Special to The Produce News by Dixondale Farms
Bruce Frasier may know more about growing onion plants than any man in America. As the fourth-generation president of Dixondale Farms in Carrizo Springs, Mr. Frasier oversees the largest and oldest onion plant farm in the country. Dixondale Farms started growing onion plants in 1913 and the family-owned company has done so every year for the past century.
Dixondale Farms covers 2,200 acres of land in rural South Texas. The farm is 13 miles outside of Carrizo Springs. Rows of young onion plants stretch toward the horizon in every direction.
As Mr. Frasier walks through the onion fields, he talks to the workers in a mixture of English and Spanish. “Every day, there’s not an employee in the field that doesn’t get a ‘buenos dias’ from me,” he said. “I respect those people and respect what they do. I’m very hands-on with them.”
What was once a small family farm is now a $6 million operation. In 2013, Dixondale will grow and ship 850 million onion plants. Millions of these plants will be shipped directly to home gardeners for transplanting in backyards throughout America. Millions more will be shipped to large-scale onion farmers. If every one of those plants were to grow into a modest four inch diameter onion bulb and all of those 850 million onion bulbs were lined up side by side, they would wrap around the Earth twice — with 63 million onions to spare.
In 1913, John Mabson McClendon and his 14-year-old son Earl McClendon ventured from Wichita County, TX, to Dimmit County, TX, to investigate the quality of the farmland. They liked what they found and bought land for a cabbage and onion farm.
Unfortunately, the original plot of land turned out to be a disappointment when it was discovered that the well didn’t produce enough water. A nearby farm was purchased in an area that was known locally as Dixondale. The McClendon’s decided to keep the name, so they called their new family business Dixondale Farms. Cabbages and onions soon flourished on the 20-acre plot.
After his father passed away in 1921, 23-year-old Earl McClendon took over and began hiring other farmers to grow for Dixondale and started a ranch. Mr. McLendon’s wife Lula (Bell) McClendon led the company into mail order sales and Dixondale Farms became an early seller of onion transplants for home gardeners. Because of the mail order gardening business, Dixondale Farms experienced an enormous boost in its customer base in the early 1940s as a result of the push for “Victory Gardens,” the private and community gardens designed to supplement the nation’s food supply during World War II.
In 1948, Mr. McClendon invited his son-in-law, Wallace Martin, to join and the 1950s brought tremendous change. The railroad stopped running through Carrizo Springs, which ended Dixondale Farms’ early mail order operations.
As the decade progressed, Mr. McLendon focused on the ranching operations and Mr. Martin took over farming operations. Dixondale Farms expanded and cabbage growing was phased out in favor of cantaloupes as a summer crop. In 1965, Dixondale Farms stopped growing full-sized onion bulbs in favor of the more lucrative onion plants designed for transplanting.
Mr. Frasier joined the Martin family when he married Jeanie Martin. After a stint in the army, he also joined the family business in 1982.
Mr. Frasier was not offered the presidential suite at the company. Instead, he was sent out to the fields to learn the business from the ground up — literally. Mr. Martin told him, “The biggest decision you’ll make over the next two years is how you want your eggs cooked in the morning — watch, learn and keep your mouth shut.”
Even though Mr. Frasier had no background in farming, he did have a keen eye and astute business sense. He quickly saw that farming was undergoing enormous changes. In the previous decade, the introduction of hybrid onion varieties had increased yields from about 250 bags per acre to 1,000 bags per acre.
As a result, onion prices had bottomed out. Onion prices were still depressed. Mr. Frasier realized that marketing onion plants directly to consumers — much like his wife’s grandmother had done a generation before — offered the opportunity for higher profits.
“If we could offer our onion transplants directly to home gardeners, we had the opportunity to sell our plants at retail prices, not wholesale prices,” said Mr. Frasier. “That could make the farming operations more profitable and give us the means for further expansion.”
In 1990, Dixondale Farms moved to a 2,200-acre farm outside of Carrizo Springs, which has been the site of the farm ever since.
That same year, the Frasiers launched Dixondale Farms’ modern mail order operation with a one-page flier that listed the onion plant varieties available for sale. From this meager beginning, Dixondale Farms began its direct-to-the-consumer marketing program that now accounts for a huge portion of the company’s business.
Dixondale Farms acquired the customer lists of two competitors who had decided to close their doors, which made Dixondale the country’s biggest grower and mail order/online seller of onion transplants. By then, the operation had become so large that Dixondale Farms had to move its mail order operation to a large packing shed that was originally purchased for the cantaloupe operation seven years earlier.
The first decade of the 21st century was a boom time for Dixondale Farms. Record harvests and profits came in back-to-back years. But the good news also made it obvious to Bruce and Jeanie Frasier that Bruce couldn’t run the business forever. They needed to plan for the next generation of leadership.
“I realized that if something were to happen to me, the business would not be able to survive,” said Mr. Frasier. “I had too much knowledge and responsibility that was placed solely with me.”
The Frasier’s two children had careers of their own and were not interested in joining the family business. Michael Garza, an “honorary member of the family” who had spent his high school summers working in for the farm, was brought aboard as a protégé.
Even though the transfer of leadership will take place over the next decade or two, Mr. Frasier noted that Mr. Garza is getting thrown into the fold a lot faster than he was.
“With Michael coming in, there’s a lot more for me to share with him than there was for Wallace to share with me,” said Mr. Frasier. “It’s not just how to grow onion plants — it’s marketing, running a business, complying with government regulations, and so forth.”