Innovation, tradition add up to lots of greens

At Walter P. Rawl and Sons, tradition and legend work alongside cutting-edge technology and new ideas.

Legend has it that on their wedding day, farm founders Walter P. Rawl and his bride, Ernestine, set out cabbage. Today, almost 80 years later, the second and third generation of the family sits around the table everyday, discussing the business of growing and marketing.

Dating back to its founders, Rawl and Sons has used innovation to insure a steady year-round supply of that Southern staple called “greens” and kept the family on the cutting edge trend-wise, as well. The family operation raises 2,500 acres of greens and other vegetables.

W.P. Rawl passed away in 1978. Ernestine Rawl was still canning in her later years. Both left a legacy of innovation to their descendants.

The farm was one of the first to use irrigation and integrated pest management in South Carolina. They were also quick to adopt practices that trace back their products to the field where it was produced.

The farm is also capitalizing on consumer needs for pre-packaged, ready to cook vegetables.

It’s in the bag or the shell

Taking a cue from the bagged salad industry, the farm, in the late 1990s, began selling pre-washed, chopped and pre-packaged ready-to-cook kale, collards and mustard greens.

Ashley Rawl, the company’s director of marketing, seems to think that it’s had an effect on increasing sales as well as “creating new markets.”

The farm ships about 35 tractor-trailer loads of greens out of their brand new Pelion, S.C., facilities each week.

Gathered around the table, Susan Wingard Clifton, Charles Wingard, Wayne Rawl and Ashely Rawl, four of the company’s leaders, quickly turn into consumers when talking about cooking collards in a bunch as opposed to dumping pre-washed collards into a boiling pot.

“When you get down to the pot likker with a bunch of collards, there was always grit,” Ashley Rawl says. “With the pre-washed and ready-to-cook collards, there’s none of that.”

He agrees that pre-packaged collards are a “little trendier for upscale consumers.”

“We were already known for our bulk products and felt like the category of value-added products had a lot of potential,” says Clifton, who handles the accounting.

Launched about six years ago, the ready-to-cook category has taken off. Recently, they’ve added a line of “versatile vegetables,” clam shell bowls of sliced yellow squash, zucchini and mixed peppers for easy use by consumers.

Currently the company is working on ways to offer other vegetables in ready-to-cook form.

Marketing trends are only one way W.P. Rawl and Sons continues to use innovation to its benefit.

With consumers and companies demanding to know where their food supply originates, trace back has become a way growers can put an extra stamp of approval on their product.

The farm keeps a record of each lot of produce leaving its facilities. The records are kept regarding the way the produce is grown in the field and in the processing of the vegetables. “It’s an investment in insurance for ourselves and our customers,” Wayne Rawl says.

A color-coded system inside the processing facility helps to keep food safety the top priority.

In the field, Charles Wingard keeps copious records on the way things are grown. Rawl Farms was the first farm in the nation to receive a superior rating for the way it grows produce from the American Institute of Bakeries, which certifies methods used on farms that provide fresh fruits and vegetables.

A year-round producer of greens, the farm has an extensive scouting program for insects. “We scout a least once a week, sometimes twice,” Charles says. They’ve seen the number of sprays as well as costs go down since turning to IPM. “We use beneficial insects to help fight pests. Throughout the farm, we have a total of about five acres of wildflowers to provide a habitat for the beneficial insects.”

An ever-evolving operation, those at Rawl tend to put things on paper and transfer it to the field in a small scale before making the plunge into flat-out production. “We track our yields and inputs,” Charles says. “That’s basically how we got into cilantro and parsley and sweet peppers.”

Such practices as side-dressing fertilizer led to input savings and a better-grown crop. That, as well as other ideas, came via the Clemson University Extension Service.

Powell Smith, a Clemson University Extension entomologist who at one time in his career was the ag agent in Lexington County, is a frequent advisor on how to control pests on the farm. “We work closely with Extension,” Charles says. The farm has hosted field days for growers in the area.

All of the officers of the company came up through the ranks, either out in the field, in the packing shed or learning the books.

“We started at the bottom with on-the-job training,” Ashley Rawl says.

“If you could walk and talk, you could do something,” Susan Wingard Clifton says. “My mom, Sue Rawl Wingard, handled the bookkeeping. When she had to be out of the office, my granddaddy taught me how to do a little banking. We all spent a lot of time around our grandparents. Those were good times.”

While W.P. Rawl and his wife always grew greens, they were big into canning. “Sell what you can and can what you can’t,” their descendants are fond of quoting the founder as saying.

Rawl operated a peach orchard as well as a canning facility. He often took bushels of peas around to neighbors for shelling, returning to pick the produce up the next day.

The operation continued in peaches until the early 1970s, when greens became the focus. “Greens are our foundation,” Susan Wingard Clifton says.

Looking back over the years, Wayne Rawl, who along with his brother, Howard, are among the second generation involved in the family operation, credits service to customers, as well as hard work for the success of the company. “There are two groups of people we have to thank for that: Our customers and our employees.”

The descendants of W.P. Rawl also acknowledge innovation as their friend and a key to success.

Other family members involved in the operation include Joyce R. Bolin, Karen R. Johnson, W. Dean Rawl and Bob Wingard.

e-mail: [email protected]

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