Non-GMO canola offers niche for Southeastern family farmers

By Arianne Pfoutz
Published: May 29, 2014
Category: Non-GMO Company Profiles

Non-gmo canola farmily farm field

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A well-conceived, solidly executed business venture is flourishing in the southeastern US—bringing profits to 300 farmers throughout Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida, and four other states. Its premier product—Solio Family brand non-GMO canola oil—is the first regionally produced non-GMO and all-natural canola oil available at Whole Foods Markets.

But the booming agricultural activity generated by AgStrong LLC, of Bowersville, GA, is much more than an economic development opportunity. For this third-generation entrepreneurial farming family, growing, processing, packaging and selling non-GMO canola and sunflower oils is a vehicle for a much larger vision: creating robust, small family farms so many more people can live out the “agrarian dream.”

The Davis cousins, Robert and Mallory, who formed AgStrong didn’t start out with canola in mind. Born and raised in Brazil by missionaries who fostered farming projects for rural peasants, President/CEO Robert B. Davis earned an agricultural engineering degree from University of Georgia. After a stint as a professional engineer designing and building agricultural plants, he returned to Georgia to start his family.

In 2001, after unsuccessful trials with sweet sorghum, they investigated canola. Canola had been grown commercially in Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina and northern Florida from the late 1980s through 2000, with a peak production of about 25,000 acres. But commercial production stopped during the early 2000s with the loss of markets.

Why non-GMO canola?

Canola (Brassica family), not traditionally a southern crop, is an attractive commodity. It has the lowest saturated fat of any major vegetable oil, with a favorable mix of mono- and polyunsaturated fats. It’s also an excellent protein meal for animals.

“We found that canola as a winter crop has extremely good yields in the Southeast,” Robert said. “The climate is mild enough. Previous farmers didn’t have a market for it, nor did they have the right seed—this seed we use, specifically a winter type, is well adapted to the region.”

Winter oilseed crops like canola complement existing winter crops in the southeast and can be double-cropped, improving production of the following summer’s crops.

The company committed to non-GMO canola from the beginning. “Non-GMO canola doesn’t sacrifice yield and provides the necessity for crop rotation,” said Robert. “When we started, we didn’t see it becoming a high-demand item. But as acreage began to grow it made sense agronomically to focus on non-GMO, to coincide with a growing international market.”

Around 35,000 acres are now grown in the Southeast by more than 300 farmers.

Most of those farmers grow non-GMO canola, and a small number grow organic. But Davis said AgStrong aims to increase the number of organic canola growers, and they are encouraging new farmers that join the project to grow organic.

Farmer incubator project

To launch the first pilot project in 2006, Davis recruited farmers interested in growing innovative crops and contracted oilseed production acres. To ensure a strong local and regional market for a value added crop, the cousins negotiated seed oil and meal sales. “We wanted a low-risk, low-capital way for family farmers to produce non-GMO grains in northeast Georgia—independently, at a local processing plant. And we wanted them to share the dividends by co-owning the plant,” Robert said.

The strategy: Build regional facilities for processing winter and summer oilseeds as soon as acreage warranted it. When a larger plant was needed, farmers and friends joined in investing in the Hart AgStrong expeller-pressed refining facility built in Bowersville in 2009.

The family built their first certified organic facility themselves, from design to welding to engineering. It contains storage for 500,000 bushels, with a crushing and refining capacity of 50 tons/day. In 2010, Davis moved the company headquarters to Bowersville and set up a homestead farm. Now many families are affected by AgStrong’s presence.

“The small scale was intentional,” said Davis. “To remain faithful to our vision of regional supply and value-added processing.”

“The most profitable crop we grow in our rotation wasn’t even in the picture until AgStrong came along,” noted a local farmer.

Diversified production

“Family farmers have been doing well for a couple of years now,” Robert said. “In the Southeast, we have strong separate pockets of agriculture. From a sustainable standpoint, it’s very diversified.”

A new 23,000 square foot processing facility in Trenton, KY is now under construction.

The Solio Family brand was born when a representative from Whole Foods expressed interest in the canola; the natural foods chain was looking for an oil to use in-house in its deli.

“Basically it’s a partnership of local family farmers producing non-GMO canola from 100% non-GMO seed, using expeller pressed processing,” Robert said.

Non-GMO Project Verification was achieved last year. Whole Foods presented AgStrong with an Outstanding Innovation award in 2012.

“We want to preserve the American tradition of living from the land and providing people with fresh, healthy food,” Robert said.


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