Open Letter to Cong. Austin Scott:
I urge you to leverage your leadership position and convince your House colleagues to support a Senate Farm Bill provision called the Local Agriculture Market Program. LAMP would increase federal funding available through the VAPG — a program that inspires families like mine with hope about our future in farming.
VAPG is designed to feed the entrepreneurial spirit of small and mid-sized farmers throughout the U.S. who need help figuring out how to adapt to changing market opportunities. It has made a huge difference for my family’s fifth-generation south central Georgia farm.
In 2008, my father died suddenly at age 55. My brother and I were thrust into a leadership role on our 1,000 acre farm. We continued Dad’s practice of growing cotton, peanuts, soybeans, and grain. We sold our crops exclusively in commodity markets.
Dependence on fluctuating markets led me to explore other applications for our products, including oils. I discovered the cold press and oil extraction process. My first sales outlet for these oils were at local community farmers’ markets around Georgia with two in Atlanta.
Growing up in commercial agriculture, I didn’t know about pop up markets. And I didn’t know how vital they can be for farmers wanting to diversify their income.
Once or twice a month, I’d wake up at 3 am and drive 150 miles north to set up in time for the 8 am opening of the Saturday farmers' market in Atlanta. That was both physically draining and eye-opening.
Shoppers told me they wanted oil with a natural taste that they couldn’t get through industrial processing. They could find natural olive oil but nobody was making artisanal sunflower oil.
My involvement in Georgia’s local food marketplace led to new connections. Atlanta celebrity chef Steven Satterfield fell in love with my green peanut oil and shared his enthusiasm with national television audiences on a PBS cooking show.
At a “Growing Local” conference, I met a grant writer named Donn Cooper. Donn told me how VAPG funding could help increase opportunities for taking my product to market.
At the time, I had three general goals about selling Oliver Farm sunflower oil: 1) Target farmers market 2) Start an Internet store 3) Reach out to restaurants. The process of writing a federal grant application led me to firm up a business plan. I got specific on market outlets — billboards, a cooking show, and a trade show.
USDA awarded me $250,000 to cover half of the cost of my projected $500,000 expenditure. The money helped me do things that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to afford.
I hired a cold-press operator here in our small town of Pitts, Georgia and two Atlanta women to run my farmers' market stand. The grant also freed me up to do the selling and to help offset the marketing costs. I went to trade shows around the country and made great connections to people in the food industry.
The grant was for processing and marketing of a natural artisan cold-pressed sunflower oil. Yet, sunflower oil has proven to be a catalyst for my business’ amazing and almost unbelievable growth.
Today, Oliver Farm Artisan Oils are sold in 400 specialty stores nationwide. Farmers' market sales account for 20% of our sales. Through new relationships with urban farms and organic farms, I’m looking at how to collaborate on initiatives that combine their products and my oil as well as innovative uses for the byproducts of the extraction process.
America’s food and agriculture industry will benefit from federal policy that helps farmers help themselves. That’s why I think it’s problematic that the U.S. House of Representatives’ new Farm Bill allocated no funds for the Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program. I ask you consider my story and imagine all the small and mid-size family farmers like me who will lose support from this omission.
That’s why I ask you to please support the U.S. Senate’s LAMP provision. LAMP would provide $60 million a year in permanent funding for VAPG projects along with some related initiatives to grow local and regional food economies.
Please make sure that the final Farm Bill includes full funding for LAMP. And please let me know if I can answer any questions about why VAPG is such a vital federal program.