School project turns into sweet business
Cole’s Sweet Corn.
It is a name that has become synonymous with fresh, delicious, locally-grown produce in Franklin County.
For approximately six weeks during June and July, customers are treated to luscious, healthy ears of bi-color and silver queen corn.
The business, which began as a school assignment for Franklin County resident Cole Roper, has turned into the shining example of what an entrepreneurial spirit can achieve with a little bit of luck, a lot of planning and an endless supply of hard work.
Roper’s story begins with a supervised agriculture experience (SAE) for FFA during his junior year at Franklin County High School.
Roper said he had some leftover corn from his family’s garden and decided to use it for his SAE project.
He worked a small corn crop and sold some of his product.
For his senior year at FCHS, Roper decided to expand a little and grew one acre of corn.
The crop did well and Cole’s Sweet Corn soon grew into a bona fide business venture.
“It just kept growing from there,” Roper said. “I paid my way through the University of Georgia doing it.”
Roper’s corn crop grew from one acre to two acres, and then to eight.
Presently, Roper plants 12 acres of sweet corn, staggering the planting times to extend the growing/selling season for his crop.
Along with increasing his yield, Roper decided to switch from yellow corn to a super sweet, bi-color hybrid, citing a better flavor and more favorable growing rates.
Quality is as important as quantity for Roper.
“Perhaps the biggest thing that has allowed me to grow is selling a quality product; having corn that is filled out correctly and doesn’t have worms or bugs,” he says. “Once people see you have the best product around, word spreads quickly.”
As word spread of Cole’s Sweet Corn and the quality of his product, Roper found himself expanding even further with the side-business, selling his corn wholesale to area grocery stores as well as selling at farmer’s markets around the area.
Currently, Roper sells at the Lavonia, Hart, Braselton, Suwanee and Oconee farmers’ markets.
He has also picked up various wholesalers in the region such as Dill’s Food City in both Royston and Lavonia, Jaemor Farms in Commerce and Alto and Quality Foods in Commerce and Cornelia.
Hard work and long hours go into making Cole’s Sweet Corn the success it has become.
Roper says that his corn season begins around late February when they prepare the ground for planting.
Planting typically begins around the end of March, with subsequent plantings every two weeks until the beginning of May.
The first harvests usually occur around the second or third week of June.
Thanks to the staggered planting, harvesting continues until the latter part of July.
On an average day during selling season, Roper and his family are awake by 5:30 a.m. and in the fields by 6 a.m., where they will pick corn for two to three hours.
The early start helps offset the brutal heat that is part and parcel of a Georgia summer.
Depending on the day of the week, the corn is separated and packed for farmer’s markets or wholesalers.
And, of course, a sizeable portion is destined for the roadside stand in his parents’ driveway in Sandy Cross.
Those ears disappear quickly as customers steadily trickle in to fill their bags.
Roper came by his love of sweet corn and agriculture naturally.
His grandfather, Harold Fowler, played a significant role in shaping Cole’s attitude and appreciation for the land.
“He developed my love of sweet corn, and farming and agriculture in general,” says Roper. “When I was little, I would go to the sale barn with him all the time. I’d ride the tractor with him and help him in his garden and go with him to the farmer’s market.”
Agriculture has always been an integral part of Roper’s life. He grew up on his parents’ farm. He says agriculture is in his blood.
“I knew I always wanted to be in involved in production ag,” says Roper.
He graduated from FCHS in 2012 and went on to graduate from the University of Georgia in 2016 with a degree in animal science.
Roper credits both his involvement in FFA and his high school agriculture teacher Gary Minyard as large factors in his continued success.
“FFA was extremely important to me and what I’ve done with my life,” he says. “It really shaped me into who I am today. Mr. Minyard instilled in me the competitive drive I have today. Basically, anything I do is a competition with myself. It was everything. It helped shaped what I wanted to do …. going to Georgia … and achieving what I wanted to do in life as well.”
Even when he is not involved with his side business, Roper’s day-to-da life involves agriculture.
He is a broiler supervisor for Fieldale Farms where he works with growers to more productively raise their flocks.
Currently, Roper has 16 growers on his route.
His favorite part of his job is the interaction with the farmers. He enjoys helping his clients become more efficient and, in turn, more productive.
If that were not enough to keep Roper busy, he also raises 50 head of commercial Angus brood cows.
He sells the calves locally at the Franklin County Livestock Auction.
As is the case in many successful operations, Roper says the list of people who have helped him along his journey is long.
Friends and family ties have been important to the growth of his business.
“There are so many people,” he says. “Mr. Paul Martin was influential into getting me into some other markets. He taught me a lot about marketing and how I market.”
“Tracy Dilworth gave me my first break with selling to the grocery stores. He’s been good to me. We sold to Dill’s before we sold to anybody else, and we try to make sure we always have a good working relationship with Dill’s Food City.”
Roper says his best friend, Joshua Phillips, has also been instrumental to his success.
Phillips assists in picking, delivering and marketing.
“He always comes whenever I call, which is very nice. Having a good friend like that in a business to help you is very important.”
The little FFA SAE project started so many years ago has blossomed into a full-blown family affair.
Roper says his father drives the tractor every morning during the picking.
His wife Nicole delivers to various farmer’s markets.
His parents, Randy and Andrea, and brother, Chase, help sell at the family produce stand.
Other relatives have allowed him to use their equipment to speed up planting and increase his profit potential.
“It may be ‘Cole’s Sweet Corn,’ but it’s really a family operation because I couldn’t do this without them,” says Roper.
He also emphasizes the importance of faith and divine influence as a key to his successes.
“I need to give all the glory to Christ,” said Roper. “The past several years, we’ve had rain and had really, really good years. That has helped us grow as well. We have been very, very blessed.”
Cole’s Sweet Corn is located at 3981 Sandy Cross Road in Royston.
But you will have to wait until next year to enjoy his produce. The growing season just ended for 2019.
Not to worry.
Roper and family are sure to be back at it come spring, ready to produce another bumper crop of the sweetest corn around.