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Putting the We in Sweet: A Q&A With John Shuman

Putting the We in Sweet: A Q&A With John Shuman

Trust—a seed the produce community continues to come together to sow. Whether it be through new products; packaging innovations; marketing campaigns; or partnerships, mergers, and acquisitions, the work of the produce industry is rooted in earning and maintaining consumers’ trust. For Shuman Farms, this doesn’t take much finessing, as the grower’s high-quality onions coupled with its community-oriented mission are what today’s rapidly evolving market always seems to be demanding.

John Shuman, the man credited with rebuilding Shuman Farms to the growing operation it is today, is more than the company’s President and CEO. Since restarting his family’s farm in the early 1990s, John has become a formative hand in shaping the sweet onion category and adding to the legacy of the beloved Vidalia onion.

While he’s considered an expert in the sweet onion category, it is John’s unique vision, loyalty to his family and customers, and knack for building business models people can get behind that make him a trusted voice across the produce industry—which is why I sat down to chat with the man himself about how the Shuman Farms team is deepening consumers’ faith in today’s produce purveyors.

Kayla Webb: John, it has been wonderful learning about this next leg of growth for you. What would you say makes Shuman Farms such a valuable partner in the industry?

John Shuman: At Shuman Farms, we believe in growing stronger together with our partners by adhering to our four foundational pillars: excellent customer service, superior quality, innovative marketing, and giving back. We strive to treat our customers like family, live up to our earned reputation of superior and consistent quality, and create innovative marketing programs answering our customers’ needs—all while making a difference in the communities where our products are sold. This has helped us bring quality products from seed to shelf for retailers across the United States and Canada over the last 30 years.

KW: At the beginning of the 2019 year, Shuman Farms chose to undergo a comprehensive rebrand. What factored into the decision for a refresh?

JS: Over the years, Shuman Farms has earned its reputation in the industry by delivering premium quality sweet onions to customers and staying true to our core values. The change from Shuman Produce to Shuman Farms in early 2019 reflects our company’s core business and a return to our roots as a generational family farm.

In addition to our own production, our RealSweet® brand is grown by a family of farms in southeast Georgia and Peru, supporting our 12-month sweet onion program. Under our newly-branded Shuman Farms operation, we will bring our brands together to support our foundation of producing quality sweet onions and giving back to the communities where our products are sold.

“We strive to treat our customers like family, live up to our earned reputation of superior and consistent quality, and create innovative marketing programs answering our customers’ needs...”

- John Shuman, President and Chief Executive Officer,
Shuman Farms

KW: With consumers looking for those points of real connection with brands these days, this strategic, though still recognizable, shift in meaning between Shuman Produce and Shuman Farms must be attracting more shoppers in the produce aisle. Has this been the case? What has the response been like?

JS: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It has given us the opportunity to share our story with the industry and our customers. We believe it is important to customers to know where there food is grown and with the new branding, we have been able to help make that connection and tell our story.

KW: As Shuman Farms continues to evolve, how has the sweet onion category, and Vidalias® in particular, evolved with it?

JS: Since the 1990s, we have partnered with industry-leading Vidalia growers to bring only the sweetest onions to the market. Realizing that we could do more together than individually has allowed us to bring the leading and most recognizable brand in the industry to market. The success of Shuman Farms hinges upon mutual trust and loyalty between us and our partners. We continue to uphold this trust and loyalty with our four foundational pillars, set in place long ago. This is why our customers know that partnering with Shuman Farms ensures consistent, premium quality and excellent customer service designed to address the market’s needs.

In addition, we are a leading grower and shipper of sweet onions in the industry thanks to our state-of-the-art infrastructure and year-round, full-time labor force. We also have flexible packing capabilities, including drying rooms and cold storage, to help us respond to the needs of the industry quickly and efficiently and ensure quality from farm to store. This has helped Shuman Farms continue to play a significant role in evolving the sweet onion category.

KW: Vidalias are one of the few items in the produce aisle with a reputation that precedes it—everyone has heard of the iconic Vidalias. But what makes the onion so unique within the category?

JS: Vidalias are one of the most unique and famous onions out there—even their origin story is unique. Vidalia onions were originally a fluke! During the Great Depression, farmers in the area were in search of a new cash crop. However, the onions they planted and then harvested were so surprisingly sweet. This is attributable to the sandy soils of southeast Georgia—where they can be grown in 20 counties—and the region’s average rainfall, both of which allow sulfur compounds to wash away. This helps the Vidalia remain mild, sweet, versatile, and uniquely delicious.

Vidalia onions are also one of the most famous onions in the world, known for their crisp texture and mild, sweet flavor. Shoppers wait eight months out of the year for Vidalias to hit shelves again and, once they return, fans recognize them by their flat shape and light, yellow skin.

“The success of Shuman Farms hinges upon mutual trust and loyalty between us and our partners. We continue to uphold this trust and loyalty with our four foundational pillars, set in place long ago.”

KW: What are some of the Vidalia-specific marketing strategies Shuman Farms implements, and how can retailers better market Vidalias from their side of the supply chain?

JS: All of our marketing efforts start with understanding who our consumer is. We’ve conducted extensive research in both purchasing and consumption behavior to learn about consumer habits and needs.

We aim to build marketing programs that are innovative and create value for our retail partners. As such, it is important to us to not only help our retailers sell more sweet onions but also sell more produce. We like to partner our program with other items that complement sweet onions, such as peppers, mushrooms, potatoes, and more. This builds meal solution destinations throughout the produce department, which we recommend be paired with Shuman Farms’ high-graphic, in-store signage and display bins.

KW: This mission of expanding the reach of all fresh produce is even evident in Shuman Farms’ charitable arm, Produce for Kids (PFK). Why is this program so important both within and outside the industry?

JS: Since its inception in 2002, Produce for Kids has evolved. Today, it is more than a program where our retail partners and sponsors can work with us to give back in their communities. Produce for Kids has become a trusted voice for inspiring families every day.

Throughout the year, we implement several programs to reach consumers, including flagship retail campaigns like Mission for Nutrition, which celebrates National Nutrition Month all March long; Power Your Lunchbox, aimed at helping families transition to back to school in August and September; and our Healthy Family Project Podcast and Facebook Group, where PFK steps outside the world of produce to talk about other important topics impacting families’ mental and physical health.

As a result of these programs, we have raised seven million dollars to help families across the U.S. and donated more than 10 million meals through our partnership with Feeding America.

Trust is hard to come by these days—especially with more brands to choose from across all markets. As consumers continue to look for ways to connect with growers—evident in demands for clean labels, local produce, and supply chain transparency—it will be leaders like John Shuman and the Shuman Farms team who make it easy for shoppers to put their faith in fresh produce. 

Putting the We in Sweet: A Q&A With John Shuman