Resilient team helps diversified peach producers manage volatility
On a single night this spring, Chalmers Carr lost 80% of his peach crop. He awoke the next day to what he calls the $30 million morning, a reference to the missed revenue Titan Farms in Ridge Spring, S.C., will experience this year. The operation typically grosses $40 million annually.
Chalmers didn’t lose sleep. The 7,200-acre farm has crop insurance. He anticipates the farm can still get 20% of its crop to market. And more than a decade ago, he and his wife, Lori Anne, diversified into bell peppers and broccoli.
So rather than fretting, Chalmers got to work taking care of his team, which includes 40 full-time and more than 630 part-time employees through the federal H-2A program.
“Their world really changed,” Chalmers says. He brought his team of four vice presidents together and over a period of two to three months, they identified how many H-2A workers they needed and strategized ways other workers could be brought back in the future. They returned to customers with whom they’d prebooked 75% of the summer crop and explained the dilemma. Some agreed to simply take as little as half a load of peaches. Others purchased vegetables instead.
Then Chalmers approached his lenders with the news, explaining how the farm would control costs such as labor while caring for peach trees to ensure the viability of the 2018 crop. “It’s not an easy year, by any means,” he admits.
Learning And Leading. Indeed, few things have come easily to these first-generation farmers who opened for business in 1999 with 1,500 acres. But these trials by fire—or ice, as the case might be—have shaped their farm into the largest peach operation on the East Coast. Their careful efforts to source farm labor legally and provide all workers with benefits such as 100% paid health insurance and 401(k)s have resulted in a 98% employee retention rate.
It has also positioned Chalmers as a top advocate for farm workers and U.S. immigration reform. He has addressed Congressional committees and once participated in an immigration roundtable with then-President George W. Bush.
Today, the farm is composed of seven business entities including Palmetto Processing, a facility opened in 2016 that purees and freezes peaches for individually quick frozen and bulk markets. The vertically integrated farm business manages everything from in-field production to packing, sales and marketing, and shipping.
Those accomplishments paired with the Carrs’ attention to strategic growth, technological investments and environmental stewardship earned Titan Farms the 2017 Top Producer of the Year Award.
“Chalmers is an adept marketer producing effective results while creating branded products and setting Titan Farms apart in the marketplace. But his talents go beyond this,” says Don Goodwin, president of Golden Sun Marketing who has worked with the Carrs for more than six years. “Chalmers is an innovative thinker with a long-term view of the produce industry and a focus on sustainability.”
Aircraft To Agriculture. Chalmers had every intention of entering the military and flying planes. His dad, Hap Carr, served as an Air Force general officer and as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. But Chalmers decided to head in a different direction. Starting from age 13, he spent time on his mother’s family farm in North Carolina growing tobacco and peaches.
At age 18, the Clemson University student began managing all harvesting and packing for the farm.
“I was first genuinely attracted to the challenges of farming and finding their solutions. I learned the value of strong leadership skills from my father and honed those skills while managing the harvest and packing labor and the varied issues that arose each day,” Chalmers recalls. “My original goal was to own my own farming operation and to make it the best it could be.”
Chalmers and Lori Anne got the chance to strike out on their own in 1999, when they entered into a lease-purchase agreement with R. W. DuBose & Son, where Chalmers had served as farm manager for four years. The farm held the distinction of being the largest peach operation in South Carolina and had marketed its peaches under the Titan Brand label. So when the couple purchased the business, they adopted the name Titan Farms in recognition of the legacy built by the employees, all of whom stayed with the Carrs.
Hap helped, too, and Chalmers says his insights have been invaluable. When Chalmers started the farm, Hap ran an off-site retreat for Chalmers, Lori Anne and four other employees, helping them hash out their mission statement, values and more. Hap went on to become the food safety director, learned Spanish and ran the packing shed. Chalmers most admires his ability to engage people in conversation. His dad’s example has made him realize he needs to merge the farm’s three offices into a single large office to ensure ongoing interaction among executives and team members.
“You empower them, you support them and you get out of the way,” says Chalmers, who coached football for 15 years.
Family And Foresight. The best thing to ever happen to the farm is Chalmers, says Amancio Palma, farm operations and production manager.
“He treats everybody like family,” says Palma, 62, who jokingly refers to himself as the farm’s grandfather. “He’s a person that doesn’t discriminate against anybody.”
That commitment to relationships begins with employees and extends to customers. Already, Chalmers is thinking ahead to what this year’s freeze will mean for operations in 2018. To regain their customer base, he and the six-member sales team will resume their typical mid-January-to-April travel schedule to visit all retail partners. They’ll also place plenty of phone calls to stay top of mind with buyers stretching from San Antonio to Chicago and eastward. The farm is attractive to retailers along the eastern seaboard who can save money purchasing peaches from South Carolina versus operations in California. Chalmers also writes a quarterly newsletter.
They will also look into new uses for their processing facility, such as preparing frozen vegetables. He is bullish on the prospects of frozen peaches and peach puree, with customers such as PepsiCo’s Naked Juice and Materne’s GoGo squeeze already on the books. “Processing is probably our biggest expansion opportunity,” he says.
The service not only fills a niche but also prevents up to 14 million pounds—roughly 370 tractor-trailer loads—of lower-quality peaches from being tossed. He has hired Golden Sun Marketing as a consultant for the past seven years to better understand changing consumer demands, listening carefully to retailer needs and encouraging his team to stay active on social media.
