Grain Producer Expands Into Fruit To Meet Consumer Demands

September 29, 2017 04:53 AM
George McDonald

George McDonald has about 2 million neighbors within 50 miles of his farm. Nashville, a bustling metropolis that adds 100 new people each day, has been growing closer to his Riddleton, Tenn., operation for decades.

Most people would cringe at farming in the same county as the country’s fastest-growing city. McDonald sees it as an opportunity.

A booming population means his farm’s products have an insatiable market, including an expanding list of high-end restaurants and chefs seeking impeccable produce. McDonald would have never dreamed when he joined his family operation in 1978 that the products of his toil would be found on the shelves of Wal-Mart, sold for fundraisers by local FFA chapters or dipped in chocolate and served up at acclaimed foodie institutions.

His progressive thinking and acute business plan has catapulted a 90-year-old farm to a consumer-driven and diverse operation that produces corn, soybeans, wheat, strawberries and watermelons.

With McDonald at the helm, Catesa Farms has gone full circle from a 257-acre diversified crop and livestock farm to a large-scale row-crop-only operation to today’s 6,000-acre enterprise producing row crops and specialty crops.

Southern Roots. In 1927, McDonald’s great-grandfather, George, started farming in north-central Tennessee. The farm passed on to his grandfather, Carmen, and then his father, Sam. When McDonald joined the farm as a kid, the family raised hogs, beef cattle and dairy cows, and they produced corn and tobacco on 400 acres.

By the late 1980s, the McDonalds knew it was time either to update and expand their dairy operation or move on. They chose the latter.

“Farming is a family tradition, but it is a business for us,” McDonald says of Catesa Farms. Its name pays homage to that legacy, combining the first two letters of the names of his grandfather Carmen, grandmother Temple and father, Sam.

By the late 1990s, row crops  replaced tobacco and livestock. McDonald loves technology and became an early adopter of precision ag to maximize yields on his acres. “I’ve always embraced new ideas and innovations and have a thirst for trying new things,” McDonald says. It’s a trait he learned from his grandfather, Carmen. “You have to be pretty aggressive to make a living in this part of the world. When I feel like I’ve got something under control, I start looking around for something new I can tackle.”

Sweet Success. That innovative thinking lead McDonald to grow market-fresh sweet corn, pumpkins and to start a sod enterprise producing bluegrass, fescue and zoysia grass. By 2005, he switched to strawberries and planted one acre. He knew little about growing strawberries but could see the opportunity for profit.

“You only have so much potential in corn, soybeans and wheat—your top and bottom are more or less locked in,” he says. On the flip side, specialty crops can provide feast or famine, depending on production, management and marketing.

Strawberries are an expensive crop to grow, McDonald says. They require a lot of hand labor throughout the season, are extremely weather dependent and have a short shelf life. 

“As a rule of thumb, you have $10,000 an acre in strawberries before you start picking,” he says.

Today, Catesa Farms dedicates 12 acres to strawberries, which equals about 180,000 lb. of strawberries. Produce is sold under the Catesa Farms brand to restaurants and in Nashville, to specialty markets, to two wineries and at the farm. “Our goal is to be able to nearly meet our demand,” he says. “You don’t want to lag demand, and if you over supply, you’ve lost money.”

After finding success with strawberries, McDonald added 35 acres of watermelons to his farm portfolio.

The Catesa Farms team, which includes seven full-time workers and 30 seasonal employees for strawberry and watermelon harvest, picks the ripe melons in the summer and sorts them by size. (A perfectly ripe watermelon should have a yellow belly, pronounced stripes and a hollow sound, McDonald says.) One acre of watermelons typically produces 40,000 lb. to 45,000 lb., with the most marketable watermelons in the 13 lb. to 17 lb. range, he says.

McDonald works with Mouzin Brothers, an Indiana-based farm for distribution. His watermelons end up on shelves at Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club, Costco, Kroger, Save-A-Lot and other chain retailers.

Hands-Off Leader. McDonald leads his team with respect and a get-out-of-the-way attitude. “I don’t like to be called boss,” he says. “We don’t have anyone that works for us. We all work together.”

Recently, his employees asked if they could start work at 6 a.m. instead of 7 a.m.

“I said, ‘Sure, as long as you quit at a decent time and don’t keep trying to work until dark,’” McDonald recalls. “My employees will spend more time here than they will with their families. I always emphasize, if something is going on with your family, go do it.”

