John Aplin’s family has been growing vegetables in some form or fashion in southeast Alabama since 1952, but the survival of the farm has depended on a constant willingness to change.
We’ve had to evolve over the years, and we’ve had to make constant changes to stay in this business. There’s no other way if you want to make money,” says Aplin, whose fourth-generation, family owned and operated farm is located in Geneva County, between the towns of Slocomb and Dothan.
“My grandfather started growing vegetables in 1952. Prior to that time, he had grown row crops such as corn and cotton,” he says.
“By 1970, we were up to 200 acres in tomatoes, and that was the only vegetable crop we were growing.We were growing tomatoes for the green market, shipping them all over the United States and losing money. We were fighting to keep our heads above water with a lot of acres of a very expensive crop.”
By the 1980s, Aplin Farms began to see the need to diversify and cut back on tomato acreage, he says.
“Some years would be good, and we’d hope that it would last through the next bad year or until we had another good one. But by the 1980s, we were growing multiple kinds of vegetable crops. We were robbing Peter to pay Paul, hoping that the peppers would do good to help pay for the tomatoes.”
Sometime in the late-1980s to early 1990s, Aplin says they began to discover retail and decided that it was the direction the farm needed to go.
“So we began to downsize out of necessity and make changes we felt we had to make. This included more diversity. We went from growing one crop in the 1950s and 1960s to this past year, when we had approximately 170 varieties of different fruits and vegetables on the farm.
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“Now we consider ourselves to be primarily retail. We have constantly downsized. We do ‘you-pick,’ local sales and local farmers’ markets. By doing this, we’re taking about 20 percent of our product and making 70 to 80 percent of our income. The other 80 percent of our product makes 20 percent of our income, which is wholesale. If we had continued strictly in the wholesale business, I wouldn’t be farming today.”
Aplin’s main season runs from June through October each year. Produce is most plentiful during June, July and October. They finish the year with a fall crop including pumpkins, farm tours, a corn maze, and other vegetables and activities.
“About eight or nine years ago, we began doing more agri-tourism with pumpkins and farm tours, and that has been really successful for us with a lot of new business following,” says Aplin.
One of the biggest changes Aplin has made over the years is to move back to the local food movement.
“Since the ‘Buy Fresh Buy Local’ campaign started several years ago, it has made a big difference in what we do, how we do it, what we sell on the farm, and how we sell it. We’re taking advantage of these local food markets.”
To go along with local sales, Aplin says he’s now finding that the retail stores such as WalMart want smaller-scale growers to supply for them.
“We’d like to do it, but we’re telling them ‘no’ because they can’t afford our product, and they won’t pay what we want for it.
“That sounds boastful, but I don’t mean for it to be. If we’re selling retail, I don’t want to turn around and sell them something for 20 to 50 percent of what I’m going to get for it wholesale. If I did, I’d have to grow more just for them, and sooner or later I’d be caught in that big-box store trap, and they would win in the end.”
Aplin remains heavy in retail markets and on-farm sales. “Since we have started this, we are actually making money now, and that’s difficult to be able to say in agriculture sometimes. Marketing is not as much of a problem now as making sure I’ve got a product to sell at market time.”
One of the main problems on the farm now is scheduling, says Aplin.
“For example, we plant tomatoes on our farm, eight to 10 plants, spaced two to three weeks apart. We have to have everything we grow on the calendar, and we have to know when to plant it.
“Hopefully, if the weather cooperates, the schedule will come together and it’ll all be ready at the right time. Scheduling is the biggest thing for us — having a consistent supply of produce for our markets and for the people who come to our farm and buy directly.”
For the past several years, rather than getting bigger, Aplin Farms has gotten smaller, and profits have increased, he says.
“We’re able to maximize our efficiency in what we’re doing. Where I was trying to grow 40 to 50 acres of tomatoes, three years ago we downsized to 12 acres of tomatoes. When we were initially growing 200 acres of tomatoes, our average production was 500 to 700 boxes of tomatoes per acre. We peaked three years ago at nearly 2,000 boxes per acre in our best year, and we average 1,500 to 1,600 boxes per acre. That’s good in south Alabama.
“By downsizing, I can take those acres where I’ve already invested money and know my crop will have an increased yield, which will in turn increase our retail sales. By downsizing, diversifying, and maximizing the efficiency on what we are planting, we’re able to be where we are today.”
Aplin tries to stay one step ahead and never stop learning.
“Don’t wait for someone else to do it — don’t wait for someone else in your area to grow something or to try something new.
“I’m not saying to rush out and plant 50 acres of something. But if you see something in a seed catalog that looks like something a customer would buy, or if you’re at a market and several people ask about a product, then plant a little of it and see how it goes. If you can grow it and sell it, then you need to be growing more of it.”
Aplin also advises growers to visit with their seed, fertilizer and chemical dealers to find out what’s new.
“Be willing to experiment on a small scale with new products and rates. We do on-farm research, participating in variety trials so we’ll be the first ones to get it if it’s successful.”
Also, utilize your resources, says Aplin, such as the Southern Vegetable Growers Handbook — a product of several universities and hundreds of scientists who compiled information over several years.
“Seed catalogs also are a valuable resource, and many of them contain cultural guides. Our ultimate goal is to make a profit or a living, but we do better if we depend on one another.
“We’re still competitors, but in Alabama, where we have 1,100 growers and 140 markets, there are markets out there begging for growers. We could never feed our state if we had to.”
It’s important for growers to find their niche, says Aplin.
“My recipe works for me, but it may or may not work for you. Stick with what works for you. A niche market will work for a little while until everyone starts doing it, and then you have to find something else. Always have something that makes you unique.”
But don’t get greedy, he adds. “If you’re in this business because you need a job or you need something to do, you’re in the wrong business. You need to be happy with what you’re doing. Greed will take over your marketing strategy if you’re in it for the wrong reasons.”
Growers need to be proactive and not reactive, says Aplin.
“Too many times, we wait until we see a disease or an insect pest in our crops before we start to spray. You don’t want to grow your crop and then think about how you’re going to sell it — that should have been the first thing you thought about.
“The marketing plan should be the first thing you think about, at or at about the same time that you’re figuring out what to grow. Plans don’t always work, but you still need to have one.”
Building good relations with the media also can pay off in the long-run, says Aplin.
“If you live in south Alabama, you’ve probably seen me on television. When it’s a slow news day, they may come out and do a story on some strange facet of agriculture.
“I don’t turn them down — never run from the media. When they want to come out and do a story, be cooperative. It can be used as a form of free advertising in the long run.
“When they do decide to talk to you in front of the camera, and they want to interview you about how the drought is affecting your crop this year, don’t say that you’ll lose the whole crop.
“You’ve just told everyone that you won’t have a crop this year. Be as positive as you can. Any press is good press if you make it that way.”
Finally, Aplin says growers should dare to be different. “Two years ago, we started out growing pumpkins and that’s unheard of in south Alabama. Now it’s a success. You just never know.”
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