Before it was bottled and boxed, before it was squeezed for all it was worth, before it was heaped in the back of a truck, it was a carrot in the dirt on Tom O’Neill’s farm. And the trip from his soil to your juice glass may be shorter than you think.
It’s an interesting twist on a buying local trend. Consumers, tired of anonymous and travel-worn produce, are turning to locally grown foods that are fresher, tastier and support their community. But if you don’t see O’Neill at your farmers’ market, don’t count him out.
In fact, if you’ve sat down to a bowl of Campbell’s soup or a glass of V8 juice, Ohio farmers such as O’Neill appreciate your support. Although they don’t sell directly to consumers, they are providing Ohioans with locally grown food. It’s just that their products first make a stop at the Campbell Soup Company’s plant in Henry County.
So maybe it was a connection to one of the most recognizable brands in the world and not a desire for local products that caused you to reach for that Campbell’s can. Nonetheless, it’s important business for the small northwest Ohio town of Napoleon and nearby vegetable growers.
In operation since the 1940s, the Campbell’s plant employs 1,200 people in the Napoleon area. It works with farmers to obtain products such as tomatoes, celery, parsley, lettuce, spinach and carrots. That includes nearly all of the carrots O’Neill grows on his farm in nearby Fulton County.
In all, Campbell’s takes in roughly 800,000 pounds of fresh vegetables per day. Of that, 60 percent are grown locally. And while Campbell’s is a global food giant, it is helping family farmers such as O’Neill stay profitable.
So what does it take to be a carrot grower for a multibillion-dollar company that controls more than 20 market-leading brands with products ranging from pastries to pasta sauce? Well, with 125 acres of carrots, how about fending off rabbits?
“That’s more of a fable,” O’Neill said with a chuckle – it’s actually the deer that love to dig up his crop.
And O’Neill says growing carrots has other challenges. As with most crops, it begins in the soil.
“You have to be selective,” he said. “Carrots like sandy soil.” O’Neill trades acres with a neighboring grain farmer to get just the right land. The rotation also helps replenish the ground between growing seasons.
And he not only has to pay attention to what the carrots like; O’Neill must respond to what Campbell’s wants. Because most of his carrots are grown for V8 juice, they can be smaller. But “dicer carrots,” which are used in soup, must have at least an inch and a half diameter. O’Neill also must be ready to keep pace with demand during harvest season.
“We start harvesting generally the last week in July,” he said. “We harvest usually through the end of October.”
Depending on the needs of Campbell’s, O’Neill will make deliveries to the plant as many as six days a week. In all, he will produce up to 2,500 tons of carrots each year.
In an Our Ohio television segment, Charlie Weber, who has been buying vegetables for Campbell’s for more than 20 years, explained the company’s relationship with farmers.
“The farmers that we buy fresh vegetables from are very committed to Campbell’s. I find them to be very flexible in their harvest schedules and when we get in a tough spot for a supply, they’re willing to go out late in the day or on a weekend and try to harvest for us or hurry a truck into us when we get short,” he said.
Weber said Campbell’s is securing vegetables up to a year ahead of its current demand.
“That’s one of the parts of my job that I really like, getting out to work with growers,” he said.
O’Neill points out that breaking up the harvest to coordinate with Campbell’s schedule actually has its benefits. It’s not like raising corn and soybeans, where farmers may spend 18 hours a day in a combine and harvest as quickly as possible. O’Neill must sacrifice less family time to bring in his carrot crop. And family has been a big part of what makes O’Neill’s farm successful.
“It’s been a family operation for my immediate family and it’s helped me teach my children work ethic,” he said. “At one point in time, every one of my children have been in the tractor to make it work.”
Making it work means getting the carrots planted quickly in March. As soon as the weather is clear, O’Neill will sow thousands of tiny seeds in hopes of taking advantage of the spring rains. A hot, wet summer is best, but too much moisture will hurt the crop. It’s important that the green carrot tops stay in good condition so the harvester can dig and pluck them from the ground.
From there, the soil-caked carrots are off to Campbell’s to be washed, sized and processed. Soup carrots go through a dicer and the V8 carrots are pressed. The Napoleon plant manufactures 90 million cases of soup and juice products in a year.
“The plant in Napoleon, Ohio manufactures and distributes products all across the United States,” Weber said.
Whether it’s hogs, corn or carrots, many farmers are choosing to contract with large processors to secure prices. Others choose to maintain their independence and face the market. When O’Neill had the opportunity to secure a Campbell’s contract, he knew it was the right decision for him.
“To be an open-market carrot grower is awful risky,” he said. “We’ve been through our ups and downs in the ag community. Campbell’s has always been kind of a stabilizer.”
Like all farmers, O’Neill still faces unpredictable weather, wildlife and rising input costs. But he says there’s a lot to like about being a carrot grower.
“It’s unique. It’s something very different. I am actually the only one in Fulton and Lucas counties,” he said. “It’s always challenging, and I like challenges.”
And while you may never find O’Neill pictured on the side of a red and white can, he is putting an Ohio face with one of the food industry’s biggest names.
Attention teachers and parents: See how this story connects to Ohio’s academic content standards.