Growing a Legacy
John Shuman replants his family business
In 1993, John Shuman, who was just two classes away from a business degree at Georgia Southern, left school to go to work on his family farm in south Georgia.
When he arrived, however, he found a business that was in trouble. Shuman Farms and Shuman Fertilizer, both staples of Toombs and Tattnall counties for more than two decades, had been struggling to survive the lingering effects of the ‘80s Farm Crisis, which sent interest rates skyrocketing and saddled farmers with sometimes insurmountable debt.
“It just really impacted farmers all over the country, and my dad got caught up in that on both sides of the fence,” said Shuman. “From the farm supply dealerships that he owned, he was selling to all the local farmers on credit. Well, when they couldn’t pay, he was hung with the debt. And, of course, he was a farmer himself, so he got hung on that side, too.
“After that business, Shuman Fertilizer and Shuman Farms were pretty much over.”
By 1994, just as Shuman was commuting back and forth to Georgia Southern to finish his degree, his family businesses were officially closed, and his future prospects quickly reduced.
“RealSweet was not an overnight sensation. It took 10 years of hard work and a lot of personal sacrifice to get the business on its feet.”
“When you’re coming out of college and your parents are broke, you’re broke in the worst way,” he said. “You’re starting from scratch.”
He could have followed his siblings into other, more lucrative careers, but after graduating from Georgia Southern with a Bachelor of Business Administration, Shuman chose to start from scratch, and rebuild his family business instead.
Beginning with a $15,000 business loan, which he was only able to acquire with the help of his grandmother, the young graduate decided to use his business smarts to organize several growers to create greater volume and marketing awareness under a new company, Shuman Produce, and a new brand, RealSweet. It took a lot of trust to create the business, which operated much like a co-op, and Shuman says without it, the business might never have made it.
“Being able to depend mutually on each other — them on me and me on them — it was a catalyst,” he said. “Really, it was the foundation of us getting the business off the ground.”
RealSweet was not an overnight sensation, and Shuman says it took 10 years of hard work and a lot of personal sacrifice to get the business on its feet. Those years were especially hard for his wife, Lana, whom he met at Georgia Southern and married just as the business was getting off the ground.
“We were living very lean, my wife and I,” he said. “Everything we could make we put back into the business. We were trying to be very disciplined about it.
Looking back on it, it was very painful, but it was the right thing to do.”
The struggle eventually paid off. RealSweet began with just a few hundred acres in Toombs and Tattnall counties. Today, the company has more than 2,300 acres in Vidalia and almost as much land in Peru, where they can grow onions during Georgia’s off-season.
“We’ll ship north of 100 million pounds of sweet onions annually,” said Shuman. “That’s a lot of sweet onions!”
In the past few years, Shuman Produce has continued its expansion, and recently purchased 620 additional acres in Vidalia, and a 94,000-square-foot packing facility in Cobbtown, Georgia. In addition, they’ve begun growing other vegetables such as broccoli and sweet potatoes in order to diversify their products.
Shuman said he’s never pushed his children into the family business — a family business he worked so hard to save — but is proud that some of them have taken an interest, especially now that it’s successful.
“I can see my oldest sons, Luke and Jake, are very interested,” he said. “I’m hopeful that when they go off to college and come back home, maybe this time we’ll have something for them to do when they get back.”