Corwin Heatwole is a chicken farmer turned founder and CEO of Shenandoah Valley Organic, an organic poultry company based in Harrisonburg, Va., that produces the Farmer Focus chicken brand as well as private label organic chicken.
Jon Springer: Welcome to the Breakroom, Corwin. Give me your best elevator pitch: What’s the big idea behind Farmer Focus?
Corwin Heatwole:Farmer Focus is a mission-based, values-driven organic meat brand building sustainable and innovative partnerships with our farmers. I’m a lifelong farmer who wanted to revolutionize this industry by creating a process that ensures farms are sustainable and profitable for the next generation. I started this company in 2014, and our mission is to promote and protect generational family farms.
We are proud of our commitment to treating farmers with dignity and respect, as well as having the highest standards for raising animals. Through our Farmer Focus business model, farmers are true partners: They receive fair compensation for their hard work and have the freedom to make decisions for their own businesses. Our deep commitment to farmers, animals and environmental stewardship results in high-quality, clean-label, organic products, ensuring a healthy source of nutrition through the most humane, clean and environmentally friendly processes possible.
Photograph courtesy of Shenandoah Valley Organics/Farmers Focus
Your packages have codes that allow consumers to find out more about the farms from which the product originated. Whose idea was that? What has the volume of queries been like? And how many different farmers can we see today?
Farmer Focus is currently partnered with over 50 farm families. The idea for the four-letter farm ID was born from the fact that people want to know where their food comes from. Transparency and traceability are so incredibly important to us and to all of our partners. A consumer can go to our website, enter the four-letter farm ID and learn about the exact farm on which the chicken was raised. This is a very popular feature on our website and we have seen the end-user usage increase significantly as the brand grows.
How do chicken farmers view the explosive interest among consumers in plant-based meat alternatives?
Honestly, we don’t feel that the recent activity around plant-based alternatives will have a significantly noticeable impact on the meat industry. Although plant-based demand has increased, the market share is insignificant compared to the meat categories. Together with our farmers, we are confident that most consumers will continue to support real meat.
In addition to its Farmer Focus brand, Shenandoah Valley Organic also acts as a private brand supplier to some pretty big retail clients. How, if at all, are the demands for retail private label any different than your branded product?
When we started the company about five years ago, we offered a lot more opportunities for private label than today. As is common with most startups, we sought private label opportunities to increase production levels. Now that the Farmer Focus brand has proven its unique value proposition to consumers, branded product sales have expanded much more rapidly than private label opportunities. Offering both Farmer Focus and private label has enabled us to grow stronger and partner with additional family farmers, executing on our mission to promote and protect generational family farms.
What would you call out as the major differences between the retail stores where your products sell well vs. those that don’t sell quite as much? What should retailers know about selling more organic birds?
The retail stores that sell our product are the ones that attract an organic, health-conscious consumer. This is a consumer that cares about the planet—they care about farmers, animals and the environment. They value knowing where their food comes from and want to support a values-driven brand such as Farmer Focus.
Fill in the blanks: I thought the hardest part about this business would be: gaining market share, but it’s turning out to be: building the team and maintaining the culture as you grow.
Coolest place to shop for food in Harrisonburg, Va.?Friendly City Food Co-Op.
Wings: medium, hot or nuclear? Boneless or bone-in? Bone-in and hot.
The next big item on your to-do list? Expanding our Farmer Focus product offerings to include convenient, on-the-go, healthy options.