(July 15, 11:02 a.m.) The Horton Fruit Co. Inc., Louisville, Ky., opened a subsidiary grower-shipper company called Grow Farms to brand and ship fresh fruits and vegetables from family-owned growing operations throughout the region.

Grow Farms grows and ships tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers, eggplants, beans, corn, melons and more, said Brian Knott, president. The grower-shipper packs from about 1,500 acres in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Indiana, Knott said.

The company wants to help local growers get their products to other states, said Jackson Woodward, president of Horton Fruit.

“We feel like we have the best growers in Kentucky and Tennessee, so we’re going to help them grow their acreage by creating a brand,” Woodward said.

Rising costs for growers

The brand should help local family-owned growing operations stay afloat as operating costs rise, Woodward said. A 60% increase in the cost of fertilizer from last year, increases in labor cost and gas prices hurt everyone last year, Knott said. But it was unrealistic to think growers would recover from higher prices at the market alone, Woodward said.

“They have to bring in more profit to have the ability to invest in their land and keep growing. Hopefully Grow Farms will help them do that,” Woodward said.

Kentucky family-owned growing operations are not the only ones suffering from skyrocketing input costs. Larger farms are scaling down as well, said Ryan Beale, farm assistant and logistics coordinator for SunFresh Farms, Lebanon, Tenn. Beale said his options often came to the lesser of two evils — letting the crop rot or going a couple more dollars in the hole.

“If we are getting $5-6 a box, it’s almost cheaper to leave it right on the vine in the field instead of taking it to market. The cost of everything is going through the roof,” Beale said. “How are we going to recover this money we’re investing?”

This is the very problem Grow Farms hopes to alleviate for local growers, Knott said. All Grow Farms’ products come from family growing operations. Grow Farms will use its partnership with Horton Fruit to reach an existing customer base and expand beyond it.

Family growing operations

“It’s just a relationship between us and the growers. Horton Fruit Co. has treated (its customers) the best and Grow Farms is using that reputation. We have the trust built up there,” Knott said.

Grow Farms plans to help its producers diversify their operations and distribute their products to different states.

“If you’re going to grow, you have to reach out and touch other people. The sooner, the better, and the consumer will answer that,” Knott said.

Because Grow Farms is in its first year of operation, it is only packing seasonal varieties, but Knott said he hopes to expand the deal as demand increases.

“The goal is to have customers requesting Grow Farms. We’ll just have to look at our avenues once we get to that point. It’s got a lot of potential,” Knott said.

The local deals, for the most part, run from June through October, about a month earlier than the Northeastern states, Knott said.