It’s a combination of blessings and luck.Grant Anderson, founder of Better Fresh Farms LLc
METTER — Grant Anderson has found a promising environment to grow his unique business.
Better Fresh Farms, a hydroponic operation founded in Effingham County in 2016, has moved to Metter, the state’s first Georgia Grown City. Georgia Grown is a marketing and economic development program of the Georgia Department of Agriculture.
“It’s a combination of blessings and luck,” Anderson said about his business move.
Anderson cultivates a wide variety of produce in four climate-controlled frieght containers positioned in the back of a building at 25 South Terrell Street. The facility is the City of Metter/Georgia Southern University Business Incubator, which is dedicated to developing Georgia Grown businesses.
“When the City of Metter worked with Georgia Southern to vet this idea of ‘how do we rebrand the city?,’ they came up with the Georgia Grown community model,” Anderson said. “Georgia Grown was really interested in it and Georgia Southern’s numbers indicated that it would be good for job creation and capitalizing on the history here.”
The City of Metter signed a Memorandum of Understanding and lease agreement with Better Fresh Farms LLC on Tuesday, May 14. The $2 million investment is eventually expected to result in 20 jobs.
After graduating from Georgia Tech with a business degree, Anderson didn’t seem destined to become a farmer. He initially dabbled in the finance and corporate worlds in Atlanta.
He and his wife eventually grew weary of hustle and bustle.
“I loved the Braves games, Falcons games and all that stuff,” Anderson said. “That was fun, but just the day-to-day living in the city just wasn’t something that either of us wanted to do.”
After some brainstorming with a friend, Anderson decided to return to Effingham County and start a business.
“We wanted to make money but we wanted the business to be good for the community and something we could be excited about everyday,” Anderson said.
Six months after getting back home, however, Anderson had another unsatisfying desk job and was still yearning for something else.
Finally, agriculture popped into his mind.
“I grew up farming a half acre behind the house with my grandpa growing up,” Anderson said. “I worked for Thomas Kessler in Guyton doing cotton and soybean scouting, and feeding livestock and mending fences, and things like that for summer jobs.”
Anderson was a tad fearful about sticking his neck out and giving farming a try, however.
“I never saw anybody who did row crops or anything like that who did particularly well,” Anderson said. “It was a gamble.”
Many of Anderson’s friends encouraged him to keep the job he considered tedious because of its steady pay and benefits.
“(That job) just ground my gears,” he said. “It didn’t make me happy. I’d get out of bed and I didn’t want to go do it.”
Anderson found a new course for his life after reading a magazine story about a retired Massachusetts couple. They were operating a year-round market in Boston
“Neither of them had ag experience,” Anderson said. “One was a teacher and the other was a computer engineer, software engineer or something like that. They had grown to eight of these containers providing produce year-round in Boston where you really didn’t have any business growing food.
“That’s when it clicked. I thought it made a lot of sense.”
Anderson flew to Massachusetts to visit the couple before jumping into business for himself. He made it official by inking a contract to purchase two freight containers there.
“I went to nine different banks before I found the financing to start the business,” he said. “It was a community bank out of Fitzgerald, Georgia, called Colony Bank that took a chance on us. They felt like there was at least potential in what I was doing and it made sense by the numbers.”
Anderson set up his first freight containers in September 2016 on family land near Marlow Elementary School. They were filled with numerous varieties of lettuce, kale and other vegetables.
Shortly after getting set up, Anderson met Tom Neville, the local Georgia Grown marketing representative, at an event at Pooler’s Tanger Outlet.
“I took him some samples of my produce from a farmers market that I had run in Savannah that morning,” Anderson said. “I introduced myself and kept conversation going with him for the next few years. I told him what my plan was long term.”
Neville ended up connecting Anderson with the City of Metter and Georgia Southern nearly three years later.
“As much as I know he was doing his job, I feel like we became friends in the process,” Anderson said. “Metter was trying to do something new and, thankfully, I popped into his head.”
Anderson’s plan is to grow Better Fresh Farms to 100 containers. His Metter location has room for 20.
“I’d like to modularize farming in a way that I can have farms all over the state of Georgia and have farms everywhere,” he said. “We cut put these in downtown Savannah. We could put them in Atlanta. We could put them in Macon.
“You could take them to rural areas like Metter and have a local food source year round.”
Better Fresh Farms got off to a good start but things haven’t always gone smoothly. Anderson sold nearly everything he grew for the first 18 months, mostly to chefs in Savannah, before running into a COVID-19 wall.
“From late 2018 to late 2019, the restaurants bought one hundred percent for the most part — give or take some of the touristy seasons and summertime,” Anderson said.
COVID-19 created a sales dip even though Better Fresh Farms’ offerings are of superior quality, easily beating its much larger competitors.
Better Fresh Farms, the first member of the Georgia Southern Incubator, currently produces about 400 pounds of food per week. It provides all the salad greens for schools in Metter.
“We’ve also got ag programs with the schools,” Anderson said. “I’ve got two students who work part-time doing work-study programs with me and so the ability to start offering jobs here is real. We’ve proven that to the City of Metter so far.
“Now we have to start finding sales partners to move enough produce to justify the rest of our expansion.”
Once the 16 additional containers are set up in the 12,000 square foot warehouse he uses in Metter, Anderson expects to produce 2,000 pounds of food per week.
“If the Good Lord is willing and the coronavirus decides to cut it out.” Anderson said with a laugh.
Fed by nutrient-enriched water without the benefit of soil, Better Fresh Farms produce is grown in perfect conditions. Anderson manipulates the temperature, humidity and artificial lighting in each freight container to suit whatever kind plant is growing in it.
The containers are kept spotless, meaning the plants are free of weeds, diseases and insects. Herbicides and pesticides aren’t necessary.
Eventually, Anderson hopes to offer regional delivery of his products.
“One of the biggest issues that faces a farmer is the cost of shipping,” he said.
One of Anderson’s equity partners is Joey Burke, owner of a Statesboro logistics company.
“He’s partially invested in this business with the long-term goal of helping us solve this shipment issue that farmers face,” Anderson said.
Anderson isn’t about to surrender to the trucking challenge or any other because he knows he has powerful allies in the City of Metter, Georgia Southern and Georgia Grown.
“This has been a godsend for my business and my family” Anderson said. “Starting a business is a struggle. We are somewhere where we feel supported and the community has accepted us.
“We are kind of where we feel we need to be.”