Reporting From FamilyFarmed: Financing Farm to Fork | Bleader

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Reporting From FamilyFarmed: Financing Farm to Fork

Posted By on 03.17.11 at 03:20 PM

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An appearance by a maker of organic yogurt—Gary Hirshberg, the president of Stonyfield Farm—kicked off the first of three days of the annual FamilyFarmed Expo, now in its sixth year. FamilyFarmed follows the usual mantra of local and organic—its mission, the program reads, is to “expand the production, marketing, and distribution of locally grown and responsibly produced food”—and Hirshberg, whose business is decidedly not local any longer, was there as sort of aspirational figure. Stonyfield, ubiquitous in natural foods stores, is the world's largest organic yogurt manufacturer.

That the organic business is big business isn’t news, of course, but Hirshberg still betrayed hints of incredulity when he compared his roots as a humble yogurteer with the current state of the organics industry—a $24.8 billion sector, he said, but nonetheless one that only makes up about four percent of the U.S. food market.

Hirshberg said he’d recently been to a trade show for natural products that in years past drew an audience of more traditionally—well—organic entrepreneurs. “Now there’s tons of suits,” he said, “and it’s mostly money people,” there to find ways to grow the industry. “I sit on about eight different company boards,” Hirshberg enthused—one of which, Honest Tea, “just did a deal with Coke.”

So these are heady times for the business, and people want in. The rest of the day—today’s events are called Financing Farm to Fork—was for telling them how to get there. During a Community Financing panel, attendees who repped businesses ranging from restaurant start-ups (the questioner expressed a need for that last “million and a half”) to south-side community gardens were introduced to nontraditional revenue sources such as microloans, crowd-funding schemes like Kickstarter, and “community-supported business”— like a CSA, but with fewer vegetables. The panel happened simultaneously with Food Business Financing and Farm Financing Opportunities, functioning as a sort of catch-all for enterprises that fell outside those other rubrics.

“There are a ton of resources” for entrepreneurs, said Suzanne Keers, the cofounder and executive director of Local First Chicago. Those range from educational resources to the money itself; that latter category is where the two other panelists came in. Lucy Tuck, the vice-president of lending for IFF, which finances not-for-profits serving low-income and "special needs" communities, said that her organization funded Angelic Organics—$40,000 to finish construction on a barn—and helped finance a grocery store in a food desert in Saint Louis. Calvin Holmes represented the Chicago Community Loan Fund. The fund supports a variety of programs in low-income communities, but Holmes highlighted two that were specifically food-related: Growing PowerGrowing Home, the Englewood community farm that CCLF financed to the tune of $250,000; and Logan Square Kitchen, whose unique business model has attracted both acclaim and city licensing questions.

Tomorrow’s another day for members of the food industry; programming is designed with farmers, buyers, and restaurants in mind, and there’s a special focus on food in schools—those are the panels I’ll be attending. Stay tuned for more; also check out what’s happening at Saturday’s Good Food Festival, where general-interest programming includes panels on pickling, vertical farming, composting, and more.

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