I didn't consider what it meant to be a leader until I landed in the produce industry. The highest position of authority I’d obtained in my scant 25 years of life was a Shift Lead at Starbucks—not a position to scorn but certainly one that did not serve to inspire me.
At the time, my definition of leadership was relegated to: How many fires do I need to put out today? (Not literal ones, don’t worry.) It rarely, if ever, landed on the definition of leadership that is prolific in this industry, one that intersects with the future and longevity of a company.
John Shuman knows that leadership extends beyond the actions of the day to day. At one of the earliest points in our conversation, he breaks down what leadership means to him, and it’s a moment that resonates. It’s a moment I wish I had when I first entered the working world, because it centers on a necessary element we all seek in our careers: inspiration.
“A lot of people think leadership is tied to the title on their business card. It has nothing to do with that,” John, the President and Chief Executive Officer of Shuman Farms, tells me. “It’s more about inspiring people to become passionate about a vision, to create a team that moves in step with each other toward a common goal.”
This level of inspiration has been a companion to John all his life, and it began close to home. Growing up watching his father, Buck, farm, John’s connection to the business was instilled in him from a young age. When he returned home from college, he knew immediately that getting into ag was what he wanted to do.
“My dad was primarily the one who inspired me to get into the business,” John shares, detailing that he started the operation that would become Shuman Farms from the ground up.
Dogged determination kept him pushing forward, initially meeting with and selling crops for Vidalia® onion growers he came to know through his dad. John recalls the first five years of Shuman Farms with both fondness and a gritty realism. He’s able to look back on this time with appreciation because of the growth since then, growth that has created a company able to vertically integrate from seed to shelf.
“I was so unsure it was going to work that I started taking real estate classes at night,” he admits with a bit of a grin. “That was Plan B. But the turning point came in 2000 when that light bulb went off in my head. I remember thinking, ‘this might just work.’”
John explains how the potential for success came in the realization that he did not need to have his hands on every detail of Shuman Farms, he could create a team to support his vision.
“When you start building a business, you’re micromanaging every piece of it because it’s basically your child. You’re watching it grow up. And as it grew, I was blessed to be able to build a team that cares about the business just as much as I do,” he recalls.
This is a striking testament to the qualities of John’s leadership, especially as part of our conversation revolves around the importance of teamwork and finding people who buy into the vision of what you’re striving toward.
“You don’t force people—you lead them forward. Around here, we always say that we fall on the sword every day. In other words, things can always go wrong, but we do whatever it takes to make business happen for the customer the right way,” John notes.
Reputation is everything in this industry, a sentiment that John echoes.
“It will walk in the door two weeks before you do, that’s for sure,” he says with a laugh. “So, it’s important that you do what you say you’re going to do in this business. Over time, people begin to know and trust that.”
Trust comes easily for those who partner with Shuman Farms, for the company has worked tirelessly to communicate its four pillars of value to the industry. These include superior quality, excellent customer service, innovative marketing, and giving back. These pillars are not simply a motto—they are the very cornerstones of the organization, and ones by which the team lives by.
"A lot of people think leadership is tied to the title on their business card. It has nothing to do with that."
John Shuman, President and Chief Executive Officer, Shuman Farms
Everyone at Shuman Farms knows how important these pillars are, and the respect that John has instilled in them as representatives of the company.
“Each person in the organization cares deeply about how we go to market,” John comments.
Without these pillars, brands like RealSweet® and Mr. Buck’s Farm Fresh® would not exist, a thought that seems unfathomable given that they’ve become hallmarks of the sweet onion category.
“In the early 2000s, I developed the RealSweet brand to communicate the product’s attributes to the consumer. Since then, it’s become our primary focus for 20 years,” John imparts. “We saw the need to develop another brand to put in various places in the marketplace, and I wanted to create something that went back to my roots and honored my dad. My way of doing that was coming up with the Mr. Buck’s brand.”
Conveying his father’s warm smile, love of the land, and work ethic, John wanted to ensure his passion came through.
“Each bag of Mr. Buck’s has my signature,” John remarks, highlighting his own attention and care to a line that represents so much to him. “One of the most important lessons my father ever taught me was to treat others how you would like them to treat you. This has guided both my life and the company, as we’ve always taken that attitude to market.”
Throughout our discussion, one of the central threads that pull the story along are the elements of leadership that kicked us off. Leadership, as John noted at the beginning of our conversation, is a funny thing, one that supplants the needs of your own for the good of others.
This connects to the final pillar of Shuman Farms: giving back, and it is one that drives the future of the company, the category, and the industry.
In this case, I speak of Healthy Family Project, a program that John tells me is how he honors the communities in which he works.
“I’ve always wanted to do more than just build an onion business,” he expresses. “We’ve been given resources, and I think it’s our responsibility as a people to give back into the communities that support our products. I think that’s at the heart of our giving back initiatives. And when all is said and done, I want to leave a positive impact on the industry.”
This desire to give back lies at the core of Healthy Family Project, a concept that John tells me is the heartbeat of the initiative.
“This program has been a blessing, and I’m truly inspired and honored that Healthy Family Project, and its flagship retail program Produce for Kids, have become a platform for the produce industry to give back. Over our 20 years, we’ve had hundreds of companies across North America embrace and buy into this mission. They’ve made it their own, and I’m humbled by the fact that retailers can promote Healthy Family Project as a grassroots, in-house program, because all of the benefits are going back into their local communities,” John expounds.
Cause marketing initiatives have existed for a while, as John further details, but when he started Healthy Family Project back in 2000, all were in the center of the store. He rarely, if ever, saw a produce-centric program.
“We looked around and noticed that a cause marketing program in the produce department would be a natural fit. Through the Healthy Family Project initiative we have been able to innovate the space to center fresh,” John says. “If you look at the health crisis in America, the produce department is on the right side of the issue. We’re competing with the center of the store, but that doesn’t negate that we’re standing in the right position because we have the natural healthy products.”
The future of the industry hinges upon this positioning, and Healthy Family Project is a key prong in Shuman Farms’ long-term mission for furthering the consumption of fruits and vegetables both in its backyard communities and across the United States.
“I think that leaving something better than you found it is a key part of this program, and a key aspect of any sustainable effort, too,” he declares. “We’re connecting consumers to fruits and vegetables, and also telling them the story of how they got to their plates. The more we can educate the consumer, the better off we are as an industry.”
It’s important to note that John not only considers the future of Shuman Farms when we discuss the importance of centering fresh produce. It’s a wide-lens focus for him, looking at how those who come after us will be able to pick up where we left off because we made that future possible for them.
“At the end of the day, we manage the crop the best we can,” John considers. “Somebody’s going to be here after us. It’s like I said earlier: How do we leave a space better than we found it? That kind of thinking goes all the way to the farm.”
Shuman Farms’ sustainable efforts echo this reverence for the future as the company has spearheaded farming practices to better its soil conservation, lowered the use of fertilizer, and updated its irrigation systems to reduce water waste.
The next generation of farmers and produce lovers should be emboldened by the actions taken by Shuman Farms, and they should look to its President and CEO as a fundamental example of what it means to carve your passion into a vision that others will follow.
At a crucial juncture in our industry, we need leaders like John who will leave the industry better than they found it.
Luckily, John is here to both inspire and lead the way.