Dawson has ‘local’ in the bag

Managing Editor

HEATHSVILLE, Va. (Sept. 1, 2015) — About seven years ago, Billy Dawson walked into a local feed store and noticed the bagged corn for sale was from Pennsylvania.
He said he wondered then, with all the corn grown in Virginia, and particularly on the Northern Neck where he farms, why the store had to get bagged corn from hundreds of miles away.
“That gave me an idea and one thing led to another,” Dawson said.
The idea was to bag his own corn and market it to retail outlets throughout Virginia. That same feed store took a chance on him and he started visiting other businesses.
“I got in my pickup and did my sales call and got laughed out the door many times,” he said. “Everybody told me I lost my mind” and couldn’t compete with larger national companies.
But Dawson persisted and with business partner Mason Brent, has built Northern Neck Commodities Processing Inc., and its brand Bay’s Best Feed to handle about 1,200 acres of crops a year.
“People like the local product,” Dawson said. “They see Northern Neck and say, ‘I know where that is.’”
They now also clean and bag sunflowers for retail outlets and barley, rye, wheat and oats mainly for malters, distillers and brewers in the growing craft beer and spirit industry.
That segment started with Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox Distillery in Sperryville, Va., who found Dawson while looking for cleaned barley to malt for whiskey.   
“It’s a real intense market,” Dawson said of the craft brewers and distillers. “Everybody is going crazy on it right now. Every week someone calls looking for something or asking about something.”
Dawson said he’s sent grain for malting to states including Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Maryland.
Some of the grain grown for Wasmund goes to Europe to be malted.
After working with S&K Industries in Manassas, Va., to grow corn for its tortilla products, Dawson now only handles food-grade corn to cut out some of the segregation needed at his 120,000-bushel storage facility. He said the business is split in half between feed stores selling corn and sunflowers and specialty customers like brewers and food companies.
“When you put it all together, it makes it profitable to run the business,” Dawson said. “It all works together to make it work.”
Crop and seed quality is crucial to Dawson’s success, he said.
At the feed stores, customers want clean whole kernels and the specialty customers each have uniques specifications for their ingredients in order to set their own products apart in the marketplace.
He undergoes repeated food safety inspections at the facility and takes several precautions like only handling treated seed for planting at another location to stay “above reproach.”
Dawson said he tests the grains several times through the growing season and after harvest to monitor quality but also sends samples to customers for them to judge for themselves.
“I can do all the tests I want but every customer has a different way of doing things,” he said. “The only way to know is if they try it.”
He said he stays in constant communication with customers, too, asking for feedback.
“By staying in communication, you’ll learn if you’re doing the right thing or not. I don’t want to hurt their business. I depend on it.” he said. “If you want to be successful in business, make someone else successful. That’s what we try to do.”
The business has also grown to where Dawson contracts with about a half dozen other farmers to grow some of the crops he needs. He said attention to detail is key.
“If I find somebody that will work with me and is like-minded then he’s worth working with,” Dawson said.
Tyler Franklin, an Essex County farmer, has grown about 30 to 40 acres of sunflowers annually for Dawson for the last four years. Franklin said the crop fits well in his operation.
It tends to do well in sandier soil, is fairly drought tolerant and is usually harvested before corn.
“It’s just a nice flow,” he said.
He also said working with Dawson brings the possibility of growing other grains for specialty markets should that become more attractive.
“Because he has that seed operation, he opens a lot of doors,” Franklin said.