Aug 26, 2019Chuck Obern, a curious cultivator, is Florida Farmer of the Year
Curiosity pulled Charles “Chuck” Obern from a family garden north of Pittsburgh to a minimum-wage nursery job on the East Coast. It pulled him to an agriculture degree and 10 acres in Florida. Today, he’s at the head of C&B Farms, a 1,500-acre operation growing herbs and vegetables.
The first-generation grower’s successful journey into southern specialty agriculture was recognized in July, when the Sunbelt Expo and Swisher International named Obern its 2019 Florida Farmer of the Year.
Obern said he first felt the itch as a youngster living in Pennsylvania who was charged with growing peppers, tomatoes and other vegetables for his mother.
“I was tasked with farming and maintaining a vegetable garden,” he said. “That’s the beginning. (I) had to make a vegetable garden and carry it all the way to harvest. My mother loved to freeze and can. That struck me as something fun to do and interesting to do, challenging.”
He was drawn further in at college, where he worked at a nursery. The job didn’t pay much, but he enjoyed it so much that he moved from Washington, D.C.’s American University to the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agriculture Sciences (UF/IFAS) to study agriculture. He worked for other growers at first, and his first independent effort as a grower occurred in 1986 with 10 acres outside of Immokalee, Florida.
Today, he grows 30 different vegetables and herbs on 1,500 acres in central Florida, including green beans, eggplant, baby bok choy, green cabbage, peppers, greens, radishes, basil, cilantro and other herbs. Some of the crops are organic, others are grown conventionally. All the crops are sold or committed before they are planted, Obern said. Retail customers include Publix, Winn-Dixie and Walmart. His son and daughter-in-law, Charles “Boots” Obern and Miranda Obern, are the operation’s vice president and CFO, respectively.
Obern has stayed curious over the years, collaborating on trials with researchers at Rutgers University, UF/IFAS, Rupp Seeds and the USDA.
Eva Webb, a district field representative for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, nominated Obern for the farmer of the year because of his dedication, curiosity and innovative farming methods.
“He did not come from a farming background but has a passion for the land and research, which he has generously shared with others,” she said. “He began with very few resources, but through sheer determination and great effort, created a farming legacy to pass on to his children who share his love of farming.”
The art of organic
In 2006, Obern got into custom organic growing, and today close to one-third of his farm is farmed organically.
But it hasn’t been a pleasure cruise.
“Organics is not what the media likes to portray,” he said. “The risk of growing in organics is high because you don’t have the tools like you have in conventional production to combat weeds and pests.”
Not only is the risk higher, but the costs are also higher. Weeding has to be done manually, either with mechanical cultivation tools or by hand. Fertility is expensive, especially in a growing region known for its weak soils.
“Our soils are not rich, so we have to add the majority of the inputs back into the soil for every crop,” he said. C&B Farm composts bedding from a nearby horse racetrack.
While organics are expensive to grow, risky and for a limited niche of the market, Obern said there are benefits.
“It makes you be a better farmer, because you have to be much more attentive to what you’re doing and try to predict things that are going to happen and then also try to figure out solutions – if it’s possible – with the tools that you have,” he said.
Help from friends
Obern attributes his success to his colleagues, friends and customers who have helped him over the years. One example is getting an enviable contract to grow peppers for the Pace salsa company in the 1990s – a turning point for the farm.
“By 1992, I was up to 60 acres of a part-time farm, and we always grew jalapeños on this part-time farm, and we just grew a lot more of them,” he said. “Pace Foods used a lot of jalapeños in their hot sauce, so they made the decision. They had the need and they had been buying jalapeños from us in bin boxes, so they already had been a buyer, but not in a big way. And that’s when they made the decision that they liked what they saw and they needed a grower that could provide a large quantity of product. So that’s when the owner contacted me and offered me this option. It was fantastic.”
He reflected on that opportunity.
“You’ve got to get a lot of breaks as you grow, and a lot of people have to help you,” he said. “It’s not about me; it’s about all the people who helped me along my journey. I have many, many people all the way from the beginning who helped me to be where I’m at.”
He said there were too many helpers over the years to count. A few examples: Immokalee neighbors Cecil Howell and Jerry Rainwaters laid plastic for him, and let him borrow fuel on evenings when he would tend to his part-time farm. Eva Webb helped him secure his first commercial loan. Dr. David C. Brown III, a former farmer who’s now an eye doctor, once gave Obern a handshake deal to buy farm equipment, and with very favorable terms: annual payments after harvest for three years.
Obern repeated: “It’s not really about me. It’s about everybody along the path.”
Top photo: The Sunbelt Expo and Swisher International named Charles “Chuck” Obern its 2019 Florida Farmer of the Year. Photo: Janelle Folk/Janelle’s Photography