MOULTRIE, Ga. — To be successful in farming requires a good deal of stamina, flexibility and determination, along with a love of the art of growing things. Charles “Chuck” Obern, owner of C&B Farms Inc. near Clewiston, embodies all these qualities, in addition to curiosity — an instinctive awareness that research can provide previously undiscovered or underutilized methods to improve crop health and yields.
Graduating from the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences program (IFAS) in 1979 with a major in vegetable crop production and a minor in tropical agriculture, Mr. Obern began his career by working for a few farmers in Southwest Florida to learn the commercial produce industry. He applied his academic studies and previous hands-on experiments to help grow their businesses. In 1986, he was offered a land share of 10 acres just outside Immokalee, and that was the beginning of an enterprise that would progressively expand in acreage and diversity over the years.
C&B Farms Inc. grows, both conventionally and organically, 30 different vegetables and herbs on its 1,500 acres. Their staple is specialty produce: organic green beans, eggplant, baby bok choy, green cabbage and an assortment of peppers, greens, radishes, and herbs such as basil, cilantro and other culinary varieties. Yields are as follows: 300 acres of cilantro yielding 1,000 cases per acre; 200 acres of bunch radish yielding 1,200 cases per acre; 200 acres of organic green beans yielding 150 cases per acre; 150 acres of green cabbage yielding 1,000 cases per acre; 100 acres of basil yielding 6,450 lbs. per acre; 90 acres of culinary herbs yielding 7,500 lbs. per acre; 60 acres of napa (Chinese cabbage) yielding 650 cases per acre; and 60 acres of bok choy yielding 700 cases per acre.
Mr. Obern says: “We market our farm as a diverse producer, branding our products and custom growing and packing them based on the individual customer’s needs and requests. In 2006, we established the organic sector to meet the increasing demand for organic food and to provide healthy, sustainable vegetables to the East Coast food supply. We market directly to retail customers, wholesalers, repackers and processors through our in-house sales team.” Large retail customers include Publix, Winn Dixie and WalMart. Mr. Obern adds, “Everything we sell is either sold or committed before it is planted.”
C&B Farms employs 30 full-time staff in administration, sales, and tractor driving positions and hires up to 250 planting and harvesting workers during the height of the season, roughly a quarter of which is H2A labor. Mr. Obern’s son, Charles A. “Boots” Obern, works alongside his dad each day and has done so since he was a boy. Boots is responsible for managing the production portion of the farm and assists with sales and marketing.
Mr. Obern comments: “My son’s knowledge is invaluable, and I am grateful for his commitment to the farm. A bonus for us came in 2016 when his wife, Miranda, joined the family business. Because she brings with her over 15 years of experience in financial management, she’s making a tremendous contribution to our financial security. She also played a key role in putting in place our H2A program.”
Son Michael Obern, who lives with his family in Sarasota, also started working at the farm at a young age and is a talented mechanic. Mr. Obern says, “He can get anything with an engine to run. He now works with a large tractor dealer, keeping Central Florida’s tractors going.”
A landmark event in the growth of C&B Farms happened in 1992 when Mr. Obern obtained a contract from Pace Foods, the Texas-based salsa producer, to grow jalapeno peppers. Mr. Obern recalls, “They advanced the initial cash to grow the crop and helped me establish credit and implement needed setup operations.”
With his strong interest in environmentally sound practices and sustainability, Mr. Obern has worked with researchers at a large number of agricultural institutions and companies, including Rutgers University, IFAS, USDA and Rupp Seeds. He has hosted numerous experimental trials on his farm dealing with a wide array of projects, such as developing mildew-resistant basil, trials of methyl bromide alternatives and weed control, chemical treatment of farm discharge water to reduce phosphorus discharge using alum, and genetic testing, selection and measuring of Eucalyptus Torelliana as wind break and wood source trees. Additional sugar cane wind breaks have created a shelter for beneficial insects in many of the natural areas in and around the farm fields. All of this effort goes toward helping solve problems affecting food production in South Florida.
Mr. Obern says, “New bedding geometry has reduced our carbon footprint by 5 to 10 percent and has reduced costs. In 1998 we began a new composting facility that turns yard waste into nutrients to improve the farm’s weak soil.” He has also expanded and altered existing water detention areas with internal dikes that have the added benefit of attracting a large quantity and diversity of birds, including the endangered snail kite. He says, “The National Audubon Society does their Christmas bird count here because of this healthy habitat.”
