Dec 20, 2016
Georgia grower: Farming ain’t what it used to be

When vegetable farmer Bill Brim first started in the industry, he would walk the fields, take notes in a binder and deal with people on the phone. Today, as co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms in Tifton, Georgia, he’s dealing with drones, 3D printers and computerized drip irrigation.

Make no mistake about it, Brim said, being a farmer in the 21st century is not the same as it was.

Brim and Ed Walker acquired Lewis Taylor Farms from Brim’s father-in-law in 1985. At the time, it was primarily a transplant producer for the Southeastern United States.

“We didn’t do any vegetables at all, but what happened is the transplant business went to ‘hell in a handbasket,’ and we had to restructure the business,” Brim said.

He explains that the introduction of a carousel vegetable planter in 1987 eliminated the need for bare- root transplants, and his customer base dried out quickly. He started experimenting with growing anything he could – peanuts, cotton, soybeans, tomatoes – knowing that it was the only way to survive.

“We had to rebuild, so we started in produce in 1989 and continued from there,” he said. “It’s developed into a blessed business.”

That’s because about that same time, Lewis Farms built its first greenhouses to grow containerized transplants and expanded its vegetable production. Today, Lewis Taylor Farms is one of the largest privately owned vegetable and greenhouse operations in the Southeast.

Humble beginnings

Brim has been surrounded by agriculture all his life. His family owned a farm, growing tomatoes and vegetables, and he worked hard learning about the business from his grandfather, who had raised him after his dad passed away when Brim was only 7 years old.

“When I got to my teens, I moved to town with my sister to get an education and she handled me pretty hard, which is a good thing I guess,” Brim said.

Lewis Taylor Farms began operations in the 1930s, and Brim started working there in 1972 when it was owned by his father-in-law and Walker’s father. Today, Walker manages the greenhouses and a hydrocooling facility, while Brim focuses on the vegetable production.

In the late ’90s, Lewis Taylor Farms started expanding aggressively, and in 2000 it contracted Rosemont Farms to be the exclusive sales agent for produce.

“We were growing really strong at the time,” Brim said. “Our acreage was growing and we were doing really well.”

The farm’s crops include peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, cantaloupes, watermelons, broccoli, peanuts, greens and cole crops. He raises vegetable transplants as well as pine tree seedlings in 60 greenhouses and maintains three modern facilities for packing and shipping his produce. Today, the farm is responsible for approximately 330 million vegetable transplants and 70 million pine tree seedlings.

Brim is never satisfied with the status quo. He is continually trying out new crops and seeing what works and what doesn’t. For example, Lewis Taylor Farms was one of the first in Georgia to try planting broccoli on a large level. The farm now grows about 600 acres of broccoli, and he’s helped other farmers around the state get broccoli crops up and running.

“We try new stuff every growing cycle to see how it will go. Right now, we are trying cilantro and Swiss chard, and we’re always looking to expand our spread, whether that be mini sweet peppers or any of the Chinese vegetables,” he said. “Some work, some don’t, and we do probably three to four growing cycles and then move on to something else if we need to.”

Innovations abound

There have been so many changes in the industry since Brim was a lad working for his grandfather, and even in the 30 years he’s owned Lewis Taylor Farms.

“One of the biggest is using water-efficient drip irrigation systems and using computers to check fertilization and water. We know what we’re pumping and how much and how,” he said.

The farm installed its first drip irrigation system more than 25 years ago and currently uses drip on about 1,500 acres.

Walker and Brim have also started adapting hydrocooling, where watermelons, cantaloupes and broccoli are floated in a pool and cooled by water chilled to 31 ̊ F and flowing at a rate of 9,000 gallons per minute. This helps extend the shelf life of the produce for as much as two weeks.

As for the drones mentioned earlier, those are used by an on-site pathologist who flies them over the fields and scouts what’s going on, informing Brim of any problems that might arise.

Advocate and leader

Brim works closely with the University of Georgia’s (UGA) College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, getting its scientists involved in the protocols of the farm, and notes it’s a win-win for both parties.

“They are doing stuff all over my farm that has helped with new ideas and new technology. We’ve helped them a lot as well,” he said. “We’re trying to develop a different spray system right now to better know what to spray and when to spray.”

UGA is also where Brim gets to utilize a 3D printer, and the scientists help the farm design and manufacture tools and items that are added to the greenhouses to create better growing conditions.

Another aspect of the business that’s important to Brim is connecting with others in the business and advocating on behalf of farmers. Over the years, he’s been involved with Farm Bureau, helped organize the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association (serving as its president and chairing its labor committee), and was appointed to the regional water planning council. He’s also on the Georgia FSA board.

“Most people don’t have that chance to do something they love, but I get up every morning and am energized about what I do,” he said. “When you love agriculture as much as I do, it’s important to help support the people and work with others to teach them what to grow or how to grow.”

— Keith Loria, VGN correspondent

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