by Courtney Llewellyn
Offered by USDA Rural Development, the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program helps ag producers enter into value-added activities related to the processing and marketing of new products. The program’s goals are to generate new products, create and expand marketing opportunities and increase producer income.
Applications are requested each fiscal year through Grants.gov. Grants are awarded through a national competition. In fiscal year 2021, Dirty Girl Produce decided to take advantage of this opportunity; they were awarded $50,000 to achieve their goals.
Located in southern Santa Cruz County in California, Dirty Girl Produce is today run by Joe Schirmer. Schirmer grew up in Santa Cruz and began working at the farm in 1997, purchasing it from the two women who founded it in 1999. The women were big inspirations to Schirmer, and so he kept the farm’s name. “It has so much customer recognition,” he laughed. “Everyone remembers the name. It’s well branded and it honors them.”
An avid surfer, Schirmer grew up on a beach, and so farming was definitely not cool in his younger years. In college, he studied environmental studies and that led to him becoming really interested in food and food politics. He is a graduate of UC-Santa Cruz and the UCSC Farm and Garden Apprenticeship Program. He’s worked on several farms throughout the West Coast. “I caught the horticulture bug,” he said. “I visited all these farms and saw all these people trying to change the world. That’s how I got pulled in.
“There’s something about putting a seed in the ground, watching it grow, harvesting it, eating it – it’s kind of magical at first, until you realize this is just how we do it,” he continued. “I could never get sick of horticulture side of it, but the business side drives me crazy.”
Dirty Girl Produce started with three acres, serving as just a market garden. It has expanded during Schirmer’s tenure to become a 40-acre certified organic family farm. They grow over 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables and sell their produce to customers and restaurants at 10 different farmers markets in Santa Cruz, Berkeley and San Francisco.
There are 33 soil types in Santa Cruz County – generally a mix of loams, sands, silts and/or clay soils that vary from area to area, depending on local geology. Schirmer said some of his parcels are old seabeds, based on decomposed limestone. Some of the farm sits in that floodplain, but as they climb up into the mountains, the soil contains more clay. “We have a real mix of soils on our properties – sandy to sandy clay loam – but it’s pretty easy soil,” he said.
His team currently farms on four different leases, and has the right of first refusal on four different properties. “I really want to obtain the properties,” Schirmer said. “I want to build a headquarters and build some equity.”
Until the real estate transactions take place, though, Dirty Girl Produce is focused on their most popular product: their dry-farmed tomatoes. Schirmer said they are “really the best tasting tomatoes” – high in acid, high in sugar and high in mineral content. Dry farming is a method where all irrigation is cut off after plants become established. The lack of water stresses the plants, forcing their roots deeper into the soil and making the plants more focused on producing fruit. Dry-farmed tomatoes are usually smaller and lower in yield, but become incredibly flavorful. Dirty Girl’s dry-farmed tomatoes are award winning.
Everything else grown on the farm uses fairly normal irrigation; only the tomatoes are dry-farmed. Schirmer said they plan their crops every year based on the parcels’ soil types and accessibility to water. His four different plots all have different water setups, and “each well has its own personality,” he explained.
From the tomatoes come a variety of value-added products, including tomato seeds, sauce, Clamato and tomato juice. The berries grown on the farm are also made into jams. These products also make their way into Dirty Girl Produce’s CSA boxes. “We grow enough things that our box is all from us,” Schirmer boasted. “We’ve never supplemented with another person’s produce. We just put whatever we want in the box.” What’s available changes every week, but there are always lots of tomato products being shared.
“Creating value-added items is an ongoing thing that we’ve developed over time, and with the pandemic it really kind of went crazy,” Schirmer said. “We went online and now we reach a whole new demographic. Instead of only farmers markets, we now offer home delivery and pickup sites in the area … We’ve been pushing online sales through our newsletter and on Instagram – the preserved goods really go well with that.
“We’ve really changed a lot,” he added. “When you make an amazing product, people ask ‘How can I get it?’ Now we can stick stuff in the mail.” Dirty Girl does sell some tomatoes to New York, Oregon and the Midwest, but they try to focus on staying local.
To find financial assistance to fund all these changes, Schirmer hired Ellen Rawley, a Sonoma County-based grant writer, to help him earn a VAPG. In September 2021, it was awarded. He said the biggest portion of the award is being used to get their tomatoes and jams processed, with another portion being allocated for marketing (to expand the online part of the business, for shipping, for printed boxes and to eventually hire an administrative/marketing employee – someone to keep it all organized).
“We have a year to spend the money … but we probably won’t spend all of it until the end of tomato season,” Schirmer said. “It’s helped me jump into different marketing outlets and see what the actual results are. When we find that magic post, then that’s great.”
But while expanding his sales is an obvious motivator, Schirmer is also focused on sustainability – economic, social and environmental. “I have to have enough income to cover my expenses, but it’s important to me to do it in the most sustainable way possible,” he said. “Every farm I know is a different business. Everybody’s got a different strategy. The trend to go online is a huge shift for so many people. This grant saves you money – you can get [your produce] canned, preserved and sell it throughout the year. It’s great for marketing too – and small farms need to adapt and get online, with at least a basic setup, for that community outreach.”
Schirmer added that the VAPG is a really helpful grant for a lot of people, that it’s great for supporting positive change. “I don’t know what we would’ve done during the pandemic without grants. They helped keep us going,” he said.
He encouraged other farmers to reach out to people who are good at grant writing for assistance if they’re interested in pursuing this opportunity, including the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Development Centers. To find one in your area, visit sba.gov/local-assistance/resource-partners/small-business-development-centers-sbdc.