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International agribusiness event starts with Claxton tour visits

International agribusiness event starts with Claxton tour visits

International agribusiness event starts with Claxton tour visits

Joshua Berning, right, University of ...

CLAXTON — Truckloads of Claxton Fruitcake go to Canada, but the company's owners would like to expand exports to Europe and other regions. Another Evans County business, Wilbanks Apiaries, already exports bees around the world.

Statewide and international participants in an agribusiness tour Tuesday visited both places before heading to Toombs County to tour the Vidalia Onion Museum and other onion-related sites. The tour vans also passed through Tattnall County for a visit to Mascot Pecan Co. in Glennville. About 20 people took the tour, which was a prelude to the International Agribusiness Conference and Expo being held Wednesday and today in Savannah.

That event, hosted by the University of Georgia and Georgia Southern University, registered about 200 participants. Promoting exports of Georgia's farm-based products is the goal, said Lannie Lanier, a former Southeast District director of the UGA Cooperative Extension Service and now its special projects coordinator.

"We want to plant some seeds in people's minds to get them producing for export because less than an hour away will be potentially the largest export market in the nation, right here at our doorstep. We need to use it," Lanier said.

He and Curtis Woody, the director of GSU's Center for Professional Development, are chairing the conference. The idea for the first-time cooperative effort, Lanier said, came from a suggestion by Sen. Jack Hill, R-Reidsville, that the universities should promote exports to take advantage of the planned deepening of Savannah's harbor.

The federally authorized project will enable the port to accommodate larger ships. These ships are expected to pass through the Panama Canal after the canal's own expansion is complete, projected for 2015. Lanier cited speculation about what could happen to the port of Savannah.

"Savannah is poised to be the No. 1 port in the nation in less than 10 years, and the question is how do we get ready for that," he said.

Gov. Nathan Deal was keynote speaker Wednesday afternoon during the conference at the Savannah International Trade & Convention Center. A reception Wednesday evening gave Georgia business people a chance to meet diplomats and trade representatives from at least nine foreign countries.

Claxton Fruitcake

But the previous day, a bit of the convention came to Claxton, where family-owned businesses are already involved in international trade.

While waiting for the tour vans to arrive, Dale Parker, vice president of Claxton Bakery Inc., received updates about a truck on its way to carry a load of the company's famous fruitcakes to Toronto.

"Through the years, the business has undergone a great deal of change," Parker said, talking about his family's 103-year-old brand.

Italian immigrant Savino G. Tos established a general-purpose bakery in Claxton in 1910. Tos later built a movie theater next door, and eventually owned a small chain of theaters in the area.

Meanwhile, an 11-year-old boy named Albert Parker went to work for Tos at the bakery in 1927. In 1945, Parker bought the business and decided to specialize in fruitcakes. That year, the bakery produced 40,000 pounds of fruitcake.

As the late Albert Parker's son Dale explains, the company's break came in the early 1950s with a deal to supply Claxton Fruitcake to Civitan International clubs for use in their fundraising efforts.

Fundraising remains part, but a smaller part, of Claxton Bakery's business. In recent years, more of the fruitcakes have been distributed through supermarket chains, including Walmart and Kroger. The owners have also worked to develop a retail mail order business. The Internet has been a great tool for this, Parker said.

In another development of recent years, he often appears live on the TV shopping channel QVC to sell Claxton Fruitcake during the holiday season.

Claxton Bakery Inc. now produces about 5.5 million pounds of fruitcake each year. But it remains both a family business and a seasonal one. The bakery employs about 100 people for seasonal fruitcake production from the day after Labor Day through mid-December, but only about 15 people, including family members, in the off-season.

More of an international market could allow the company to expand beyond the seasonal American appetite for fruitcake and make fuller use of the company's equipment, Parker said.

"We would love to develop a more aggressive international sales program. ...," he said. "But outside of North America, we don't have a very strong presence. We feel like we've got a product that would be very conducive to sales, particularly in the European countries, but we do have some stumbling points, so we've go to hurdle those issues."

European Union restrictions on genetically modified organisms are one obstacle, he said, because of the presence of corn syrup in Claxton Fruitcake. Some American corn is grown from genetically modified seed. The bakery does not add corn syrup to the cake, but the syrup is used in processing the candied cherries and pineapple, which Claxton Bakery buys already processed.

So the company is working with its processors to have the corn syrup replaced with sucrose, which would clear EU regulations, Parker said. Claxton Bakery also has a contracted food lab working on preservatives for a longer shelf-life version of the cake that might be exported to the Middle East.

Wilbanks Apiaries

Meanwhile, Wilbanks Apiaries, which appears on a Georgia Department of Agriculture list of the state's five largest beekeeping operations, has been exporting bees since the 1980s.

"Our bees are shipped worldwide, and they've also appeared in movies," company President Reg Wilbanks told the tour group. "If you've ever seen the movie ‘Fried Green Tomatoes,' those are my bees and honey, and the movie ‘The War' with Kevin Costner, I furnished those bees for that movie as well."

Starting in northern Georgia with a wedding gift of four beehives from his great-grandfather to his grandfather, the Wilbankses are now into their fifth or sixth generation as beekeepers. They relocated to Evans County in 1948.

Today, the company maintains more than 6,000 full-size hives and 15,000 nuclei for producing queen bees, nestled on farms across six counties. Their main business is neither honey production nor pollination, but raising queens — about 60,000 each year — and 2- to 4-pound packages of worker bees — between 15,000 and 20,000 boxes annually — as stock for other beekeepers.

Wilbanks showed visitors a decorative wall papyrus received from grateful Egyptian customers and mentioned past air shipments to Jordan and Kuwait. Bees, being fragile and needing to arrive quickly, are usually transported by mail, parcel service or air, he said.

Claxton's largest industry, an exporter of frozen chicken, is represented at the conference. Claxton Poultry President Jerry Lane is scheduled to speak today as part of a panel of food exporters offering advice and observations.


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