A mission to sustain a rural area of poultry farmers is essential to everything Corwin Heatwole continues to build at Farmer Focus.
Heatwole, chief executive officer and a founding farmer of Farmer Focus, remembers one interaction with someone who greatly benefited from the model the company wanted to set up to succeed in rural America.
“Not long after we started, a farmer and his wife came into my office, closed the door and with tears running down their faces, they told me how before this, they were on the verge of bankruptcy, credit card debt to where they could barely put groceries on the table and he was working extreme hours off the farm just to survive, but now he was completely caught up on all bank bills,” Heatwole said.
A story like this is why he is enthusiastic about the growth of Farmer Focus and the ability to bring in more local producers in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
With the growing demand in the last few years, the company not only operates its own processing facility, but in 2022, opened up a new 78,000-square-foot packaging facility in Harrisonburg, Va., within a mile of its existing processing plant.
“This plant is an important step in our mission to promote and protect generational family farmers,” Heatwole said. “We have over 100 farmers on our waiting list and a growing consumer demand for our organic, humane and sustainably raised chicken. With the expanded capacity of this plant comes the opportunity to partner with more farmers, the privilege to further partnerships with retailers, and the ability to reach more consumers. I’m so proud of what our team has accomplished with this facility and excited for what’s to come.”
In February 2022, Farmer Focus completed the packaging plant in 12 months, keeping the growing operation up with the strong demand of 2022.
Farmer Focus is looking to provide an alternative for poultry farmers and grow its market competitiveness.
“We had bottlenecks in our previous facility that wouldn’t allow us to operate both facilities for two shifts,” Heatwole said. “So now this will essentially allow us to double our capacity with also bringing in some levels of efficiency and food safety that we weren’t able to have before.”
For the packaging plant, the company also invested in essential technological packaging equipment, including a JBT spiral freezer for chilling the poultry product. It also purchased six horizontal form filled seal packaging lines from Reiser and a Cryovac bagger for efficiency in packaging.
When it comes to food safety technology, the plant will use digital computer tablets for quality assurance to monitor process variations and send raw data to its database. The team at the facility actively monitors acceptable quality standards through these systems.
While in production mode, the Evapco system can cool and filter recirculated air within the space to maintain temperature and humidity. It can also cool a small percentage of outside air brought into the air stream to provide positive pressurization of the spaces of production. The facility will also have rooftop hygienic units to improve air quality for plant employees.
The system can also provide heat during production if the space temperature falls below a set point.
Heatwole also pointed to the importance of ventilation for employees not only with COVID-19 protocols but for overall working conditions in the future.
“We knew we had no choice but to do this to tell them that we care about their safety,” he said. “We had to go back to the bank and say we really need to do these things for the health of our employees and for the safety of our products.”
Farmer Focus also touted its safety standards to go along with its organic and humane marks. The company said it achieved more than 5 million man-hours without a lost-workday injury and a total recordable incident rate of .45, which is well below the industry standard of 3.5.
Other features of the packaging facility include a containment area for all stormwater, roofed-in recycling and trash area, emission-free rooftop hygienic units and a wastewater pretreatment facility to treat all processed water. Farmer Focus also invested in a cardboard reduction and recycling program.
“We all know that companies that have that focus on sustainability are constantly looking at ways to improve,” Heatwole said. “I’m talking about a lot farther than putting solar on the roof of your building. The companies that have that mindset are the companies of tomorrow.”
Before becoming a larger name in organic chicken farming in Virginia, Heatwole started with just 300 chickens in 2012, not knowing what was going to happen.
After early success, Heatwole knew that to protect the company’s vision, it had to figure out how to process the birds as well.
“That’s where the scary stuff started because we’re farmers; we can grow chickens, but to start and operate a processing facility was a big deal,” Heatwole said. “We knew we had no choice but to do that to protect the success, viability and sustainable practices, controlling our own farm, being our own boss. We had no choice but to create those capabilities.”
By 2014, organic birds proved to be a solid business, and that’s when the company decided to buy a 90,000-square-foot plant in Harrisonburg, Va., and process their product in the Shenandoah Valley.
Farmer Focus strives to keep all parties involved with their business. The company does not dictate terms of raising birds to their suppliers. Instead, they want to allow the farmers control over the product before processing.
To help spread his vision for modern-day poultry operations, Heatwole and Farmer Focus were invited to a roundtable discussion at the White House during January 2022 to discuss and promote competition in the meat industry.
“We’ve found that when you empower farmers with ownership and control, enabling farms to be viable and sustainable for the next generation, incredible success stories emerge,” Heatwole said at the White House roundtable. “Stories of farms returning to success from the brink of bankruptcy. You even see the next generation returning to the farm. We’ve seen the average age of our farmers trend around 10 years below the national average.”
In the last few years, Farmer Focus continued to add more personnel to expand its mission of being a leader in organic poultry processing. It hired a chief people officer to bring more attention to workers and the future of the company. Matt Dillion, who worked as chief sustainability officer but will now be a company advisor, will focus on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts. In his new advisory role, Matt will work closely with the Farmer Focus executive team to ensure that sustainability continues to be a core priority for all company functions.
It’s also moved to extend its outreach in the United States with senior brand manager Mark Saylor who was hired in July 2020.
“The evolution of building out this team has been an ongoing journey that started from day one,” Heatwole said. “And with what we knew and where we were going to be about two years ago, we really started working on building out that right level of talent.”