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Arkansas Farmer Uses VAPG to Bring Back Heirloom Tomatoes

December 8, 2014

Note: This is the third in a three-part series providing a closer look at some of this year’s Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) award recipients.  To read the other blog posts in this series, click here to read about how one organization used a VAPG award to expand online access to healthy food, and here to learn how a Kansas dairy farmer used a VAPG award to expand his cheese-making business.

Warren, Arkansas is proud of its tomatoes. From a tomato painted on the city’s water tower to an annual festival in June, the town of around 6,000 people fully embraces its pink tomato heritage.

Julie Donnelly—a resident and local tomato farmer—embraces it too. But Donnelly is putting a new spin on a Warren classic—when it comes to her tomatoes, it’s out with the red, and in with the purple, yellow, orange, and green.

Donnelly and her husband own and operate Deepwoods Farm, where they grow squash, cucumbers, okra, and—above all—heirloom tomatoes. The farm was awarded a $30,000 Value-Added Producer Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2014 to continue its heirloom tomato business and expand by producing salsa and tomato juice for sale at local farmers markets.

About the Farm

Photo Courtesy of Deepwoods Farm

                                                                Photo Courtesy of Deepwoods Farm

Getting started in the tomato farming business was a natural choice for Donnelly.

“I grew up in a farming family,” Donnelly said. “The only time I ever left was to go to college in Texas. My grandparents and parents have been tomato farming in this county for over 70 years. We love it with a passion.

“I had to work every summer on the farm. While all our friends were out swimming, my brothers and sisters and I worked all summer long. It makes for a good work ethic.”

Donnelly farms seven acres of tomatoes using organic fertilizers, although the farm is not certified organic. But while tomato farming is nothing new to Donnelly, heirloom tomato farming is a relatively recent undertaking.

Warren’s story isn’t unlike many other farming communities around the country. The surrounding area was once a thriving region for small-scale tomato operations, with over 200 small farmers making a living. Slowly but surely, larger tomato farms began to take over, taking up hundreds of acres and putting smaller farms out of business, according to Donnelly.

“We were all wondering, ‘What are we going to do to get back to good old fashioned tomatoes?’” she said. “Walmart was all about tomatoes that hold up well. They don’t care about the taste. And when you put money over quality, it catches up with you.”

Around seven years ago, two professors at the University of Arkansas – Monticello brought some heirloom plants to Donnelly’s farm. Wanting to try something new, she took the bait and began selling exotic-looking Cherokee Purple tomatoes.

“We could not get people to eat them! It was so depressing,” she said. “They were like, ‘What is wrong with that tomato.’ It has been so long in this area people didn’t even know what a real tomato looked like! I had to give them away.”

But the skepticism around heirloom tomatoes was quickly replaced with excitement. Customers are now willing to pay a premium for the crop, with one group coming all the way from Dallas to purchase 750 pounds of tomatoes.

“We live 100 miles southeast of Little Rock, and we have people from Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana—just everywhere,” Donnelly said. “They just like the idea of coming to the farm to get it.”

The Donnelly’s quickly made a name for themselves and their unusual tomatoes, and soon the farm was selling to some big name retailers.

“Now, people are crazy about them,” she said. “And then Whole Foods started buying them from us. They took the Cherokee purples and they made salsa out of them and gave out free samples and people were just going, ‘Oh my gosh!’”

Never to be outdone, Donnelly started looking into value-added options herself. She learned that she didn’t need a commercial kitchen to sell salsa or tomato juice at farmers markets and decided to try her hand at sales. “I can do it better than Whole Foods,” she said.

Donnelly and her husband are converting their garage into a canning kitchen using scrap lumber and tin, and they just purchased their own boxes with Deepwoods Farm’s name and website to distinguish themselves from mass produced tomatoes. But there was one small barrier standing in the Donnelly’s way on their quest to bring back heirloom tomato products.

Photo Courtesy of Deepwoods Farm

                                           Photo Courtesy of Deepwoods Farm

“We had all these ideas, and no money,” Donnelly said.

VAPG to the rescue

That’s where the USDA VAPG program comes in. Donnelly worked with someone at the USDA Rural Development office in Little Rock, participating in a webinar and “asking a million questions.” She also worked with a grant writer who helped her navigate through the application process.

“These things are not easy to fill out,” she said. “Obviously I did something right because I got the grant.”

The $30,000 grant will be used to help cover Donnelly’s labor, packaging, and marketing costs for the heirloom tomatoes, both for her own value-added endeavors and also to sell to other interested parties. For example, she plans to continue selling to Whole Foods, and another woman with a commercial kitchen has already expressed interest in purchasing tomatoes for her own salsa business.

Things look promising for the heirloom tomato business, and Donnelly is hopeful that the grant helps the heirlooms really take off—not for the financial gains, but so Warren can get back to its (tomato) roots.

“I know we’re not going to get rich, that’s not it,” she said. “But it will be a great way to make some money, enjoy ourselves, and give people the pleasure of getting something they pretty much can’t get anywhere else. It’s amazing around here that people are remembering what they lost.”

This grant is a great example of the power of the VAPG program.  These grants provide small and mid-sized farms with the shot of capital they need to scale up value-adding enterprises to capture new, growing markets and establish dependable incomes, keeping them in business and their communities the stronger for it.

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

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