NSAC's Blog

Stories from the Field: Seizing Economic Opportunities

October 11, 2012

Due to Congressional inaction, the 2008 Farm Bill has expired without a new bill or extension to take its place.  In the absence of a farm bill, numerous innovative programs that invest in sustainable agriculture systems are shut down and left without funding.*  This post is part of our 10-week blog series which will feature both program facts and stories from the field of those farmers and communities which are impacted by expired farm bill programs.  To read this week’s earlier post on value-added agriculture, click here.

By Drew Thomason, Illinois Stewardship Alliance

Denise Kilgus, top row, second from the right, is a co-owner of Living Water Farms, a hydroponic vegetable operation in central Illinois. Denise, along with other Kilgus family members, pose in one of Living Water Farms greenhouses. Living Water Farms is a member of Buy Fresh Buy Local Central Illinois, a project of Illinois Stewardship Alliance. (Photo provided by Denise Kilgus)

“There’s a lot of big dreams out there that just need a little boost,” notes Denise Kilgus, a co-owner and treasurer for Living Water Farms.

A family-owned and operated farm in central Illinois, Living Water Farms got its boost thanks to a $300,000 Value-Added Producer Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year.

Prior to the grant, the 8,000-square-foot hydroponics operation was having a problem that anyone who owns a business loves to have – demand outpacing supply.

“We have fresh, local, sustainably grown products.  There’s a lot of interest for just that, but we didn’t have the facilities and employees to keep supply up as demand went up.  We needed to expand our operation” Kilgus remarks.

Living Water Farms started in 2009 by growing lettuces, greens, basil, pea tendrils, and other vegetables, and by selling most of their produce to chefs, restaurants, and other wholesale customers.  As chefs started to rely on them for year-round, locally produced and sustainably grown produce, their staff grew to four full-time employees and eight part-time employees.  That still wasn’t enough to keep up with demand.

Growing a quality product that takes a lot of hands-on work makes it difficult to find time for the necessary product marketing.  Living Water Farms likes to have employees hit the road and meet face-to-face with potential customers – chefs and others in the food service industry.  Once they see, taste, and experience the vegetables Living Water Farms produces, “they are hooked,” Kilgus says.

Last year Living Water Farms faced a double bind: more production to meet demand would mean less time to grow the business, but without a solid marketing plan to ensure demand stayed high, the business could stumble over its own previous successes.

Instead of stalling out or taking on huge debts to expand, Living Water Farms went after a Value-Added Producer Grant.  The $300,000 Value-Added Producer Grant that Living Water Farm was awarded in February is helping it grow from a scrappy startup to a brawny business.

Living Water Farms was one of 298 grants awarded in 44 states in 2012, totaling $14 million.  VAPG is a competitive grants program that helps entrepreneurial agricultural producers and coops access capital and get the boost they need on the road to economic prosperity.

Living Water Farms is using its grant to increase production levels, expand its growing space, and bring on more employees.

“It has given us that step forward and given us a lot better footing.  Hydroponics in Illinois is extremely new and the markets are wide open, but when you don’t have enough money to keep up, you flounder.  This propelled us forward in opening markets that we could not have had otherwise,” Kilgus said.

Money from VAPG is also going towards increasing Living Water Farms’ online presence, a necessity in today’s Internet-driven world.

Living Water Farms heard about VAPG through colleagues who received a grant several years ago.  Kilgus says she has seen the good that VAPG can do both firsthand and secondhand: “It’s helping our state and our little community here as we add jobs.”

“It’s helping our state and our little community here as we add jobs.”

Kilgus recommended the grant program to other colleagues after seeing what good it has done for Living Water Farms, and she observes that delaying reauthorization of the program could mean farms and other businesses like hers could struggle instead of becoming job-creating engines.

All of us have the opportunity to speak out for VAPG and other critical programs in the farm bill.  Sign up for NSAC Action Alerts here for opportunities to speak out!

* Read this week’s earlier post on value-added agriculture here to learn the status of funding for VAPG.

Categories: Farm Bill, Grants and Programs, Local & Regional Food Systems, Rural Development

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