By Suzanne Labry
Many of us can identify that pivotal moment in our lives when we reach the crossroads of future possibilities and choose one path over another. For Dixondale Farms president Bruce Frasier, that turning point occurred at a beer joint in San Antonio in 1977. That’s where Frasier, then a United States Military Academy cadet home for spring break, met his wife-to-be, Jeanie Martin, great-granddaughter of the founder of Dixondale Farms, the largest producer of onion plants in the United States. “Jeanie prefers to call it a dance hall,” Bruce grinned. “I never intended to come back to Texas when I went to West Point. But then I met Jeanie and that all changed.”
It was one of those love-at-first-sight situations, and the young couple spent the first few years of married life in the Army, living in Killeen at Fort Hood and in Korea. Educated as a civil engineer and trained by the military as a computer specialist, when Bruce completed his time of active duty he interviewed for positions in the corporate world and was offered a job with Procter & Gamble’s Pampers baby diaper division. “I figured what-the-heck. We were expecting our first child and at least we’d get free diapers.”
Jeanie’s father, Wallace Martin (then Dixondale president), had a different idea. Bruce and Jeanie were living in Carrizo Springs (the headquarters of Dixondale Farms) with her parents while in transition from the service. Wallace asked his son-in-law if working for a diaper company was what he really wanted to do, and Bruce, who had no background in farming, said, “No, what I really want to do is work for you, but you haven’t offered me a job.”
“Well, I’m offering you one now,” replied Wallace (who had been hired in a similar fashion decades earlier by his own father-in-law, Earl McClendon, son of Dixondale Farms founder Joseph McClendon). “The first thing you need to do is go buy yourself a pickup. The second thing you need to do is go out to the farm and ask our foreman, Miguel Campos, what he wants you to do. Then do it. The biggest decision you’ll have to make every day is how you want your eggs cooked — everything else you do is up to Miguel.”
“For the next two years, I was the first person to get to the farm and the last person to leave. I got no special treatment,” Bruce recalled. “I learned the onion business from the ground up and that helped me earn the respect of our employees because they know that there is nothing about our operation that I don’t know firsthand and can’t do myself.” In the process, he also became fluent in Spanish, an ability that has served him well, since Carrizo Springs is located 45 miles from the Mexico border and the preponderance of the Dixondale workforce speak Spanish.
Wallace Martin’s hiring of his son-in-law proved auspicious, as Bruce Frasier turned out to be the right person in the right place at the right time for Dixondale Farms. The commercial onion business was changing radically in the early 1980s, when a convergence of factors came into play that dramatically affected distribution, plant availability and marketing of the company’s crops. Bruce’s computer training, his ability to figure out a new way around a problem and his (and Jeanie’s) can-do work ethic proved to be just what the onion farm needed to remain successful in a business landscape that bore little resemblance to the one that had supported the Dixondale operation since it was founded in 1913. Wallace was an expert on growing onions; Bruce became an expert at selling onions.
For years after the railroad stopped servicing Carrizo Springs in 1956, distribution of onion plants was handled mainly by trucks owned by independent operators known as peddlers, who sold to small, mom-and-pop type feed stores throughout the southern United States. As many as fifteen 18-wheeler-sized trucks a day would roll into Carrizo Springs and leave loaded with onion plants from the company’s farms. However, the 1979 oil crisis following the Iran-Iraq war caused gas prices to climb so high that eventually the peddlers could no longer afford to do business. If Dixondale Farms intended to remain viable, a new distribution model was imperative. That came in 1990, when UPS (and later FedEx) began servicing Carrizo Springs, and Bruce realized that mail order directly to farmers and home gardeners might provide a new distribution channel for Dixondale Farms.
Around the same time, “big box” retailing began to be widespread and the ability to ship directly to those outlets opened up an entirely new market for onion plants. Additionally, large independent garden centers began to replace small feed stores as a supplier of transplants for home gardeners. UPS and FedEx delivery services provided the means to expand Dixondale Farms’ business nationwide. Now Dixondale Farms grows onion plants for Bonnie Plants, which supplies Walmart, Home Depot and Lowe’s stores, among others, all over the country. Today, Dixondale ships half of the 900 million onion transplants they grow each year to big box retailers and garden centers via refrigerated trucks.
In the early 1980s, there were only eight varieties of onions available for commercial growers to sell. All were open-pollinated. Hybridization revolutionized that, and because more and more hybrids were developed throughout the mid-’80s into the ’90s, Dixondale Farms now plants 60 different varieties of onions on its 2,200 acres for customers throughout the United States. Of course, greater selection doesn’t do much for the bottom line unless customers are aware of the fact that new varieties are available, and that’s where Bruce’s marketing savvy came in to play.
