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Despite criticism and protests, Oakes Farms does big business with federal government

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Naples business owner Alfie Oakes makes no bones about his disgust with Congress — or his love for President Donald Trump.

It's why the farmer and major food retailer and distributor participated in the recent "Save America March" in Washington, D.C. on the day of the riots at the Capitol — and funded two busloads of local supporters to attend the pro-Trump rally.

His controversial political views, statements and protests aren't stopping Oakes from seeking, winning and keeping federal contracts as a supplier of fresh produce — and other foods.

Oakes — owner of Oakes Farms, Seed to Table and Oakes Farm Market — remains registered as a federal contractor. He continues to do business through big contracts he's landed with big federal agencies, despite his apparently growing distrust and declining faith in Congressional leadership.

Alfie Oakes speaks during a gathering in opposition to the mask mandate passed by the Collier County Commissioners on Tuesday, at Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market on Saturday, July 25, 2020. Oakes announced that he and his legal team will be filing multiple lawsuits against Collier County and against the three individual commissioners that voted for the mandate.

In this fiscal year alone, Oakes Farms has been awarded more than $70 million through contracts with the departments of agriculture, justice and defense.

Locally, it's a different story.

Oakes' words cost him a multimillion-dollar contract to supply fresh produce to the Lee County School district, which severed ties with him in June after he wrote in social media posts that COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement were hoaxes — and called George Floyd a "disgraceful career criminal." 

Oakes has challenged the school district's decision, filing a $50 million-plus federal lawsuit over it alleging the superintendent, the school board and the district have trampled on his freedom of speech rights.

The contentious suit is still pending. A deposition of Superintendent Gregory Adkins is set for Feb. 2.

In a motion to dismiss the case, the defendants' attorneys argued Oakes' contract was lawfully "terminated for convenience," due to "concerns about the lack of minimal safety standards to protect their products from contamination by COVID-19."

The federal government doesn't seem to share those concerns.

In case you missed it:Collier County business owner calls D.C. trip to Trump protests 'amazing,' surrounded by 'great Americans'

Other news:Former contractor sues Alfie Oakes, Oakes Farms and employee over use of his online sports gambling account

Nothing but 'traitors'

In a recent message to Republican senator and former Florida Gov. Rick Scott — shared with the Naples Daily News — Oakes wrote these highly-charged words: 

"Americans are sick of the self-serving gutless members of Congress. Unfortunately, because of our weak  and selfish culture and even weaker and more self-serving members in our legislature we will apathetically and peacefully lay down as we watch the communist takeover of the greatest country in the world."

Further, he described most of the country's Congressional leaders as "traitors." 

"The truth is our founding fathers would have stormed the Capitol and slayed everyone of the traitors to liberty, freedom, our constitution and our country. Sadly, for the American people nearly every one of the elected officials seated there are these said traitors," he stated.

In his message, Oakes had nothing but good words to say about President Trump. 

"President Donald Trump is the only leader in recent history that has displayed the courage and love of country that we so admired in our founding fathers and desperately need in this country," he wrote. "This is precisely why 80 million American patriots love him."

More:Putting up a fight: Naples grocer refiles lawsuit challenging Collier County's mask order

Federal contracts mean big business

Since 2018, the amount of business Oakes does with the federal government has increased each year, despite his growing criticism of its elected leaders.

Beside securing multimillion-dollar contracts with the departments of agriculture and defense for the distribution of his produce — he regularly sells his fruits and vegetables to the Department of Justice as a supplier of prison food.

Oakes declined to comment about his federal contracts.

In October 2017, he won a $40 million contract with the Defense Logistics Agency, a support agency to the Department of Defense, giving him the opportunity to put his produce in the hands and mouths of students and military workers in the southern region of Florida, including Southwest Florida.

In July 2018, he was awarded a similar five-year contract by the same agency for the northern region of Florida, valued at up to $46.8 million. 

"It's good growth for us. It's good, solid business," a more jovial Oakes told a Daily News reporter back then.

A Facebook post about COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement by Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market owner Alfie Oakes caused an uproar in the community, culminating in a protest outside the store on Saturday, June 13. Oakes' simultaneous counter-protest offered live music and free food and drinks to his supporters.

He then got a third multi-year contract covering the central region of Florida, worth up to $45 million.

These contracts are “set aside” by the U.S. Small Business Administration, meaning they must be awarded to small businesses. With them Oakes can — and does — sell more of his fresh produce to the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy for commissaries, restaurants and dining halls on military bases and to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for school lunches around the state.

The produce Oakes sells under the three contracts includes everything from lettuce and eggplant to oranges and grapes based on a review of his invoices.

In 2018, Oakes also began supplying fruits and vegetables to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice, for inmates at the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, according to government records.

