Robert Reesor – Rouge River Farms
When grocery stores put out bins of corn, the floor tends to get littered with husks and corn silk. Plus, many people peel the husks to inspect the quality, sometimes throwing the cob back if it’s not to their liking.
Seeing this mess, as well as the frustration of grocery store workers, Robert Reesor and his brother Richard began selling sweet corn with the husk off in shrink-wrapped tray packs, much like meat is packaged in grocery store coolers. That was in 2000.
“Everyone could see the ears and that they were good quality,” he says. “There was no more mess and no more wasted corn that a bunch of people had already touched. And it was timely—no one else was doing it in our market.”
The packaging method has since become commonplace in grocery stores, having expanded to other produce as well. For Rouge River Farms, where Reesor is president, it’s become 90 percent of the business.
He and his brother founded the company 35 years ago in Ontario and have since expanded operations into the U.S. Rouge River owns or leases more than 15,000 acres of farmland in Florida, Georgia, Virginia and Ontario, and supplies corn to grocery stores year-round—it harvests in Florida in the winter and moves north as the temperatures increase.
In June 2021, Reesor decided to diversify the business, so Rouge River acquired Magnolia Packing and added green beans to its offerings.
“We’d tried getting into other veggies in the past, but we never had success because we were so focused on producing quality corn,” he says. “But there’s a good crop rotation between corn and green beans.”
Reesor says Rouge River first “dabbled in green beans” in 2014 when it bought a packing house in Florida that had a green bean packing line. The company now has green bean packing houses in Florida, Georgia and Virginia, with plans to open one in Ontario by 2024 .
Finding the vegetable to be a natural fit for Rouge River, Reesor began researching green bean companies. He liked Magnolia Packing because, like Rouge River, it prioritizes quality, he says.
Magnolia, which has retained its name and branding under Rouge River, sells loose beans in crates. However, to keep up with competitors, Reesor decided to enter the consumer pack market for green beans. These packs are displayed in coolers in open or sealed bags in the produce department.
Like with the corn in tray packs, this approach creates less mess and ensures people aren’t touching the food. Reesor says people also like the convenience of the green beans already being bagged and portioned out.
Working with green beans is still somewhat new to Reesor, so he often looks to the Magnolia employees for their expertise.
“I’m so grateful for the great team we have from top to bottom at both Magnolia and Rouge,” he says.
The gold standard
Rouge River has around 600 employees between its farms, packing facilities and transportation business (Rouge River Transportation), which Reesor started seven years ago to manage all distribution and logistics. He says treating employees well has always been a priority.
“I like to provide work that gives people dignity and that they can feel good about,” he says.
Rouge River is certified by the Equitable Food Initiative, which sets standards for labor conditions, as well as for food safety and pest management. Labor standards include ensuring the workplace is safe, workers and managers are trained and that compensation is fair.
“It is the gold standard, in my opinion, of agricultural certifications,” Reesor says. “To me, this certification shows our commitment to the well-being of our workers and the safety of our product.”
He knows how grueling farm work is and says he has the utmost respect for everyone on his team. For the first 10 or so years Rogue River was in business, he was in the field every morning harvesting corn by hand; the crops are now machine harvested.
He learned the ins and outs of operating a farm as a child. His family, which lived near the Rouge River in Ontario, raised chickens to produce and sell eggs. While his father sold the farm before Reesor could take over the business, he and his brother found a use for their agricultural skills. Reesor was looking to make money to pay for college, so he and his brother grew six acres of sweet corn and sold it at a farmers market on the weekends.
“It was just supposed to be a summer thing while we were in college, but we found the work interesting and we were making money,” he says.
For the love of corn
Despite this early success, Reesor says he never expected the company to grow like it has. In college, he was uncertain about what career he wanted but, after getting married at 20 and having kids soon after, he knew he needed to provide for his family—the farm was a good option.
Reesor’s uncle leased him and his brother 25 acres of land and rented them tractors to expand the business. The company soon outgrew the farmers market and became a vendor at a local grocery store. Reesor said other stores took notice and asked Rouge River to sell to them, too.
In the early 2000s, Rouge River expanded into Ohio, where Reesor’s mother is from. By 2005, the company was in Florida, Georgia and Virginia. For much of this time, Reesor admits he hadn’t thought too much about whether he liked his job.
“I was 38 years old, standing on a loading dock after a very long day,” he says. “I looked at the team around me, the product we’d grown and everything we’d built, and realized how much I loved it.”
Reesor says he feels fortunate to share this part of his life with much of his family and is grateful for the sacrifices his and Richard’s wives have made. Two of Robert Reesor’s children and a son-in law work for Rouge River. While he’s never pressured them to be in the family business, he says he’s grateful they find it as fulfilling as he does.
“There’s something satisfying about farming the crops and knowing you’re producing good quality food,” Reesor says. “We aim to keep building on our relationships and values and sticking true to what has gotten us this far as we continue to branch into new avenues.”
View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. II 2023 Edition here.
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