To help his full-time and seasonal employees prioritize tasks, McDonald keeps a typed and color-coded to-do list. High-priority items are marked in red, which helps focus his team on what to do next.

One of McDonald’s daughters, Sarah Owen, joined the team this summer, as the fifth generation. After earning degrees in agricultural economics and elementary education and teaching for five years, she was ready to return to her roots. “It makes me swell with pride that Sarah has come back to the farm,” McDonald says. “So many people think a young person can’t come back to the farm and make a living at it, and some people are concerned about a lady being back on the farm. None of those concerns phase me.”

Owen, 28, plans to specialize in the financial side of the operation.

“I’m just excited to be here,” Owen says of her new career path.

Big-Picture Thinking. Her return also has helped McDonald focus on fine-tuning the farm’s management structure. He attended the first unit of The Executive Program for Agricultural Producers (TEPAP) this year, with plans for Owen to attend in the near future.

“I don’t bring back 5-gal. buckets of new ideas anymore,” he says. “But I bring back little cupfuls, which can still fill up the bucket.”

One such practice he learned from TEPAP: standard operating procedures (SOPs). At first, he admits, he thought they would be a waste of time. But he has changed his mind.

“Now I realize they are good for employees and Sarah,” McDonald says. “But they are also good for me on those things I don’t do but two or three times a year.”

A lot of people think SOPs are just a lot of bureaucracy, says Dick Wittman, a family business consultant and TEPAP instructor.

“The people who have the best knowledge aren’t good at writing this stuff down,” Wittman says.

Although it can be difficult for some farmers to continually reinvent themselves, McDonald embraces it.

“I grew up in a family that was hard-working and very conservative. We never took a vacation,” he says.

Now, McDonald knows there is a whole lot more to life than farming. “All farmers need to get out and see how the rest of the world farms and lives,” he says. “It helps you stay in tune with what you need to be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing.”

In the future, McDonald says, farmers will have to change how they approach production agriculture. “We used to think that we’ll grow it, and they’ll eat it,” he says. “But now it’s the other way around. Consumers are going to tell us what they want. The money won’t be necessarily made in a bulk commodity. It will be made in specialty crops.”

That adaptive mindset is what’s helping the team at Catesa Farms capitalize on every acre.

“Progressive thinking can sometimes be lacking in agriculture,” McDonald says. “We have to be willing to change the ways we look at things and risk having our neighbors question us.”

Create An Accountable Team in three easy steps

At Catesa Farms, owner George McDonald leads a team of seven full-time and 30 seasonal employees. To keep his diversified operation running at maximum output, he empowers and cross-trains employees while letting them specialize in different areas. This creates an accountable and engaged team.

Farm CEOs and leaders must model the behavior they are asking their employees to exhibit, says Mike Scott, president of Mike Scott and Associates, a consulting and training firm specializing in team management.

“Accountability is doing what you said you would do, as you said you would do it, when you said you would do it—period,” Scott says.

First, make sure your team has the tools to succeed. The more you train someone, the more you empower them and give them confidence, Scott says. Provide training for the role they are in today but also for the company you will be five years from now.

Use consistent communication tactics to make sure everyone understands they are accountable. Scott suggests using this framework. From now on, whenever you ask someone to do something, commit to three actions:

1. Confirm the date and time for completion.

2. Repeat or paraphrase the request to ensure both
parties understand the end result.

3. The moment either party realizes a commitment might be missed, agree to speak by phone or in person and to present three possible solutions about how to reach the original goal. If approval isn’t required, take one of the possible actions to complete the project.

Farming in Andrew Jackson’s Footsteps

Ten miles from downtown Nashville sits Hermitage, a 1,120-acre plantation owned by Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the U.S. When Jackson owned the property from 1804 until his death in 1845, cotton served as the primary cash crop.

Today, Tennessee farmer George McDonald cash rents 315 acres of the Hermitage site and grows corn, wheat and soybeans. He uses variable-rate technology and other precision-ag tools to farm the historic property.

“We’re happy to be involved in the operation,” he says. “Being located in the middle of Nashville, we use precision farming to be environmentally sensitive. We have to be sensitive to our neighbors and to the archeology.”

Working with the Hermitage’s management team also has helped McDonald learn to communicate with the public about modern farming.

“Sometimes we get complacent in what we’re doing,” he says. “We forget to share those stories with local groups like our Chamber of Commerce, Rotarian groups or urban friends. It’s not like we need to put ourselves on a pedestal, but we have to help educate about what we’re doing in agriculture and how it will sustain our environment and economy.”

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