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Bonnie Plant Farm sees growing success in state, Southeast

It is getting to be that time of year again. As the days grow longer, it is time to think about getting out in the yard or garden and do a little planting. And Bonnie Plant Farm’s operations in Central and North Mississippi will need those longer days to meet the demand for its products from major retailers and independents.

“Growing in Mississippi is a lifestyle,” said Bob Lankford, Bonnie’s Jackson station manager. “We expect to see a continued increase in small-space and mini-gardens such as patios, balconies, large containers, etc. as consumers find unique and creative places to grow vegetables and herbs.”

Headquartered in Union Springs, Ala., Bonnie traces its roots back to 1916 and the couple of Livingston and Bonnie Paulk. As newlyweds, the Paulks went into farming in Boynton, Fla., only to see a devastating freeze wipe out their farm. The Paulks eventually relocated to Livingston’s hometown of Union Springs in 1917, arriving with $50 in their pockets and their clothes. Bonnie Plant Farm was founded in 1918, and is now operated by its parent company Alabama Farmers Cooperative based in Decatur, Ala. Today, the grower of more than 150 different varieties of container vegetable plants, herbs and flowers employs 1,550 workers who plant more than 500 million seeds annually at 33 growing stations scattered across the U.S. The sales force numbers 175 representatives.

Bonnie has customers in 48 states, including such heavy-hitters as Lowe’s and Wal-Mart. Its fleet of 360 trucks makes more than 100 million product deliveries each year. According to Bonnie, it is the largest company of its kind in the nation, and saw total sales in 2004 of $76 million.
Part of that success can be attributed to the company’s strong product line up, such as the Bonnie Original Tomato.

Developed in 1967 by Peto Seed Company exclusively for Bonnie, it continues to be one of the company’s best sellers after nearly 40 years. A hybrid, Bonnie says the tomato bears large numbers of fruit throughout the growing season, is disease resistant and has excellent flavor.

Bonnie offers more than 50 varieties of tomatoes alone, and more than 30 varieties of peppers, with the most popular being the Sweet Bell. In total, the company’s product lineup includes 20 different vegetables and 20 different herbs (its best seller is basil), with each category offering a number of varieties. It also offers nine-pack flowers — impatiens, pansies, marigolds and petunias.

Bonnie’s innovative products go beyond just plants. One of its most popular products is its peat container. Developed to simplify growing for novice gardeners, the peat container is biodegradable, allowing the plant and the container to be planted together. The environmentally-friendly peat container is designed to reduce transplant shock.

Bonnie is also making sure it has future customers for its plants. The company offers the 3rd Grade Cabbage Program, which has seen hundreds of thousands of school children participate over its history. Bonnie offers a variety of cabbage called O.S. (“over-sized”) Cross to classrooms. The cabbage grows an immense head that can weigh more than 40 pounds. The children get to watch the cabbage grow, cultivating an appreciation for gardening and, hopefully, for Bonnie.

During the peak season, Bonnie employs approximately 100 workers equally divided between its growing stations in Jackson and Tupelo. (Bonnie’s selling season in the South begins in January and stretches through May.) The Tupelo operation serves customers in Central and North Mississippi while the Jackson station fills orders in South Mississippi and Louisiana. Both count Lowe’s, The Home Depot, K-Mart, Wal-Mart and independents as customers.

According to company spokesperson Bob Bartels, the Jackson operation makes approximately $2.2 million worth of deliveries annually, while Tupelo delivers $1.25 million.
Charlie Trussell, Tupelo station manager, grew up in the industry and Bonnie. While the exact date of when Bonnie first came to Mississippi is unclear, Trussell said his father, John C. Trussell Jr., began driving the first Mississippi route in 1956. Charlie Trussell, who resides in Union Springs and lives in a mobile home during the growing season in Mississippi, has been with Bonnie for approximately 40 years.

Trussell said this year is shaping up like most others — busy. The Tupelo operation, which is actually nearer Mooreville, encompasses 10 greenhouses, which receives plastic trays, or “flats,” of young plants from Union Springs that are grown out here in Mississippi. When properly matured, they are loaded — by hand — into one of three trucks that deliver them. The operation is then sent more trays to replace those shipped, and the process starts over again.

“It used to be that this industry had a short growing season, so you could make some money in a short time,” Trussell said. “Well, it isn’t like that any more. This year, it’s been about normal as far as how busy we are. I think this year is looking good. We’re having an early Easter this year, which means planting will start earlier. That should be good for business.”

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

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