Some rural businesses get help from VA FAIRS

Some rural businesses get help from VA FAIRS
Hundreds of farmers have been helped by the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability since it was formed in 2004. Its creation was spearheaded by Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

VA FAIRS helps rural agricultural enterprises strengthen their business ideas by offering technical and business development services. The foundation works with agriculture producers transitioning from commodity production to value-added businesses.

In the past three years, VA FAIRS has assisted more than 100 farmers, helped write more than 45 business plans and more than 15 feasibility studies, and aided in writing more than 60 grant applications. That work has led to approximately $10 million in grant funds being awarded to Virginia producers. 

Owners struggled to keep up with produce and horticulture venture

As Darnell’s Garden Patch in Orange County flourished, the father and son team that operates it were having trouble keeping up.

Owner Jim Darnell spends most of his time managing 3 acres of fruits and vegetables and five greenhouses of plants. His son, Zach, the farm’s manager, runs the retail store, supervises employees and tries to keep up with social media marketing.

“We wanted to grow the business and reach more customers, but we needed help,” Zach explained. 

A fellow farmer suggested the Darnells apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture value-added producer grant and get assistance from VA FAIRS.

“VA FAIRS acted as a liaison between USDA and me,” Zach shared. “It was a huge application process, and they helped walk me through it.”

He admitted that it was his first grant proposal, and VA FAIRS “polished my proposal quite a bit.”

Darnell’s Garden Patch received a $50,000 grant, which enabled them to hire three additional employees to help in the store, create a logo and signage, and increase social media marketing efforts. 
The farm started in 1978 with Zach’s grandfather selling fresh fruits and veggies out of the back of a pickup truck.

“It just kept growing,” Zach noted. The family bought more farmland and grew more fruits and vegetables. In 1985 they purchased a storefront in the town of Orange, off U.S. Route 15. 

Jim Darnell built two greenhouses in 1986 to add plants to the business. “It grew like gangbusters,” he remarked. “Plants and produce go hand in hand, but my love is produce.”

When Zach graduated from college in 2010, he joined the venture. “Zach and I co-meshed what the two of us do best,” remarked Jim, who majored in biology. Zach’s degree is in business administration.

Dairy-turned-creamery found a cool new option

In 2013, a 64-year-old dairy in Rockingham County, transitioned from selling milk to a dairy cooperative to selling its product directly from a retail farm store.

“We opened Mt. Crawford Creamery so we could sell milk that we produced and invite people onto the farm,” explained Nancy Will Hill, the farm’s business manager. To increase business, the dairy obtained a permit to sell local products in its retail store along with the milk.

Despite that, “10,000 cars pass by here every day, and people still said they didn’t know we’re here,” Hill recalled. 

The farm’s managers wanted to find a way to increase traffic to the creamery, so they got in touch with VA FAIRS in 2014.

Mt. Crawford Creamery received $200,000 through the USDA value-added producer grant program. The grant helped purchase online and local television advertising. The creamery also was able to hire additional employees and expand its product line and offer an ice cream mix, a gelato mix, butter and heavy cream in addition to whole, 2 percent, skim and chocolate milk. 

The grant also led to a partnership with Smiley’s Ice Cream, a local mobile business. Smiley’s owner began buying the creamery’s ice cream mix and then set up his truck at the farm on weekends. It became so popular that Mt. Crawford Creamery built an on-site ice cream parlor and rents it to Smiley’s.

“It’s a win-win,” Hill shared. “We have ice cream on site to supplement our milk and other local products, and Smiley’s has a permanent place to sell ice cream.” 

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