Dixondale Farms’ first foray into mail-order marketing consisted of 8-1/2” × 11” photocopies with three forms to a page that Jeanie cut out with scissors and stuffed into envelopes to send out. They started advertising in Texas Gardener and a variety of farm magazines, and business began to build among farmers and home gardeners. When a batch of diseased onions caused problems for farmers and gardeners in the San Antonio area, Dr. Jerry Parsons, now-retired horticulture specialist with the Texas Cooperative Extension in San Antonio, promoted the quality of Dixondale Farms’ onions in his newspaper column and radio show. After that, orders began pouring in. Eventually, Bruce bought mailing lists from other onion plant producers in Texas and Georgia who were going out of business. Today, Dixondale Farms sells onion plants directly to 200,000 mail-order customers and mail orders account for 25 percent of the company’s volume, with the other 75 percent of sales going directly to large commercial farmers, primarily in New York and Georgia.
The single sheet of paper cut into thirds has been replaced by a professionally-produced annual catalog filled with colorful photography and graphics; maps of the country to show the areas of short-day, intermediate-day, and long-day onion varieties; descriptions that include size and storage potential of the different varieties; and easy-to-follow growing tips. Bruce’s familiarity with computers has allowed him to use the Internet to connect directly with customers via a website, email and social media; and at the encouragement of daughter Becca, he developed a series of onion-growing how-to videos that are popular on YouTube. “If our customers are not successful, they won’t come back,” said Bruce. “I realized that with the current popularity of home gardening and locally sourced food, a lot of our new customers might be beginning gardeners. If I can help them achieve good results with our onions, then they’re likely to buy from us again.”
Customer loyalty is a vital part of the Dixondale Farms’ approach to business and it has been from the company’s earliest days. When the worst freeze of the century wiped out the crop of Vidalia onions in Georgia in 1986, Wallace provided growers there with what limited stock he had of his own, earning appreciation and respect for the company that has lasted to this day. In fact, more than 90 percent of Dixondale customers who have purchased onion plants from the company continue to order each year.
It’s not only customers who are loyal to the company — its workers are, too. The tractor drivers, customer-service personnel and the people packing the individual orders realize that they all have vital responsibilities for customers to have success growing onions from Dixondale Farms’ transplants. Many employees have been with the company for decades, and it is not uncommon for succeeding generations of the same family to work for Dixondale. As one of the largest employers in the area, Dixondale Farms has absorbed the expense of salary increases for its employees so that they can continue to afford to work and live in the area. Carrizo Springs sits atop the Eagle Ford Shale Formation, one of the most actively drilled areas in the U.S. for oil and gas, and as the community’s population has ballooned from 5,000 to 40,000 in a short few years, the cost of living in the area has risen exponentially.
Treating customers and employees like family comes naturally in a business that has been family-owned and operated for more than 100 years, and that tradition is not going to change any time soon. Since neither of Bruce and Jeanie’s two children are interested in the daily operation of the farm, leadership of the company is now transitioning to those who, in Bruce’s words, are “like family”. Mike Garza, the new general manager of Dixondale Farms, grew up in Carrizo Springs with Bruce and Jeanie’s children and is like their big brother. After graduating from Sul Ross State University, he went to work for Target, but when Bruce offered him a job with Dixondale (in much the same manner as Wallace had hired Bruce), Mike happily came aboard with the company he’d grown up around. He now oversees all of the planting and harvesting operations. The packing and shipping portion of the business is now handled by James Jaime, a young man who started working for Dixondale Farms when he was 10 years old.
Although the next generation of company leaders seems firmly in place, Bruce and Jeanie show little sign of slowing down, and both put in regular workdays running various aspects of Dixondale Farms. Even Wallace, now 90 years old, still keeps his hand in the business, as the entire company depends on him to share his vast knowledge of growing onions.
Not many companies can boast of a century in business, and that fact speaks to the ability of succeeding generations to remain flexible, change with the times and stay current. It is a legacy that Wallace, Bruce, Jeanie, their children Becca and Patrick, and the future administrators of Dixondale Farms are proud of and one that they intend to maintain. “We’re all responsible for each part of the business. We work together as a team and somehow we’ve always been able to find a way to get it all done and keep everything going. Most of the time, we’re able to make it even better,” said Bruce. At Dixondale Farms, it truly is all about family.