has a fascinating history. Discovered as a fluke in Depression-era Georgia, farmers looking for a cash crop around the town of Vidalia were puzzled when their first harvest turned out a little different than anticipated; it lacked the aggressive bite of a regular onion. They didn’t realize then that the one-of-a-kind sandy loam soil in the region was low in sulfur, which—paired with the humid climate—was the perfect combination for a super sweet, mild, crisp, and flavorful onion. Though it was not what they had expected, over the decades, the onion developed a reputation throughout the region. It became part of a rich, local Spring harvesting tradition, garnering a festival with its own mascot, the Yumion, and eventually becoming the state vegetable of Georgia. But, back when John was evaluating his options, the industry had only just found its legs.

John and Buck Shuman take a look at their sweet onions.

And so, following John’s graduation from college in the early 1990s, the venture that has become Shuman Produce was born. Without land of his own,  John partnered with the best Vidalia growers and worked hard to build a strong business model to take his idea from concept to reality, guided by the fundamental tenets of business he had learned in his youth. The early years were filled with hardship and sacrifice; John tells me that the success of the business hinged upon mutual trust and loyalty between him and his grower partners. Despite the immense challenges presented by breaking into the Vidalia industry, John was faithful and persistent.

By then, the community of Vidalia growers had lobbied for the protection of this unique item. As a result, the variety received a legal status declaring that only certain varieties of onions grown in a designated 20 counties could brandish the coveted Vidalia name. For perspective, that’s only 10 percent of the land in Georgia, and less than a fraction of a percent of the land in the entire United States.

During this period, John’s father, Mr. Buck as he is fondly referred to by the Shuman Produce team, also took off on the second wind of his own agricultural career in the seed business. Since the mid-1990s, Mr. Buck has developed several leading Vidalia sweet onion varieties. There is the Sapelo Sweet, named for a river along Georgia’s coast that Mr. Buck loves to fish, which now has more acreage than any other variety in the Vidalia industry; the Ohoopee Sweet, named after the Georgia river that flows through Tattnall County, which is the leading sweet onion producing county in the industry; and the Ms. Megan, named after his only granddaughter. In turn, the seed company Mr. Buck represents named another leading variety after him, the Mr. Buck. And today, at the age of 84, Mr. Buck and the varieties he helped pioneer represent over 30 percent of all the Vidalia sweet onions planted in the region, and he has been inducted into the Vidalia Hall of Fame for his efforts in protecting and promoting the name and quality of the one-and-only Vidalia onion. 

John Shuman and his wife, Lana.

This towering sweet onion legacy established by John and the Shuman family is upheld by the foundational pillars set in place long ago, while John cites integrity, trust, relationships, and honesty as the reasons Shuman Produce has achieved the success it has today. 

“We pride ourselves in offering innovative marketing programs that our retail partners can take advantage of in order to increase category sales, and boost their overall ring at the register,” John tells me. “At the core of it, these foundational pillars, along with prioritizing customer service and delivering consistent, premium-quality products, are what really differentiate us.”

In addition to these tenets, a cornerstone of the Shuman philosophy is to give back on both the local and national levels. In 2002, Shuman Produce became the founding partner of Produce For Kids, which today has over 40 produce partners and is promoted at retail in over 33 states. Together, Produce For Kids has raised over $6 million to support children and families around the country, with 100 percent of these funds going back to the retailers’ communities in which they were raised. 

“I believed that this industry could come together to create healthier generations in the future,” John shares. “We’re celebrating our 15-year anniversary, and it is so gratifying to be able to give back through these programs. Our goal is to make it easy to give back and eat healthy.”

The adage “You reap what you sow,” seems to apply in this case, as Shuman Produce continues to grow thanks to its philanthropic efforts in the industry, paired with the value it places on consistency. The company’s retail partners have come to depend on its reliable, high-quality products.

“We have become a premier, year-round grower and shipper of sweet onions. We work very hard to provide our retail partners with safe, fresh, premium quality sweet onions under our RealSweet® brand,” John tells me.

Today, Shuman Produce and its family of farms have 2,300 acres in Vidalia onion production, and expanded operations to include sweet onions from Peru, Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico to maintain its 52-week availability and distribution, with Vidalia and Peru providing over ten months of the calendar. 

 “These two production areas give our retail partners a consistent look and feel on the shelf. With very similar colors, shapes, and flavor profiles, consumers know these are sweet onions,” John says. “And today, Shuman Produce yields about 20 percent of the total Vidalia onion acreage each year, and is one of the largest growers and importers from Peru. Additionally, we have plans to expand our Peruvian acreage in 2017.”

The company’s growth shows no signs of stopping, with consumer trends towards proprietary, exclusive, and local varieties leaning in the company’s favor. In recent years, John’s brothers Ben and Mark have joined the  expanding team, with Mark taking on the position of General Manager, and having an important role in the operation of the business. And John himself has become a force to be reckoned within the agricultural community, having served in various leadership positions within the industry; from Past Chairman of the Vidalia Onion Committee to President of the Southeast Produce Council. He is currently serving on the Georgia Ports Authority Board of Directors, the Southeast Produce Council Advisory Board, and the 2017 Vidalia Onion Advisory Panel. John and his wife, Lana, have also extended the company into its third generation, with two teenaged sons Luke and Jake, who—along with their cousins, Mark’s sons, Chap and Mason—may someday take over the family business while carrying on the Shuman family values.

On the deck for 2017, Shuman Produce is digging into sweet onion marketing, launching How to Speak Southern 2.0, a revival of the successful 2015 campaign to promote Vidalia season from April through August. The campaign is an extension of the company’s pursuits, and strives to get more produce in the buggy (a term I learned by taking the campaigns delightful “Can You Speak Southern?” online quiz). 

This knee-slapping campaign is designed to help build brand awareness for the RealSweet® Vidalia sweet onion brand in a fun and engaging way. The initiative comes complete with several integrated elements: the aforementioned quiz about Southernisms, videos highlighting favorite Southern phrases and words, farmer interviews, cooking demos, recipes, and more. The company utilizes social media engagement and is offering weekly prices as an incentive for consumers to stay interactive throughout the Vidalia season and to become brand advocates. The campaign is also extending to the store level, offering retailer partners signage, displays, and the on-pack IRC program.

“Our retailer level on-pack IRC campaign has been very successful during peak Vidalia season over the past several years. Through partnerships with brands inside and outside of the produce department, we can help drive sales of a variety of items,” John shares about the program. “We ship bags of our RealSweet® Vidalia onions to participating retail partners with an on-pack coupon already attached to the front of each bag. Along with offers from each of the partner products, each retailer-specific coupon booklet features a recipe including all of the featured items. The consumer gets the added value of a meal solution along with discounted ingredients, while the retailer has a built-in cross merchandising tool that results in a larger basket at check-out. By creating a unified display showcasing these products, the retailer can provide consumers with convenience and positively affect purchasing behavior.”

And now, for the first time in the company’s history, they are expanding the guiding philosophy to completely new products: sweet potatoes and broccoli. The first crop of broccoli was harvested in December 2016, while the second followed in April 2017.

“We have been growing sweet potatoes in North Carolina and Mississippi for three years with Georgia acreage planned for 2017,” John reveals. “This category expansion gives us the opportunity to leverage our resources and capitalize with strong retailer relationships.”

Considering the company’s track record, it’s easy to imagine these new ventures will net success for the grower who built a brand from the ground up. And when it comes to launching a niche variety of produce into prevalence, Shuman Produce has found the sweet spot, and knocked it out of the park.