Upper Red Fork Innovations
Recipient of 2005 USDA Value Added Producer grant.
Looking for a way to add value to their hard red winter wheat, Tami and David Buss and their family of Hunter, Oklahoma, went back to an old family recipe to try to retain some of the value of their crop. Tami’s grandmother’s recipe for cookie dough made with 100 percent hard red winter wheat flour, real butter and eggs became the starting point for a thriving family enterprise.
“We wanted a cookie that still had the real butter flavor,” said David. “Our end product is one that is different from other cookies because it doesn’t contain any preservatives, including shelf stabilizers."
Five years ago, the Buss’ took a dry cookie mix to Oklahoma State University’s (OSU) Food and Agricultural Products Center (FAPC) to convert the recipe to make larger volumes. The initial cookie mix the Buss’ were marketing was in one-pound bags that required eggs and butter. The Buss’ felt this was an inconvenient product and did not sell as much as they envisioned. So they headed back to OSU to formulate the current pre-made dough.
“The FAPC helped us create the dough and also helped with labeling and packaging issues, including the nutritional labeling and UPC codes, which are musts for getting into retail,” said David. “They also pointed us in the right direction when it came time to find volume packagers.”
The Buss’ original intent for their product was to become another avenue to generate an income for their family. They hoped to target schools, hospitals and residential living facilities by promoting the healthful aspects of their cookies.
“We sold lamb and various products at the farmers' markets in the Cherry Street Market in Tulsa and Oklahoma City for nine years,” Tami remembered. “When we created Grandma Opal’s, we were hoping to generate enough income to cover some of our living expenses.”
As the business grew, the Buss’ were challenged to make enough product in their farm facility. They found a woman in nearby Lexington, Oklahoma, who had a 2,300-square-foot bakery and was willing to manufacture the product. David delivers his wheat to her bakery for his cookies, and the bakery has become a new customer for David’s wheat, as well.
The focus of the marketing today is on school lunch meals. They have worked with the Farm to School program at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. They currently are working with a packer and a distributor based in Tulsa to make it more convenient for the schools to purchase from them.
“It is our hope to be on all school lunch menus,” Tami said. “Having our product on the same distributor's list as all of the other products they order will make it easier for them to order our product.”
Another focused market is also the schools—but not for consumption during school hours but instead as a fundraiser that school kids can sell to neighbors and friends. “We have targeted the FFAs in Oklahoma,” said David. This part of the business is growing for them and an area where they see great potential. The recent state FFA convention yielded a lot of inquiries and interest they are following up on this summer.
Some of the cookie dough is sold in local stores nearby such as in Enid, Oklahoma. David indicated though that getting into grocery story retail can be difficult and tenacity is needed to crack that market. Many of the grocery stores charge slotting fees to carry the products. The cost of those slotting fees can reach more than $50,000.
Upper Red Fork Innovations received a Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) in 2005. The focus of their grant was for working capital. The grant was used to buy supplies, have a web presence and help the business to go to the next level needed to make the firm have a long-term sustained presence in the marketplace.
As with any start-up business, the Buss’ faced challenges along the way. One of the big transitions for them was to move away from direct marketing at farmers' markets and shows to develop a different method of marketing.
“We don’t miss getting up at 2:30 a.m. and driving for four hours to the farmers' markets,” David commented. However marketing through others can have its difficulties too. David suggested getting access to brokers and the appropriate people who can help sell the products. He suggested that people wanting to make the transition from direct marketing to brokers should use the network of people who can help get appointments for you and to be flexible in trying to meet their needs, so they will feature your product.
The future plans for Upper Red Fork Innovations are to continue to grow the market and focus on marketplaces where others can do the marketing (i.e., through fundraisers, retail, etc) instead of trying to sell every tub of cookies themselves.
Said David, “Another area that we have been fortunate to capitalize on is the local food market. There are a growing number of people who are interested in buying local foods and our product fits right into that niche.” The State of Oklahoma has a well-developed network and infrastructure that helps restaurants and grocery stores that want to feature locally grown foods. “I went to OSU to college but one of our good customers is the foodservice at the University of Oklahoma,” joked David.
“Maybe some day we will have our own manufacturing plant. Bur for now we are happy to grow as we go and examine alternatives as they present themselves. As a start-up business, it is important to use all the resources available to you. We have been fortunate to have OSU, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture and the Oklahoma Wheat Commission help us and provide counsel and suggestions,” said David.
About USDA VAPG
VAPG funding has been offered by the USDA periodically since the early 2000s. A new round of funding is anticipated to be announced in the coming months. To be considered value added, projects must show how products are differentiated in specific ways from commodity crops. Typically, projects must also show how they may deliver greater returns to producers.
Independent producers, farmer or rancher cooperatives, agricultural producer groups, and producer-owned business ventures, including non-profit organizations, may apply. In previous cycles, applicants were required to be producers of the raw commodity who will maintain ownership of that commodity through the process of creating a value-added product. Grants have been available for planning projects (such as marketing and business plans and feasibility studies) and working capital projects (which might include wages or packaging supplies). (http://www.rd.usda.gov/)