Rising to the Challenges of Florida Farming

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Chuck Obern oversees 1,500 acres of vegetable production in southwest Florida.
(Photo by Brett Reese)

Problem-solving skills and a thirst for knowledge allow Chuck Obern to run a thriving vegetable farm.

By Kendal Norris

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., embodies all these qualities. He is also curious, with an instinctive awareness that research can provide undiscovered or underutilized methods to improve crop health and yields.

GROWTH AND DIVERSITY

Graduating from the University of Florida in 1979 with a major in vegetable crop production and a minor in tropical agriculture, Obern began his career by working for a few farmers in southwest Florida to learn the commercial produce industry. In 1986, he was offered a land share of 10 acres just outside of Immokalee. That was the beginning of an enterprise that would progressively expand in acreage and diversity over the years.

Today, C&B Farms grows, both conventionally and organically, 30 different vegetables and herbs on 1,500 acres. The farm’s staple is specialty produce: organic green beans, eggplant, baby bok choy, green cabbage and an assortment of peppers, greens, radishes and herbs.

“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,” Obern says. “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.

Obern adds, “Everything we sell is either sold or committed before it is planted.”

C&B Farms employs 30 full-time staff and hires up to 250 planting and harvesting workers during the height of the season, roughly a quarter of which is H-2A labor.

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.

“My son’s knowledge is invaluable, and I am grateful for his commitment to the farm,” says Obern. “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 H-2A program.”

Son Michael Obern also started working at the farm at a young age and is a talented mechanic. “He can get anything with an engine to run,” Obern says. “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 Obern obtained a contract from Pace Foods, the Texas-based salsa producer, to grow jalapeno peppers. He recalls, “They advanced the initial cash to grow the crop and helped me establish credit and implement needed setup operations.”

SUSTAINABILITY AND TECHNOLOGY

With his strong interest in environmentally sound practices and sustainability, Obern has worked with researchers at many agricultural institutions and companies. He has hosted numerous experimental trials on his farm dealing with subjects such as developing mildew resistant basil, trials of methyl bromide alternatives and weed control as well as chemical treatment of farm water to reduce phosphorus discharge using alum.

“New bedding geometry has reduced our carbon footprint by 5 to 10 percent and has reduced costs,” says Obern. “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.

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, Obern has also invested in custom computer software for mapping crop plantings, payroll management, scheduling of farm production activities and putting systems in place to track receiving, inventory, sales and shipping of products.

OVERCOMING CHALLENGES

Challenges of the Mother Nature and economic sort have been regular visitors to C&B Farms throughout its history. “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,” notes Obern. “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 Obern is a dedicated problem solver and knows firsthand nature’s whims, he has diversified crop plantings, developed a hoop/freeze cloth system to protect crops and spent money on an extensive canal system and high-capacity dewatering pumps to protect against floods. C&B Farms also has a tail water recovery system but has many wells that can be used when surface water dries up.

INDUSTRY INVOLVEMENT AND AWARD

Obern is a member of many industry organizations, including 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 Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Lettuce Advisory Committee and the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Vegetable Advisory Committee.

One of the most rewarding aspects of farming for Obern has been, in his words, “Working in an industry I love with like-minded people … 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.”

Obern was recently recognized for his efforts with the 2019 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Florida Farmer of the Year award.

“Chuck was a worthy candidate because of his outstanding service to agriculture through his dedication, curiosity and innovative farming methods,” says Florida Farm Bureau’s Eva Webb, who nominated Obern for the Farmer of the Year award. “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.”

WHAT’S NEXT

On the horizon for C&B Farms 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 underway to add additional cooler and office space as well to accommodate the amount of product and keep up with compliance and management issues.

“We want to construct new housing to meet the increased demand for H-2A labor and add products to our existing product line,” says Obern. “We also want to continue our work with IFAS and other local researchers to solve problems affecting food production in our region.”

Source: This original, unedited version of this article can be viewed at: https://sunbeltexpo.com/charles-w-obern-named-2019-florida-farmer-of-the-year/

Kendal Norris is freelance writer for the Sunbelt Ag Expo.

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