NSAC's Blog

Stories from the Field: Investing in Farmer Ingenuity

May 4, 2017

Valerie and Clay Oliver in the office of their Georgia farm. Photo credit: Raymond McCrae of the New York Times.

When your product is in more stores than there are people in town, you know you’re doing something right. Clay Oliver and his family are from the small town of Pitts, Georgia, but the artisan, cold-pressed oils they produce as Oliver Oil Company are found in kitchens across the country. The Oliver family’s creativity and hard work, along with some support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG), enabled Oliver Oil Company to grow into the successful business it is today. 

Value-Added Producer Grants

VAPG provides funds to stimulate small business development and drive economic growth in rural communities. Like Clay, farmers across the country apply for VAPG in order to fund their business and marketing plans, feasibility studies, or acquire working capital for their value-added business venture. In helping farmers to diversify and add value to their businesses, VAPG provides farmers with a way to better secure their livelihoods, as well as to stimulate economic development in their surrounding communities.

Feeding the entrepreneurial spirit

Clay Oliver and his brother run a multi-generational, centennial farm – meaning it has been in their family for over 100 years. For most of those years Clay’s family made a living growing commodity crops. However, after dealing with economic uncertainty created by the 2008 recession, volatile commodity prices, drought, and the passing of Clay’s Dad, Clay’s family decided that they needed to diversify the family farm.

“It was disaster after disaster,” says Clay on what motivated him to radically change his operation.

For a time, Clay considered growing crops for biofuel, but soon he figured out an even better new outlet: cold-pressed, unrefined, non-GMO, artisan cooking oils. Spurred on with excitement over the potential impact this new venture could make on his family’s operation, Clay bought a press with some extra funds from a successful peanut harvest and planted his first crop of sunflowers in 2012.

After this first harvest, Clay quickly realized he had found something special. The freshness and flavor of the non-refined oils also grabbed the attention of farmers’ market patrons in Georgia. At the farmers’ market, Clay was able to entice customers by letting them taste the difference his cold-press process made in the oil’s flavor, and he was also able to educate them about the health benefits of oils pressed at lower temperatures. Clay’s business was gaining a strong local following, but Clay also was also interested in opportunities to expand his market outside of Georgia.

“I wanted to keep growing, and VAPG was that extra boost that let me try new things,” said Clay.

In 2015, Clay pooled his matching funds and applied for a VAPG investment in Oliver Oil Company. The grant was the stimulus he needed; it helped him to pay two farmers’ market workers and a part-time press operator, and to invest in packaging and advertising.

“It’s awesome when a farmer can grow something and then take it another step further and manufacture their own product,” says Clay on the value of VAPG. “VAPG feeds that entrepreneurial spirit and helps farmers like me take a risk.”

Increasing rural opportunity

Clay’s appreciation for a program that has invested in his and his family’s future is clear:

“Some people will work their whole lives and not get the acknowledgement that our stuff has gotten, and I’m just blown away.”

Access to direct market and distributing channels like farmers markets have been essential to Clay’s success and served as a launch pad to full-scale wholesale production. The investments that he has made to develop his business have created real jobs that can’t be outsourced.

The Oliver family in their sunflower field.

Today, Clay’s oils can be bought in more than 30 states and have been used in some of the most famous kitchens in the US. While his product may be available across the country, the bulk of the work still gets done right on Clay’s family farm – Clay, his wife, and their employees plant, press, package, and ship the oils straight from Pitts.

Clay and his family are proud of their work and the Georgia Grown label that comes with it. With each bottle purchased, people throughout the country get a peek into the ingenuity of Georgia’s farmers – ingenuity that VAPG supports and helps transform into tangible growth and opportunities. In asking Clay what motivated him to take a risk with his new business idea, he immediately pointed to his two daughters.

“I knew that my daughters probably wouldn’t want to farm as we were farming before – but I also knew that it would be excellent to show them how to run a business,” said Clay.

Thanks to VAPG, Clay can bring his daughters into a successful, sustainable business that is both profitable for their family and supports the growth and vitality of their community.

NSAC applauds increased funding for VAPG

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) believes that family farms and rural communities deserve access to resources that provide opportunities for growth and economic investment. In helping farmers to expand their businesses, VAPG empowers rural communities to become stronger and more resilient.

We are thrilled to report that the fiscal year (FY) 2017 funding package, agreed upon by Congress this week, includes $15 million for VAPG, bumping discretionary funding up to a level not seen since 2014. This 40 percent increase in discretionary funding, which is in line with NSAC’s request for the program, is especially important in FY 2017 because the program has very little funding remaining from the 2014 Farm Bill. As such, farm bill funding for the program will need to be renewed and enhanced in the 2018 farm bill.

To learn more about NSAC’s advocacy around VAPG and other sustainable agriculture programs, check out our priorities for: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the FY 2018 appropriations package, and the 2018 Farm Bill.

Categories: Budget and Appropriations, Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Marketing and Labeling, Rural Development

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