Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) program helps agricultural producers expand their businesses through value-added products and services. Free Day Popcorn, operated by Nate and Stacey Freitag, was one such business to receive a VAPG award in 2021.
Located near Byron, Nebraska, Free Day Popcorn grows, processes, and ships specialty popcorn to wholesale customers across the country, including gourmet popcorn shops and movie theaters. While Nate’s father started growing popcorn for commercial processors in the 1980s, it’s the couple who has brought to light the niche markets their business can serve.
Unlike commercial growers who more commonly sell popcorn as a raw commodity, the Freitags add value to their product by processing and packaging their popcorn in 35- and 50-pound bags for wholesale and 3-pound resealable pouches for retail and online sales. This includes a number of steps to ensure their product is uniform and contributes to a positive customer experience.
With the tools in place to deliver a quality product, Stacey began looking for ways to add value to their product through customer outreach and education. Reflecting on her experience of tasting homegrown popcorn for the first time, she felt a calling to connect more consumers to the farm and locally grown food. The VAPG program created an opportunity to do just that.
For example, the couple designed a 2022 calendar that illustrates what’s happening on the farm each month. This is sent to current and prospective customers as a learning tool, as well as a product brochure to encourage sales.
“Without the grant, we never would have put something like this [product] together,” Stacey said.
While a successful VAPG application requires creative, big-picture thinking, it also requires an in-depth look at the business. For this, Stacey turned to the USDA Rural Development office in Norfolk, where staff was able to offer assistance with the Freitag’s grant application and budget. Because value-added producer grants are on a reimbursement schedule, applicants are required to show money is available up front to get their project started.
“They were instrumental in helping us think through the project,” Stacey said, noting the staff and application process have helped the couple set strategic goals for the future of Free Day Popcorn.
Producers interested in submitting a VAPG application are encouraged to contact their state Rural Development office as soon as possible. The deadline to apply online is April 22. Paper applications must be postmarked by May 2.
To view other stories featuring USDA programs, explore our interactive map.