The operation pairs its cutting-edge equipment and software with the human expertise of agronomists and other specialists. Its packing technology takes 360 photographs of every peach that comes down the line to sort it appropriately.
If a technology has a payback of between three and four years, Chalmers says, he invests the money into it. After all, you can’t add more hours to the day, so it pays to purchase efficiencies.
Tractors are equipped with spray sensors and radar technology that prevents spraying field areas where trees are missing. The spraying technology cost $40,000 but the returned ROI came back to the farm in just 18 months because it cut down significantly on the cost of chemicals, Chalmers says.
Integrity Above All. Chalmers stands out not only because of his industry foresight but because of the depth of his character.
“His honesty has never wavered. His management skills have stayed calm and reasoned,” explains Allan Singer, who has served as Chalmers’ attorney and adviser since 1990. “His commitment and concern for his people is genuine and deep.”
Chalmers and Lori Anne are working with their team to lay a foundation for the future. Chalmers says his wife is a great marketer who can pack and sell a peach as well as anyone he knows.
“We are a solid team,” Chalmers says. “My weaknesses are her strengths, and her weaknesses are my strengths.” As their children grew up—Chalmers Carr IV is 20, and Carlyle Anne is 19—Lori Anne took a step back from the business to focus on the family. It hasn’t always been easy to achieve balance between work and home, Chalmers says. Still, they work well together, playing off of Chalmers’ leadership skills and Lori Anne’s communication strengths. “If I ruffle someone’s feathers, she can usually smooth them right back over,” he says.
Lori Anne looks forward to manageable growth going forward. Success will depend on continued collaboration with their team.
“There’s a lot of pride [in our operation],” she says. “There’s pride from the two of us, but there’s also an awful lot of pride built into the folks that we’ve surrounded ourselves with. We have a lot of great talent.”
Chalmers credits three people with giving him essential business skills.
His dad taught him morals and ethics. His mother’s brothers, uncles Edward and John Dewitt, taught him the value of hard work and of relationships, respectively.
His uncles have died, but Chalmers’ relationship with his father has never been stronger.
“They took a risk on me,” he says. “I owe it to them to forever do my very best in all of my endeavors.”
About Titan Farms
Operation: The 7,200-acre operation is the largest peach producer in the eastern U.S. It also includes bell peppers and broccoli, and a processing plant for frozen and pureed peaches.
Family: Chalmers and Lori Anne Carr own and lead the operation. They have two children, Chalmers Carr IV, 20, and Carlyle Anne, 19. Chalmers’ dad, Hap, continues to help on the farm.
Technology: Investments include spray sensors and radars that minimize chemical applications in the field. Packing equipment takes hundreds of photos of each peach to properly sort it. Robotics are used to load peach crates onto pallets and much more. The operation opened its multi-million-dollar frozen-food processing plant in 2016.
Diversification: The vertically integrated farm includes in-field peach production, packaging, sales and marketing, and shipping, as well as processing for pureed and frozen products, along with vegetable production, packing and shipping. It runs three roadside stands in South Carolina called Sara’s Fresh Market.
Leadership And Community: Chalmers led three and assisted with two other undefeated state-champion varsity football teams during his 16 years coaching for Wardlaw Academy. He and Lori Anne are major supporters of their alma mater, Clemson University, through a personal endowment promoting innovation in the produce sector. The farm is the top donor of peaches and vegetables to the Harvest Hope Food Bank.
What the Peach Industry Can Teach Agriculture About Trade and Labor
The peach might seem inextricably linked to the American South and states such as South Carolina, which Titan Farms calls home. But the crop has international roots, and its labor history remains extremely relevant amid modern discussions about migrant labor, says William Thomas Okie, historian and author of the book, “The Georgia Peach: Culture, Agriculture, and Environment in the American South.”
Spanish monks first introduced the crop in St. Augustine, Fla., in the 1500s. Early on, peaches went into brandy and hog forage. Horticulturists developed the crop through breeding for commercialization. Here are a few lessons CEO producers can learn from the crop’s storied history.
Ag is a Global Market. The introduction of the Chinese cling variety in the 1850s set the stage for the commercial peach industry in the U.S., Okie says. It became the basis for the Elberta and the J.H. Hale varieties.
Transportation is Critical. Peaches can’t be held long in cold storage like apples, so a market didn’t develop for Southern producers until the invention of refrigerated rail cars. That opened up markets to large and smaller producers alike, and it fed the creation of grower exchanges to control the quality and price of crops.
Demand can be Fleeting. Today, more blueberries than peaches are produced in Georgia, another top state for stone-fruit production, because the crop is more profitable, Okie points out. Some farmers are substituting peaches with pecans, which require less labor. Georgia hit peak peach acreage in mid-1924, records show.
Labor Means Everything. Peach production wouldn’t have been possible without the cotton industry, Okie argues. African-Americans, many of them former slaves, worked on farms harvesting peaches in July and continued working by harvesting cotton immediately afterward. “It’s not really until the civil rights movement, when African-Americans are leaving the rural South or choosing to do work other than field labor, that you see growers in the Peach Belt realize what an advantage they had all these years,” Okie says. Farmers then transitioned to busing out-of-school students onto farms and then again into migrant labor. Under the federal H-2A program, “they’ve found a more stable and professional workforce than they’ve ever had since the early 20th century,” he says.