My name is Corwin Heatwole, founding farmer, and CEO of Farmer Focus, which is the #1 fastest growing organic chicken brand in grocery stores.
Farmer Focus is the only 100% organic and Humane CertifiedⓇ chicken company with a mission to promote and protect generational family farms. By shifting farm-level decision-making and chicken ownership back to farmers and empowering them to farm the way they know is best, Farmer Focus significantly improves the financial viability of the farm and farmer profit.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I am a sixth-generation family farmer: I grew up on my family's farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley; My brothers and sister and I were farming from before we could remember.
Don’t ever let the details along the way distract you from accomplishing your dream or solving the problem you set out to fix.
I was always a free spirit, curious and seeking better ways to do things. I was always asking why we did things the way we did and my least favorite answer was because "that's how they'd always been done." By the time I stepped out into the real world as a young man, I knew that I wanted to improve the way things were done and, most importantly, build something bigger than myself.
As I look back, I can see how I was always looking for a problem to fix, from the hoof care business I bought from a friend to the construction and insulation business I built. Those businesses were just a means to an end: buying my first farm.
I started with 300 chickens but quickly realized that there was no way to create sustainable living within the current structure under which 99% of chickens are farmed today. So, I started to search for a better way, which led me to organic farming. Organic appealed to everything I knew in my bones from growing up on a farm. So, I converted my farm to organic and it only took me three months to realize that this was the key to creating a SYSTEM that could not only help my farm but millions of generational family farms like the one I grew up on. So, I set out to start a company with a very clear mission, “to promote and protect generational family farms”, by offering the farmers a financially sustainable livelihood that they could pass down to future generations.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
When starting Farmer Focus, I was repeatedly told “Farmers don't start poultry companies". But we didn’t have a choice if we were going to help the millions of farmers who currently struggle under the “integrator model.”
As I mentioned, I started with 300 birds, but I couldn’t find a soul to process and buy those chickens. And I didn’t have a clue how to do it myself. At that point, I’d never even set foot in a chicken processing plant. I remember joking to one of my friends at the time, “well, if we don’t find someone to buy these chickens, we’ll be eating well this Christmas!” Luckily, we found a processor and those 300 chickens turned into 1000 and then 2000. But that processor had more capacity, so we turned to our community to see who would want to join us on this journey. In 2014, I gathered enough farmers and took the jump to open my processing facility. And that’s how Farmer Focus got its start. Once we met with those farmers and understood how we could help them achieve a better life for themselves and their families, there was no turning back.
Today, Farmer Focus is the #1 exclusively organic chicken producer, partnering with over 70 independent farmers who continue to improve the standards on raising chickens organically and humanely. We have over 100 farmers waiting to join us on our journey of delivering exceedingly delicious, 100% organic, and humanely raised chicken that is better for you, the planet, and our farmers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Farmer Focus is currently experiencing explosive growth due to our commitment to going beyond organic and consumers' desire for those added benefits. In addition to Organic, every Farmer Focus product is Certified Humane, non-GMO verified, Halal, and many other claims that consumers are looking for. Our team even went to extra lengths to ensure that those standards were maintained in our new pre-seasoned line of chicken. We have several indicators of our growth and the impact that we’ve had on farmers that we’re excited about:
- Rapid retail adoption: In the past year we have secured or expanded distribution in Publix, Kroger Mid-Atlantic, Harris Teeter, Meijer, Fresh Market, and more. Our retail presence now spans over 2,500 stores and continues to grow. Online, products are available on FreshDirect and Crowd Cow. As our retail presence grows, we’re able to bring more farmers into our Farmer Focus family!
- Recent awards, including the Progressive Grocer Impact Award and Two NEXTY awards for our new line of pre-seasoned chicken in the categories of “Best New Meat, Dairy or Animal-Based Product” and “Best New Organic Food.”
- We have been putting together a world-class leadership team that will help the company move to its next phase of growth:
1) We hired a new CFO, Debarshi Sengupta who will use his diverse and extensive knowledge across the protein and CPG industry to lead our continued growth.
2) Sean McLendon, a Culinary Institute graduate will serve as our new Head of Research and Development. Sean is off to a fast start, he was the guiding force behind our new product innovation and the NEXTY awards they received.
3) We recently doubled the size of our sales team to meet growing demand, and hired a new Chief Sales Officer, Ed Hinson, to expand our service of new accounts and continue our rapid distribution growth.
- We are preparing to open a new, efficient, state-of-the-art packaging facility to accommodate the surge in demand. It will have ample capacity for additional growth, making it possible for Farmer Focus to further expand retailer partnerships.
- In 2021, the Farmer Focus farming family grew by 62%. The company currently works with over 70 family farms, with over 100 more on the waiting list.
- Farmer Focus is the #1 fastest growing organic chicken brand in grocery stores over the 52 weeks ending 9.5.21 as indicated by IRI data.
- Farmer Focus is the #2 organic chicken brand in grocery stores over the last 13 weeks, as indicated by the IRI Sales Data Period ending 9.5.21.
Additionally, our growers report to us that they make 25% to 35% more gross profit farming with us than their previous companies. Just as importantly, our farmers tell us that the value of working with Farmer Focus goes far beyond profit. We hear time and again from our farmers about the myriad ways their lives have improved since joining Farmer Focus.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
If someone had told me what it would take to create a new model of chicken farming -- and if I had believed them -- I can't promise that we would be here today. Luckily, failure wasn't an option. It was never an option because we knew how much was at stake for all of the farmers who put their trust and their dreams into what we were building.
Without the support of farmers, we wouldn’t have made it where we are today and, without their continued support, we won’t make it to where we are going.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
While I’m not intimately involved with the process, we are building a new website on Shopify that will allow us to explore some Direct to Consumer opportunities in the future.
For me though, I’m a pen and paper to-do list kind of guy. I also still farm my land, so a John Deere counts as a 3rd party tool. Right?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The most influential source for Farmer Focus has been the farmers in my community. The idea of changing the ownership model in poultry came from conversations with some of the best farmers I know.
I do love listening to How I Built this also. You get to hear other people’s passions, understand what drives them and how they tackled their problem or industry.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
When you look at what you plan to do or disrupt you have to be confident in the fundamentals but don’t have to have every answer. Don’t ever let the details along the way distract you from accomplishing your dream or solving the problem you set out to fix.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We have some exciting work coming and will continue to be hiring across the board for the foreseeable future. If you’re someone who believes in changing farming and the environment for the better then we’d love to hear from you. Even if there isn’t a position listed on our website email [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you.
Where can we go to learn more?
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