Jan 27, 2023
Georgia produce group celebrates award winners at highly attended show

Attendance at the Southeast Regional Fruit & Vegetable Conference, which was Jan. 5-8 in Savannah, Georgia, was back to pre-pandemic numbers.

Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Association (GFVGA), said attendance was more than 3,000, an increase of 12% from the 2022 show and in line with pre-pandemic attendance numbers.

Sam Watson, left, of Chill C Farms, is the new president of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Association, pictured with Executive Director Chris Butts. Photos: Chris Koger

“The 2023 Southeast Conference was a testament to the need growers have to come together in person to learn and gain insights that they can take back to the farm and put into use immediately for the 2023 season,” Butts said.

“We are able to bring together a wealth of information and networking opportunities for growers through the incredible support of our exhibitors and education partners,” he said. “We’re looking forward to 2024 bringing even more value to our attendees, partners and exhibitors.”

An auction netted more than $23,000 for association needs.

Along with the expo and dozens of educational sessions, GFVGA and co-organizer South Carolina Peach Council recognized industry members in the region that received accolades throughout the year, as well as presenting their own awards.

Industry honored

A new GFVGA award traces its roots to Operation Blooming Onion, a multi-agency investigation that focused on labor law violations at Georgia onion farms and elsewhere. Authorities said 24 people conspired to smuggle Mexican and Central Americans and forced them to work. Butts said the GFVGA determined it needed a vehicle to recognize those in the industry that support ag workers.

“The award celebrates those who advocate on behalf of both employers and those who support opportunities for ag workers,” Butts said. “One person’s name comes to mind when you talk about leadership in the ag workforce.”

That person is Dan Bremer, president of AgWorks H2 LLC, Valdosta, Georgia, who the award is named after.

“He and his staff’s experience with H-2A and H-2BN has served our industry well,” Butts said. “In addition to his service to our industry and growers, he’s provided outstanding service to GFVGA.”

Drew Echols, outgoing president of the GFVGA, and Charles Hall, former GFVGA executive director and 2023 recipient of the Friend of the Georgia County Extension Agent Award.

Bremer has donated his time as a GFVGA committee chair, event speaker and overall supporter of the association, and Butts said he’s the “go-to person” for all H-2A-related questions.

Bremer encouraged members of the audience to find a framed print of President Theodore Roosevelt on display with the association’s silent auction items just outside the entrance to the expo floor. The print includes passages from Roosevelt’s famous “The man in the arena” speech, given in 1910 in Paris.

“It’s about the person who doesn’t succeed every time, but keeps getting up and doing it again,” Bremer said. “It’s the person who does the work, while other people around them are criticizing what they do, that they’re not doing this right or not doing that right, but that’s the person in there doing it. And doing it correctly.”

At the breakfast, the show also recognized individuals from other organizations who were honored throughout the year. 

Ashley Hoppers, a Georgia Extension agent for Fannin and Gilmer counties, won the Donnie Morris Extension Award of Excellence. David Lillard, of Mercier Orchards in Blue Ridge, Georgia, said in his nomination letter that Hoppers is “young, enthusiastic and very enthusiastic” and “always working to find answers for farmers.”

Chris Yonce, left, president of the South Carolina Peach Council, and 2023 Mr. Peach award recipient Matthew Flemming.

Matthew Flemming, who owns Midland Insurance Agency in Columbia, South Carolina, was recognized with the Mr. Peach Award. Flemming works beyond the usual grower-insurance agent relationship, said Chris Yonce, president of the South Carolina Peach Council. 

“As an agent, Matthew is not obligated to fight to make disaster aid available to all growers or to lobby for better payment limits for growers, or to negotiate for fair-risk assessments of high-value specialty crops like peaches, but he did it, because that’s the right thing to do,” Yonce said.

Bill Brim, left, president and CEO of Lewis Taylor Farms, accepts the National Friend of Extension Award from outgoing GFVGA president Drew Echols. Photo: Chris Koger

Phil Brannen, a University of Georgia Extension fruit disease specialist, was honored by being inducted into the IPM Hall of Fame. Brannen develops IPM practices to solve disease issues and technology transfer of disease-management methods.

Other awards included:

  • National Friend of Extension Award: Bill Brim, president, CEO and co-owner of Lewis Taylor Farms Inc.
  • Friend of the Georgia County Extension Agent Award: Charles Hall, GFVGA’s executive director emeritus.

— Chris Koger, managing editor

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