The correctional complex — only for men — is located in Sumter County, near Wildwood. From two dozen bulk purchases of food for its thousands of inmates, Oakes has collected nearly $1.8 million in government payments, based on data found on USAspending.gov, a government website that tracks federal spending.

More:Trump supporters from Southwest Florida in D.C. as U.S. Capitol stormed

Other news:Federal judge dismisses parts of lawsuit challenging Collier County's mask order

Feeding families

More recently, Oakes Farms has earned millions as a contractor for the Farmers to Families Food Box program run by the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service. The program, launched in May, is designed to help both needy families and farmers hurt by the coronavirus pandemic across the country.

Money for the food box program has come from a series of coronavirus relief packages. There have been four rounds of funding and purchases so far, with a fifth one launching this week.

Alfie Oakes, center joins fellow volunteers as they pack Hope for the Holidays meal boxes in to a waiting car, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020, at the First Baptist Church of Naples.

In the fifth round, the USDA has announced it will buy another $1.5 billion in food for nationwide distribution in combination boxes that include fresh produce, as well as meat and dairy products, such as cheese and milk.

The food will be distributed from now until the end of April.

Through previous rounds of the program, more than 132 million boxes of food have been distributed to the needy and the poor already at an estimated cost of $4.5 billion.

Oakes joined the program in the third round, starting in September. During this round, he received $803,432 for his participation.

At first, Oakes only supplied boxes of fruit and vegetables, government records show.

In round four, covering November and December, his contract amount ballooned when he started supplying combination boxes and widened his reach into more states. He was awarded the largest amount — nearly $69 million — of any contractor, securing rights to distribute food in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Kentucky and the Virgin Islands, according to a list circulated by the USDA.

There's the potential to earn more with the new round of funding.

During the last round, Steve Veneziano, a vice president for Oakes Farms, told The Washington Post the company saw a growing need for food in December, but it ran out of government money too soon to meet the need.  

“The demand was just so overwhelming," he told a reporter at the daily newspaper. "We really needed two to two and a half times the award. We could’ve easily spent $150 million.”

In Southwest Florida, the Harry Chapin Food Bank last received food boxes from Oakes Farms through the USDA program on Nov. 30, said Barbara Evans, the nonprofit's chief development officer.

In all, the local food bank got more than 17,000 boxes of perishable foods over three weeks time in November, she said, including fruits and vegetables — and together the boxes weighed more than 512,000 pounds.

She hopes to receive another wave of boxes through the next round of the feeding program.

"Our needs are exceeding our supplies for food," Evans said. "In fact, we are struggling to procure produce."

According to USAspending.gov, Oakes Farms earned $2.2 million through federal government contracts in fiscal year 2018. That amount rose to more than $13.1 million in 2019 and topped $18.2 million in 2020.

Year-to-date — and only a few months into the fiscal year — the company has been awarded more than $70.2 million based on its contracts and transactions with the departments of agriculture, justice and defense.

No problem keeping contracts

Some have questioned why Oakes would want to continue working for a government he's so skeptical of and unhappy about — and how his political activism might affect his ability to keep existing federal contracts or win new ones.

Naples attorney George Mantzidis, whose specialties include contract and business law, said those are interesting questions, but they're not so easy to answer.

"Generally, political speech is protected under case law, under viewpoint discrimination," he said.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation requires federal government contractors to “conduct themselves with the highest degree of integrity and honesty” and to have a written code of business ethics and conduct. 

Federal contractor protections, however, could differ based on the specific language of a particular contract — but questionable words are a lot different from questionable actions, Mantzidis pointed out.

If Oakes only participated in the Trump rally, he said, and not the riots, it shouldn't affect his government contracts now or down the road.

Peter Bergerson, a political science professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, said "it's really premature to figure out what may happen" with Oakes Farms' government contracts, if anything. He agrees there should be no harm in rallying for President Trump, protesting the election results or criticizing Congress in a peaceful way.

Oakes Farms Seed to Table Market owner Alfie Oakes, left, speaks to his supporters during a counter protest at his store on Saturday, June 13, 2020. A protest was sparked by an incendiary Facebook post by Oakes about COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, and was met by a counter protest organized by Oakes.

"He seems to be, from all indications, really a Trump zealot," Bergerson said. "If you go into his business, it's almost like a shrine to the president."

In an email to the Daily News a day after the riots, Oakes, who flew to D.C. for the Trump rally, condemned the actions of what he described as a small group of people organized by "the left," which allowed the insurgents into the Capitol "for no other reason than to smear our great president and his supporters."

He also pointed an accusing finger at the media, saying their narrative of the historic day's events was "nothing but lies" that "support the globalist agenda takeover."

"The media is the true enemy of the people of the United States," he exclaimed.