citybiz+ Farmer Focus Wins $3.6 Million USDA Grant

Farmer Focus, a producer of organic and “humane”-certified chicken, has received a $3.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the funding during a visit to Farmer Focus’ headquarters last week. The grant is part of the second round of USDA’s Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program (MPPEP) totalling $59 million.

Farmer Focus, which was previously known as Shenandoah Valley Organic, said the grant would support its planned $17.8 million expansion of its Liberty chicken processing facility at its headquarters in Harrisonburg, Va. The plant’s expansion is expected to create more than 300 new jobs in the region, and add more farmers to its network of 97 at the end of 2022.

So far, Farmer Focus has raised a total of $27.8 million in funding. Venture firms backing it include Open Prairie; Richmond, Va.-based NRV; Virginia Tech Carilion (VTC) Innovation Fund; and S2G Ventures, which has offices in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago. Its most recent venture funding came in 2019 when it raised $14 million in a round led by NRV.

System Overhaul

Shenandoah Valley Organic, which later morphed into Farmer Focus, emerged from Heatwole’s frustration with existent poultry production systems. Farmers, he believed, had no control over their destiny, or profits, and consumers received patchy quality. In 2014, Heatwole started out on his own, aiming to build an organic production system that would also be farmer-friendly.

From a modest start with a mere 300 birds, Farmer Focus has grown to house tens of thousands of birds today. At the end of 2022, nearly 100 farmers were part of the collective. Farmer Focus products are sold in over 4,000 stores in the East Coast and Midwest, at retailers such as Publix, Kroger, Harris Teeter and Safeway. Its success is also reflected in a waitlist of over 100 farmers seeking to join Farmer Focus.

“Not a week goes past that farmers don’t call and ask to be added to the list. We’ve gotten calls from almost every state,” Heatwole told The Furrow, published by Deere, in an interview earlier in February.

Last year, Farmer Focus was named to Fast Company’s 2022 World Changing Ideas in the General Excellence category. It also won three other honors in 2022 — Next Gen Award to Heatwole as an industry leader of tomorrow; Top Women in Grocery Award for the leadership of Kathryn Tuttle, the company’s chief commercial officer; and the Editor’s Pick Awards, which recognized the Farmer Focus pre-seasoned chicken product line.

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NRV, also known as New Richmond Ventures, was co-founded in 2017 by Bob Mooney, who once held part-time engineering jobs at NASA.  Mooney has computing and engineering degrees from Carnegie Mellon University and Virginia Commonwealth University. NRV has so far raised $36.5 million from three funds. The venture firm’s biggest fund, NRV Early Stage Growth Fund, in 2017 raised $33 million. It has made 21 portfolio investments and exited four. Besides Farmer Focus, its recent investments include Murphy’s Naturals, SVT Robotics, and Ario.

The VTC Innovation Fund, managed by Middleland Capital, invests up to $5 million in early-stage life sciences and technology opportunities in, or with a strong connection to, the Commonwealth of Virginia. Besides profitability goals, the fund aims to enhance and diversify the economic base in the Roanoke and New River Valleys via by job creation and growth. So far, it has invested nearly $90 million. Its portfolio includes TearFocus, PlanetiQ, Veralox Therapeutics and antera.