Savannah’s Sandy Soil Gives Root to Thriving Organic ‘Superfoods’ Company
May 10, 2016 | Abbie Stutzer
Ross Harding and Howard Morrison decided to start a company together in 2012 after Harding hurt his neck. The problem? Neither were sure what they wanted to do. So, they met at Morrison’s family plantation—known as Lebanon Plantation, an acre of land that dates back to King George’s land grab in the 1700s—in Savannah, Georgia and had a talk. The friends discussed wellness, health, and good food.
After their conversation, the soon-to-be-business partners decided to use the land at the Plantation to organically grow two emerging “superfoods”—ginger and turmeric. Harding grew up in Australia close to fields of ginger, so he knew the spicy root would respond well to Georgia’s climate and the sandy soils near Savannah. Turmeric also grows well in warm, steamy climates. He says they chose the spices because they taste great and can easily be made into finished, value-added products.
The two launched Verdant Kitchen and built a processing facility right on the farm to dehydrate the roots and convert them into materials for value-added products.
Harding’s experience as a chemist has been invaluable; he has formulated most of the company’s products.
“It’s helped to be able to know how to navigate chemistry and formulation,” he says.
Because the farmers chose to grow products that have not been grown commercially in the south, they have had to work by trial and error.
“There is no knowledge or harvesting and planting equipment. We see ourselves as a development farm. It will take years to figure out exactly what should be done. These are annual crops. So, our one-crop experiment is 12 months long and includes whatever weather or diseases we face.”
While the company has hired a full-time farming staff since opening, the founders initially ran into problems.
“When we started it was me, the family, and employees out there doing it all,” Harding says. “We have learned a lot, but that learning curve has been very steep. We have been helped greatly by the University of Georgia, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, the USDA, and Georgia Organics. We have been surrounded by organizations—we would not have been able to be successful without tremendous help from these organizations. We did not do it on our own.”
Right now, the company is in a growth phase. It recently signed a lease and moved into on a new, integrated factory, warehouse and office in Atlanta.
“That will give us the scale for the next three years to keep doubling our business,” Harding says.
Verdant has two kinds of customers, according to Harding. One is a female who is interested in nutrition, travel, entertaining, and exercise. The other has health problems.
“We have a tremendous amount of customers who are not well who use [the products for] the wellness aspect of ginger and turmeric because they have arthritis or cancer and are on chemo,” Harding explains. “These products are potent [and can] help nausea and reduce inflammation.”.
Currently, the company sells a range of products online to customers all over the United States, in specialty stores—cheese shops, olive oil stores— and in major market chains, such as Kroger, Sprouts, and Whole Foods. The company has some customers overseas, too.
“We start with an ingredient and then we explode it out to a whole product range,” he says. Those flavors go into beverages, syrups, nuts, preserves, cookies, powders, and supplements.
Harding also notes that Verdant’s company culture is firmly rooted in sustainability.
“We want to have a business that’s sustainable not just for the sake of it—we think it’s the right decision to make and we think it’s better for our customers,” Harding says.
While Verdant uses sustainable packaging and shipping fill—it’s recyclable and corn based—farmers also save seeds from the plantation.
“A lot of the planting involves previous generations of our own crops. We’re doing ongoing development work so our seedstock is strong, interesting, and well-adapted to the southern climate.”
Harding says that while Verdant’s business has grown quickly, there were a few challenges along the way.
“We invested heavily in the business—we have a farm, manufacturing facility, and a marketing business. This is not something I would recommend that anybody does. The business is moving toward profitability now, but everything is going into the business.”
Verdant’s business has been doubling, though, and the company got a big boost last year when Oprah picked two of the company’s products and put them on her Christmas “favorite things” list.
However, Harding says that the company is still trying to ramp up its client base.
“We have to find ways of presenting our products to more people because when people try our products, they buy them.”
Eventually, Verdant hopes that other people will begin to grow similar crops for which it has “mapped” the growing process.
“In the end, we are all about finding ways to increase agriculture—it’s part of our vision.”