Van Solkema upgrades onion line with help of industry veteran

03/29/2013 05:22:00 PM
Coral Beach

BRandon and Danny Bowen, Van Solkema ProduceCoral BeachThe father and son team of Brandon (left) and Danny Bowen check the progress of the Van Solkema Produce Vidalia onion crop. The younger Bowen is shipping and inventory manager for the company's growing and packing operation near Glennville, Ga., while his father is general manager. GLENNVILLE, Ga. — Danny Bowen has been managing the onion packinghouse at the intersection of U.S. Highway 301 and Georgia Highway 196 for years, and he’s still on the job even though Van Solkema Produce Co. now owns the facility.

Van Solkema, Byron Center, Mich., bought the shed last fall and is using it year-round.

In mid-March, about 35 workers were packing Georgia-grown carrots in one side of the packhouse while electricians were on the other side wiring an upgraded pack line in preparation for the Vidalia onion season.

The higher-capacity onion line means the shed will be able to comfortably pack about 400 acres of Vidalia onions for Van Solkema this season, Bowen said.

Overall the shed is about 85,000 square feet, which includes six drying rooms that total about 15,000 square feet.

“Van Solkema has been in the Vidalia deal since 25 acres was considered a big number,” said salesman Todd Van Solkema.

“We started out with Beasley Farms about 35 years ago, and Jamie Beasley is still one of our contract growers,” he said.

Other Vidalia growers affiliated with the Michigan company for the 2013 deal include Morgan Knight and Wayne Durrence, Van Solkema said.

He said his family’s company is committed to the Vidalia deal “for the long haul” and should be able to pack 14 to 16 semi trailers of Vidalias per day in the shed just south of Glennville.

“We will transfer some of the onions to our facility in Moultrie for distribution from there to save some truck miles for customers,” Van Solkema said.

Several members of the Van Solkema administrative and sales staff will spend time in Georgia during the Vidalia deal, including sales manager Talbert Nething and salesman Jon Shriver, who joined the company in November.

Although the staff is familiar with sweet onions in general and Vidalias in particular, Van Solkema said Bowen’s knowledge of growing is a huge advantage.

He said the people behind Van Solkema’s Oh Boy brand believe the 2013 Vidalia crop looks “1,000 times better than last year,” but he stopped short of naming a specific shipping start date or price point for the Oh Boy brand of Vidalias.

Bowen agreed there’s no way to pinpoint such details until the deal has begun.

“You just can’t take a book and pull out a recipe to grow a good onion,” Bowen said. “And you couldn’t just go out and add a bunch of fertilizer after those rains (in late February) to make up for what washed away. That could impact the pungency.”

Bowen and his son, Brandon, who is shipping manager and inventory control officer at the operation, plan to work at the shed year-round.

During the busiest time, the packing line will require up to 65 people. About half of those positions are now year-round, though. Carrot packing at the shed fills in the gaps when Van Solkema isn’t using the shed for Vidalia onions or onions from Peru, Bowen said.



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