Oct 12, 2020Georgia grower celebrates 75 years of G&R Farms
While G&R Farms has expanded and adapted to the demands of clients over the years, its core values are as constant as the Vidalia onions for which it’s known.
In 1945, Walter L. Dasher started a small farm in Glennville, Georgia, outside Savannah, giving it the initials of his sons Gerald and Robert.
The farming operations, which have swelled to encompass some 5,000 acres, are 75 years old this year. A business importing sweet onions from Peru grew to more than 44 million pounds from 2009-2019. Walt Dasher, vice president of G&R Farms, is a third-generation grower and an owner. His mother Pam, uncle Robert and cousin Blake remain active in the company as employees and owners.
“My grandad was adamant that we be honest and our ethics be high, and that’s what we instill in our staff,” Dasher said. “I had a guy one time come to me, and he offered to steal a bunch of chemicals from another farmer. Needless to say, I terminated his employment that afternoon. We called the authorities.”
Crops and consistency
The company is perhaps best known for Vidalia onions, of which the operation grows about 900 acres. Walter L. Dasher was one of the growers who pioneered the development of the onions ultimately leading to the establishment of a federal marketing order in 1989.
Walt Dasher said that the key to marketing the onion nationally is its reliable flavor.
“The flavor profile, the pungency, the sugar content – they’re always going to be very mild and very related – they’re always going to be very similar,” he said. “Some other sweet onions, you can have a tendency to have waves; you can have up and down spikes.”
He said he’s not criticizing other growers’ onions – he even catches different spikes or “waves” of flavor in the sweet onions G&R imports from Peru.
“I could eat (a non-Vidalia sweet onion) like an apple, and very next one, the same day, it’ll take the roof of your mouth off,” he said.
Importing Peruvian onions began in 2009 as a service to its customers. G&R Farms onion products are Rainforest Alliance certified to be grown and harvested on farms and forests that follow sustainable practices.
“The people that we’re partners with, we wanted to provide them with year-round produce,” Dasher said. “It’s worked great. We’re one of the top importers in the country now.”
Living off the land
As a crop, onions represent about 75% of G&R’s business. They grow about 500 acres each of corn, soybeans and pecans. In addition to a 1,500-acre cattle operation, the farm’s other crops include hay, wheat and rye. It is not growing peanuts this season, although that changes from year to year.
The farm runs year-round with about 100 full-time employees. G&R Farms also employs seasonal help and for about 15 years has used the federal H-2A visa program for foreign workers.
“We start putting sweet onions in storage in late May and have them all the way basically through September,” Dasher said. The farm’s packing facility was built in 1980 – prior to that, onions were packed at the state farmers’ market.
The Glenville-area soil is a mix of loam, sand and clay.
“We have a fair constituency of clay – that could be a good thing and a bad thing,” Dasher said. “The sand is good for the onions; the clay is good for the onions but only in the right amounts. If you have too much of one or the other, it’s terrible. Sand is good for the quality of the onions.”
Bacterial and fungal pathogens such as botrytis are among the top challenges for vegetable growers in the region.
“We watch our weather, try to keep our choice of land rotation and crop rotation very tight,” Dasher said. Rotating onions with corn or peanuts helps with the disease pressure.
A living legacy
The 75th anniversary will include a bit of a launch to celebrate the family’s history.
Launched in September, the campaign includes a newly-designed bin, point-of-sale materials, public relations and social media activities. A downloadable favorite family recipe booklet will be featured on Facebook along with weekly give-a-ways. Historical family photos and video footage will be displayed across all social media channels educating consumers about the company’s history and heritage.
Walt Dasher said other family members, including his cousins and his own two daughters, are potentially lined up for future involvement in the company.
“We’ll see. I think we’ll be OK,” he said.
And, he hopes the company remains true to the same business values another 75 years from now.
“My hope is that … whoever owns the operation, we’re still living by our standards, our honesty and integrity standards, that we’re still providing the very best product that’s available to customers and consumers,” he said.
— Stephen Kloosterman, associate editor