Leaning in to the Home Gardening Craze

While COVID-19 caused misery for much of the U.S. economy this past year, inspiring success stories did emerge. Case in point: Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Inc. (AFC) and its subsidiary Bonnie Plants—the largest U.S. distributor of vegetable and herb plants—benefited greatly from Americans’ sudden, intense interest in growing their own edible plants.

“When things get scary, agriculture becomes a security blanket for people,” said Rivers Myres, AFC’s CEO. "As soon as mandatory quarantines took hold, at-home planting became all the rage. By our count, at least 21 million new gardeners opted for the comfort, security and cost efficiency of growing their own edible plants.”

Bonnie quickly leaned in to the home gardening craze and made important strides to stay in front of it. It cleared a first hurdle by tapping the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives to successfully advocate for Bonnie’s designation as an essential business. They then ramped up operations to meet demand for core products such as tomatoes, peppers and herbs to U.S. residents from coast to coast. By year’s end, having met this unexpected, record demand, Bonnie improved its financial performance by 50% compared to 2019.

For AFC, Bonnie’s success proved to be a silver lining in a year otherwise fraught with challenge. Back in early March, once the threat posed by COVID-19 became clear to Myres and his executive team, two immediate questions needed to be addressed. First, how to take care of their 5,000 employees nationwide, finding the best ways to keep them safe and healthy. And second, how to ensure that AFC continued to stay financially strong for its member partners and farmers.

In good times and in challenging ones like 2020, CoBank has supported us every step of the way.

– Thomas Hallin, CFO, Alabama Farmers Cooperative, Inc.

“In those early days of the virus, we didn’t quite know what we were working with, but we did understand the importance of acting decisively and communicating openly with our people,” Myres said. “Clear, honest communications made the difference in ensuring that we didn’t miss a beat. As a result, we not only survived, we thrived.”

Thriving best describes the 84-year history of AFC, which has steadily grown to become one of the largest farmer-owned, ag-related businesses in the southeastern U.S.

AFC leaders point to their longtime partnership with CoBank as a fundamental reason for the co-op’s overall success. In 2020, CoBank assisted in the financing of a joint venture called GreenPoint Ag Holdings, which is co-owned by AFC. Most recently, CoBank also helped arrange leases for Bonnie trucks through the bank’s Farm Credit Leasing subsidiary, said Thomas Hallin, AFC CFO. “Over the years, in good times and in challenging ones like 2020, CoBank has supported us every step of the way,” he said. “They’ve been an unbelievable institutional partner for us.”