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High costs wilt Magnolia Organics produce operation in Pasco

WESLEY CHAPEL — Magnolia Organics launched in 2008 as a family-owned company raising organic produce for healthier diets and a healthier planet.

Magnolia owner Brightman Logan didn't expect to change lives in the process.

"We count among our customers lots of cancer patients who report feeling better, and better test results, after eating our organic vegetables," he said. "We also have lots of customers who feed their families on our food."

Since its inception, the business that proclaims itself "small in size (and) mighty in production" has built a network of about 200 regular members, with customers as far away as Brandon, South Tampa, Trinity and Davenport, and 10 host sites for produce pickup. It also supplies produce to Cheyenne's Country Thangs, Abbey's Rollin Oats and the Pearl in the Grove restaurant.

"Magnolia Organics is a feel-good business," said Nan Logan, Brightman's wife and a Magnolia administrator. "We have lots of happy customers."

But the farm at 33601 Kiefer Road has never turned a profit. Tuesday will mark its final day as an organic produce outfit.

"The bottom line is, we were losing money," said Brightman Logan. "People do not understand what it takes to run an agricultural business. You stay up at night worried about crops and paying bills."

"It's not about being greedy," he said. "It's about getting by."

After the company announced its closure, its offices were flooded by emails from customers who rely on organic produce.

"NO, tell me this is a mistake," wrote one customer. "We just found you — charge me more. I don't care. We need you."

"Getting these reactions from our customers is the hardest part of this," said Brightman Logan.

The Logans — including daughter M.J., who served as Magnolia's sales and marketing director — started Magnolia Organics with what seemed to be a winning business plan. Created as an off-shoot of All Native LLC, a wholesale native plant nursery in business since 1981, Magnolia quickly became USDA-certified to produce vegetables using fully organic processes, with no conventional pesticides, weed killers or artificial additives. Aside from their own agricultural experience, owners sought guidance through a long-standing partnership with Sweetwater Organic Community Farm.

Using an 8-acre field, Magnolia produced nearly 20 varieties of organic vegetables — everything from popular veggies such as lettuce, tomatoes and carrots to exotic items like fairy tale eggplant, Swiss chard and yellow bell pepper. They offered an assortment of freshly harvested food items (with all vegetables cut from their crops the day before delivery) in diversely assorted boxes that ranged from $16.50 to $27.50. They prided themselves on locally producing healthy, environmentally sound foods.

"Everything we sold, we grew," said Nan Logan.

"And with organic foods, the flavor and quality is way better," said Rodger Bilbrey, farm manager of Magnolia Organics.

It was the Logans' strong commitment to organic farming that first inspired the inception of Magnolia Organics.

"People need to pay more attention to their food, where it comes from, and what it could do to their health," said Brightman Logan. "Producing organic food was our passion."

Yet that passion came at a steep price. Bilbrey said organic pesticide costs $478 per gallon, as opposed to $132 per gallon for conventional pesticide.

Hundreds more were spent on insurance, supplies, the boxing and packaging of vegetables, marketing and advertising.

Many employees — including the Logans, who volunteered much of their time — devoted 12-hour days to intensive farming techniques, including manual crop harvesting and weed pulling.

And, like all Florida farmers, they had to deal with ever-changing climate conditions that ranged from droughts to torrential rainstorms to cold snaps.

Magnolia's financial losses have been mounting, particularly since the economy went sour. About three months ago, Brightman Logan realized they would have to close.

As a farewell gesture to Magnolia customers, the Logans will open their field to members only 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Tuesday to harvest all remaining vegetation free of charge. After the last crop has been picked, the Logans and other long-term employees will look for other ways to continue organic farming.

They hope to set up a seasonal "you pick" fruit and berry operation in their organic field. And they want to refocus their emphasis on the growth of Florida native plants. It remains their goal to grow organic crops for the people of this area.

"I believe in what we're doing," said Brightman Logan.

High costs wilt Magnolia Organics produce operation in Pasco 06/08/12 [Last modified: Friday, June 8, 2012 9:09pm]
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