By Kathleen Thomas Gaspar
What started as an effort to find workers for a family farming enterprise in Glennville, GA, several years ago has blossomed into an FFA college scholarship program that is breathing continued life into U.S. agriculture.
Called “Growing America’s Farmers,” a non-profit foundation established by G&R Farms in Glennville, the collaborative effort involves the National Future Farmers of America organization and deserving students on the receiver’s end and several of the nation’s top-tier retailers and G&R Farms on the giving end.
“We started the program in 2015,” GAF founder and G&R co-owner Walt Dasher told OnionBusiness.com recently. Walt, a third-generation farmer whose crop line-up includes famed Vidalia Onions, said he was looking to hire young people to work on his farm that year when he realized that people under age 30 were largely uninterested in that kind of manual labor. Walt also did some research and learned “the average age of the American farmer is 57 years,” which caused some concern that the future of American farms was uncertain. Moreover, it’s estimated only 2 percent of the U.S. population is involved in production ag, even more critical to the equation.
So he and his wife, Anita, and daughters Emma and Malaree put their heads together and came up with the name of an organization that they hoped would generate newfound interest in farming. It’s called “Growing America’s Farmers,” or GAF. And in a very short time GAF itself grew, from an FFA fundraiser conducted from the back of a pickup truck to a nationwide effort that involves the retail giants Harris Teeter, Jewel, Wakefern, Sam’s Club, Safeway, Kroger, Costco and Target.
Walt said Sam’s was the first to sign on to the idea for the 2016-17 season, and Kroger was also part of the 2016 effort. The idea is simple: The partnership with G&R, which is the sole grower/shipper, “allows for a portion of every sale of G&R Vidalia Onions to be donated toward FFA scholarships in Kentucky and across the U.S.”
Walt said before this year’s promotion, more than $100,000 in scholarship funds had been raised and he calculated that 2019 will increase that running total considerably.
He added that in 2018 the reach of the Vidalia distribution and the payback to the program extended to the states of California, Arizona, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, Ohio, Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Michigan and Minnesota.
And he said G&R sees between 20-25 percent of its total Vidalia crop go to the scholarship efforts.
The fruits of the labor have started manifesting, he said, with two recipients who went to tech schools having completed their studies and working in ag. In addition, several recipients have also gone to the University of Georgia and are studying ag sciences.
So what were the nuts and bolts that went into this unique partnership between Georgia’s oldest grower/packer/shipper of Vidalia onions and the retail community, with the common link being FFA?
After Walt’s initial pickup truck campaign was waged locally, he said, he was approached by the state FFA director in Georgia, who asked him if he was interested in staging a statewide promo. And then the national FFA director read about the effort, and “she contacted me and asked me to come to Indianapolis,” he said.
It really is one of those “and the rest is history” stories, with so much happening in a few short years that hundreds of lives have been positively impacted.
“The state FFAs distribute the scholarships to individual recipients,” he explained, saying that sometimes the organizations are working a year out, depending on when their conventions take place.
“In August of this year we’re going to Indianapolis to present FFA with an oversized check,” he said, noting that all the national directors will be there.
Walt is quoted in an online story accessible at http://www.grfarmsvidaliaonions.com/ in which he stated, “By partnering with the Kroger and the FFA, Growing America’s Farmers is able to offer scholarships nationwide. I have been so humbled and blown away by the support we have received, and I am really excited about what we have done—and are doing—for the future of the American farmer.” He continued, “My goal is to eventually have support in every state so I can award production ag scholarships to kids with a far-reaching impact, truly showing them that American retailers and consumers care greatly about them and where our food comes from.”
To OnionBusiness.com he said, “I want to make a difference.” And we’re certain beyond any doubt you have. Hat’s off to Walt Dasher, G&R Farms in Glennville, GA.