Allen Eubanks left Mississippi State University in 1992 with a degree in agricultural economics and returned to his family’s small truck farming operation at Lucedale, Miss. — “30 non-irrigated acres of mostly watermelons, with some peas, butterbeans, and cantaloupes.”

Since then, he’s gradually expanded acreage and crops, now serving major accounts all over the Southeast and several northern states, including the 800-pound gorilla in the supermarket business, Wal-Mart, and employing more than 250 people at peak periods.

And he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Agricultural Economics Association, there’s opportunity for other Mid-South growers to do the same.

“The business has been good for us,” he says. “We’ve gone from a very small, local family operation to one that has made a place in a very specialized market and is still growing. I believe there is a lot of opportunity in this business in the years ahead for those who can capitalize on trends and constantly improve efficiency.”

Eubanks Produce, Inc., which he runs with his wife, Janice, is an expansion of a tradition going back to his grandfather, who grew vegetables in the early 1900s. “It was in his blood,” he says, “and my father continued it while holding a full-tine job off-farm.

“I left MSU with my degree and felt I was pretty well trained to be a farm manager, so I set out to try and grow the business. By the mid-1990s, we’d increased to 80 acres of watermelons, with continuing small acres of vegetables.”

But a big problem, Eubanks says, was labor. “It was really tough getting the workers we needed. As things went along, we were able to hire about 20 migrant workers.”

Two big changes in 1997 made it a pivotal year for the operation.

“First, we were able to establish a relationship with Wal-Mart to supply them with watermelons. We expanded to 250 acres and installed drip irrigation.

“Unfortunately, we were dealt a blow by the weather, with 30 days of rain in May and June, which left half the crop rotting in the field. The migrant workers decided to go someplace else, and we were stuck with half a crop and nobody to get it out of the field.

“Second, while we were grasping at straws for labor, we got some help from Washington and were permitted to use foreigners under the H2A program, which permits U.S. employers to bring temporary foreign workers into the United States to perform seasonal agricultural work. This became a very steady, reliable source of labor.”

Over the next three years, Eubanks says, “We spent a lot of long days and nights trying to recover from the ’97 disaster. I didn’t take any salary and we plowed everything back into the business.

“We increased acres and were gradually able to penetrate markets by offering fresh produce, picked today, cooled tonight, and delivered within a 200-mile radius.”

To eliminate as much weather risk as possible, he put all his production under drip irrigation. “All our fields are now leveled for drainage and we’ve incorporated GPS technologies to help improve fieldwork efficiency.

“Things started coming together as we built a lot of sound relationships within the industry, learned which crops were a sound economic fit, built an infrastructure that included a processing/cooling shed, and concentrated on doing a better job with the crops that were left.”

Watermelons are still in their top three crops, Eubanks says. “At one time, we were up to 300 acres, but now we’re at 275, producing from 250 to 300 loads per acre. We also market melons for a couple of smaller growers in the area.

“Cantaloupes continue to be good for us. We grow 80 to 90 acres of a really aromatic, delicious variety that sells itself.

“We grow cherry tomatoes and hot peppers. Three years ago, we started growing about 25 acres of Mississippi sweet onions, a really good eating onion — but it has been hard to break into that market because of the outstanding job the Vidalia growers have done.”

They now grow about 80 acres of strawberries (“we started with just one acre”), which has worked well for utilizing the labor force in March and April.

“We now have about 5 acres of high-tunnel strawberry production. It’s a very expensive system to establish — about $30,000 per acre — but it allows us to have product at a time when prices are at their peak. The first year was quite successful, the second year not so good, and our third year is now looking good.”

They use squash and cucumbers for double-cropping and, Eubanks says, sometimes can get three crops in the same field.

“Bell peppers are another of our top three products, and the most expensive crop we grow — it takes about $7,500 per acre to get them to the harvest stage. Cabbages are a fill-in crop. We don’t get rich on it, but it’s a staple crop. And we grow eggplant and tomatoes.

‘We’ve now started applying stickers to much of our produce to show it’s locally grown.”

By 2003-04, “things had started coming together really well,” Eubanks says. “We were realizing economies of scale and were able to effectively compete with the big boys in Georgia and Florida.

“My wife, Janice, who has a degree in computer science, came in full-time and her expertise has been a valuable addition. We now use handheld computers to enter data in the field, which allows us to track production, costs, and other relevant information on a daily basis.

“It’s an economist’s dream come true — to be able to track all data and have it available almost instantaneously. We can now keep payroll information for hundreds of employees as easily as we once did for two.”

At peak, Eubanks says, “we’ll have 250 employees, 20 full-time and the rest migrant and H2A workers. We make weekly calls to the local Wal-Mart so they’ll know how much money to have on hand to cash workers’ paychecks.”

In 2000, “sort of by accident,” he says, they started a U-Pick operation.

“We had about 10 acres of tomatoes we couldn’t sell, so we did a little advertising in the area and invited people to come and pick their own. Next year, we did it again, and the third year we planted 20 different items on 80 acres. It has turned into a pretty good little extra business, which Dad runs. On opening day last year, we had 1,200 cars come through.”

In 2005, Eubanks says, the company was the first in their area to be certified for all government food safety requirements. “We have a full-time food safety specialist on staff.”

Currently, they have established markets all over the Southeast, with several in northern states.

“We have production operations in south Mississippi, south Alabama, and mid-Florida, and we have plans for expansion into northeast Arkansas — all to increase production, help with diversification, and spread risk. We’re aligning ourselves more directly with retailers, and we’re establishing a marketing company to help sell produce from other growers.”

The “locavore” trend, which is based reducing the carbon footprint by using products from a local or regional area versus those shipped from great distances, has also been beneficial by helping the company get into markets that it couldn’t previously penetrate, Eubanks says.

Changes nationwide in school lunch programs, with more fresh vegetables and salad bars, are also helping to improve the demand from produce.

“We make it a practice to visit all our customers at least once a year, which helps us to keep up with the markets and to spot new opportunities, particularly for ethnic markets. “For example, during a customer visit, we learned about a particular pepper that was in demand by an ethic group in the area. It’s a niche product, but we started growing it and now sell several hundred boxes per year.”

Wal-Mart, now the leader in the supermarket business, is actively soliciting produce growers, Eubanks says, “so that’s a real opportunity for anyone who can meet their requirements. Most of the produce we provide to Wal-Mart is trucked to their big distribution center at New Albany, Miss.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com