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Charmed Farm

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 9:55 a.m. January 27, 2012
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
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Business. Lady Moon Farms, Charlotte County
Industry. Agriculture, organics
Key. The farm, already one of the largest organic-only operations in Florida, is primed for more growth.

Back in his 20s, Tom Beddard's career aspirations weren't exactly the stuff of big business dreams.

He bought 22 acres of central Pennsylvania farmland, mostly to follow through on a boyhood fascination with digging and dirt. He paid $50,000 for the land in 1986.

“I thought I would have a farm, a few animals, grow some food and do the whole hippie thing,” Beddard says. “I thought I'd live off the land. I never thought I'd get into selling organics.”

But Beddard, now 56, got into selling organics so much that now his operation, Lady Moon Farms, covers more than 1,000 acres in three states. The farm is named after a phrase Beddard's daughter, Carla, uttered when she was a toddler.

The farm's technical headquarters remain in Chambersburg, Pa., about halfway between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. But the hub of Lady Moon produce activity these days is mostly in rural central-eastern Charlotte County, on 600 acres that sit 20 miles east of downtown Punta Gorda. The farm's size is equivalent to a little more than 600 football fields.

That slice of Lady Moon is also one of the largest organic-only produce farms in the state, according to Florida Organic Growers, a Gainesville-based trade group. Most other organic farms in Florida are mom-and-pop operations with 20 to 40 acres, says Marty Mesh, executive director of Florida Organic Growers.

Lady Moon, with about 150 employees, is also on a solid growth spurt. Beddard declines to release specific annual revenues, only to say Lady Moon generates more than $20 million a year in sales. Revenues grew by at least 30% in 2011 over 2010, adds Beddard.

Another growth sign: Beddard wants more land. He actually seeks to acquire at least another 600 acres, possibly 700. He has mostly scouted places south of Charlotte County, including Immokalee, in eastern Collier County, where Lady Moon leases 350 acres. In addition to Florida and Pennsylvania, Lady Moon runs a 420-acre farm in southwest Georgia.

With those locations, Lady Moon is certainly hidden away.

But the secret is out among many who work in Florida's agriculture industry. David Brown, for example, a principal with Sarasota-based Progressive Water Resources, has seen the farm up close for several years. Progressive has done water consultation work for Lady Moon Farms.

“It's the largest organic farm I've ever worked on,” says Brown. “It's very unique in the product line and quality of produce.”

The client list at Lady Moon includes Whole Foods, a leader in selling organic produce on a nationwide scale. Lady Moon also sells a variety of organic goods to distributors, independent natural food stores and larger grocery chains. It sells goods up and down the east coast, and west through Chicago.

“The demand for organics is growing,” says Beddard, “and the demand for Lady Moon Farms organics is growing.”

Increased demand
Lady Moon's sprout could be timed just right. That's because the organic produce industry is riding its own boom.

Organic food and beverage sales nationwide have ballooned 2,570% in the past two decades, from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010, according to an Organic Trade Association survey. The survey also says organic fruit and vegetable sales now represent 11% of all fruit and vegetable sales in country, the highest organic to non-organic ratio of any product.

Growth has also come in the places consumers buy organics. For many years, the main source was natural foods stores. But now large grocery chains carry certified organics. In fact, 54% of organic sales in the U.S. in 2010 were from mass-market retailers, while 39% were from natural food stores, states a Florida Organic Growers report.

The organic produce sales leaders in Florida are Publix, Sweetbay, Whole Foods and Winn-Dixie, the report shows. Three of those chains reported an increased demand for organics in 2011, according to the report. “The rate of growth has diminished” with the recession, says Mesh, with Florida Organic Growers, “but there is still a growth rate.”

Nonetheless, the industry, like Lady Moon Farms, isn't without challenges. Foremost in that department is one where farmers have little control: weather.

Beddard says a freeze over a few hundred acres could cost Lady Moon a few million dollars in ruined crops. Hurricanes and heavy rainstorms add to the anxiety. Says Beddard: “I've taken it on the chin quite a bit.”

Moreover, the business of organic farming is a singular challenge. Production expenses are higher than non-organic farming, says Mesh, because mulch and chemicals cost more. Agriculture experts also say organics requires high-quality soil, which takes another level of knowhow.

Mitch Blumenthal, with Sarasota-based Global Organic Specialty Source, says Lady Moon succeeds in soil because it has an extensive cover crop program. That allows the farm's soil to hold more water and plants to grow deeper roots. Global Organics has done business with Lady Moon since 1999. “Tom knows how to take care of his soil,” says Blumenthal. “He is a pioneer in the industry.”

Ultimately, organic produce are goods that are grown, picked and processed without any artificial or synthetic fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides. A farm must go through annual inspections, keep detailed records and have an organic management plan to earn federal organic certification.

“Organics has no magic potion,” says Beddard. “It's amazingly labor intensive (and) it takes a lot more management. This is a tough business.”

Keep on growing
Tough, but bountiful. Beddard recently drove a visitor to the Charlotte County farm around in his pickup truck. He highlighted the hows of organic farming like a proud father.

On a sunny morning in mid-January, the produce either being grown or picked included three kinds of kale, bok choy and red and green cabbage. There were lots of tomatoes, too, from cherry to yellow to heirlooms. “We plant continuously,” says Beddard. “The idea is to never run out of product.”

Two products Lady Moon doesn't grow, however, are carrots and potatoes. Beddard says those vegetables require an extra level of specialization, and competition thins the margins.

Jon Thomforde, assistant operations manager at Lady Moon Farms, says the produce variety at the Charlotte County location is matched only by a widespread commitment to cleanliness. For example, Lady Moon crews hand pick weeds, something most other farms don't do. The crews also clean the farm aisles by foot, not on a machine, another rarity.

“One of the principles of organic farming is to maintain a clean area,” Thomforde says. “There is no direct benefit to us right away, but a lot of tangential things happen to us when we do that.”

The cleanliness pledge continues after the produce is picked, when the goods are processed in a facility at the farm's front entrance. Thomforde says Lady Moon recently started to replace steel and metal packing lines in the facility with stainless steel, a surface that's easier to clean. “Using stainless steel will cost twice as much,” says Thomforde. “But it will last twice as long.”

'High end'
Beddard has preached that kind of sustainable thinking for years.

But his initial feelings on farming, though, were focused on survival. A Pittsburgh native, Beddard liked to get his hands in dirt from a young age. He was later drawn to the philosophy of the organic movement in college. That led to his first farm.

Beddard first ventured outside Pennsylvania in 1999, when he leased 50 acres near Babcock Ranch in Charlotte County, down the road from where Lady Moon Farms is today. He bought the 600 acres in Charlotte County in 2001, and he bought the land in Georgia in 2004.

One side effect to the growth is Beddard is no longer a do-it-all entrepreneur. It's a transition out of everyday control that has challenged him over the years. For instance, Beddard recalls times when he would happily drive a tractor with a cell phone to his ear. That was when he simultaneously sowed and sold.

“I was always my own salesman,” Beddard says. “Those days are long gone.”

Now Beddard oversees the entire operation with a big-picture role. “This is a recession-proof business because it's food,” Beddard says. “It's on the high end of food, but it's still food.”


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