Mr. Obern employs technology through GPS rate controllers and incorporates an integrated pest control program to reduce pesticide use. Use of flooding and cover crops in the summer increases organic matter and reduces weed and nematode populations, thereby decreasing the need for fumigants and herbicides.
Over the years, Mr. Obern has also invested in custom computer software for mapping crop plantings, payroll management, scheduling of all farm production activities and putting systems in place to track receiving, inventory, sales and shipping of products.
Challenges of the Mother Nature-related and economic sort have been regular visitors to C&B Farms over its long, interesting history. Mr. Obern notes, “We’ve seen our share of hail, hurricanes, freezes, market dips and foreign competition, not to mention the ongoing visits and demands of state and federal regulators and agencies. Labor — its availability, skill level and cost — is always a challenge, along with things like plant diseases, harmful insects, profitability issues and sheer survival.”
But since Mr. Obern is a dedicated problem solver and knows nature’s whims firsthand, he has diversified crop plantings, developed a hoop/freeze cloth system to protect crops, and spent money on an extensive canal system and dewatering pumps of high capacity to protect against floods. C&B Farms also has a tail water recovery system, the primary water source, but has many wells that can be used when surface water dries up. Mr. Obern notes, “It doesn’t do anyone any good to complain about things when you can choose to put yourself in the place of finding solutions instead.”
On an industry-wide level, Mr. Obern is a member of many organizations. They include: the American Farm Bureau, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Hendry Glades County Farm Bureau, the American Horticultural Society, the Pumpkin Breeding Research Project with Rupp Seed, the Florida Nurseryman & Growers, UF/IFAS Lettuce Advisory Committee, and the IFAS Immokalee SW Florida Vegetable Advisory Committee.
One of the most rewarding aspects of farming for Mr. Obern has been, in his words, “working in an industry I love with like-minded people: farmers, buyers, university researchers and consultants. We speak the same language, have the same interests and pursue the same types of goals. We’re always reaching into the future to hopefully make it a better one.”
Mr. Obern has also been involved in community education efforts that include hosting Hendry County agriculture tours and being a presenter at Hendry/Glades County Leadership Farm Tours. He also helped lobby for the Country of Original labeling of produce legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 2002.
What’s on the horizon at C&B Farms Inc. is finding a facility to allow consolidation so that it can better serve its customers by reducing freight costs during the summer months. Plans are in hand to add additional cooler and office space as well to accommodate the amount of product and keep up with compliance and management issues.
Mr. Obern adds, “We want to construct new housing to meet the increased demand for H2A labor, and add products to our existing product line, thereby enhancing our brand value for retailers and consumers. We also want to continue our work with IFAS and other local researchers to solve problems affecting food production in our region.”
In those spare moments when Chuck Obern isn’t working, he enjoys reading, swimming and spending time with his wife, Roxana Vilela Guerra-Obern, a native of Peru, and their two children, Maria and Issai. Mr. Obern notes, “Maria is a senior in high school who’s involved in many activities, including the yearbook and student government. She also has a very high GPA. Issai is a freshman and is involved in FFA and loves the outdoors, particularly fishing in his john boat after school.”
Chuck Obern was nominated Farmer of the Year by Eva Webb, district field representation for the Florida Farm Bureau Federation. She says: “Chuck was a worthy candidate because of his outstanding service to agriculture through his dedication, curiosity and innovative farming methods. He did not come from a farming background but has a passion for the land and for research, which he has generously shared with others. Chuck has worked with scientists and university faculty from California to Florida on projects to improve his growing techniques. He began with very few resources, but through sheer determination and great effort, created a farming legacy to pass on to his children who share his love of farming.”
As the Florida winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Mr. Obern will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply. Mr. Obern is now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize awarded to the overall winner.
Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a tractor for a year from MF Product, another $500 gift certificate from Southern States, a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply, a smoker-grill from Hays LTI, and a Henry Repeating Arms American Farmer Tribute edition .22-caliber rifle from Reinke Manufacturing Co. Inc., the irrigation company, through its partnership with Henry Repeating Arms.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 30th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $1,120,000 in cash awards and other honors to Southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.
A distinguished panel of judges will visit C&B Farms Inc., along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 5-9. The judges this year include Cary Lightsey of Lake Wales, who was the overall winner of the award in 2009; John McKissick, longtime University of Georgia agricultural economist at Athens, Ga.; and David Wildey of Manila, Arkansas, the overall winner of the award in 2016.