Regional Food Solutions Tue, 02 Aug 2016 18:32:43 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Fishing communities find economic power doing business together Wed, 27 Jul 2016 22:01:50 +0000 Commercial fisherman Aaaron Longton is part of a novel effort in southwestern Oregon to link regional seafood businesses into new supply chains that work better for local people and places. His business is Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, one of the nation’s earlier Community Supported Fisheries.  Photo courtesy of Port Orford Sustainable Seafood

Commercial fisherman Aaaron Longton is part of a novel effort in southwestern Oregon to link regional seafood businesses into new supply chains that work better for local people and places. His business is Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, one of the nation’s earlier Community Supported Fisheries.
Photo courtesy of Port Orford Sustainable Seafood

Six port communities on Oregon’s rocky southwestern coast are taking their seafood-rich economy into their own hands.

More than 80 percent of the state’s catch travels frozen to places like China for processing before working its way back to Oregon and other dinner plates. The lack of local and regional links in global seafood supply chains is the problem that the Southwestern Oregon Food Systems Collaborative is working to change.

Its strategy is to build new locally owned, mutual-aid supply chains — or “value chains” — across great market gaps that have grown in the wake of the region’s near-total focus on global commodity exports.

The approach is showing signs of success in southwestern Oregon. It also shows real potential for transitioning so many other, mostly rural places now caught between past economies of resource extraction and future economies of resource conservation.

New Business Starts

One example is how the economic outlook has shifted in the small town of Port Orford (pop. 1,200). The town’s commercial fishing port depends for its survival on the dwindling fortunes of those families — some 35 percent of the local workforce — that still make their living at sea.

“If we can’t keep this dock running, the collateral damage to fishermen here would be huge,” said Port of Port Orford office manager Katie Dougherty.

It looks now, however, that the port will not only stay afloat but also expand to serve new local seafood economy uses.

Projections include 40 new jobs along with revenue from nine businesses in line to locate at a planned 20,000 square-foot multi-use dock facility. It will include new retail, tourism, and smaller-scale processing space.

“(The Collaborative) put us in touch with these people and helped us understand what they want and what they need,” Dougherty said.

Read the full Good Food Economy Digest story at the Wallace Center, home of the National Good Food Network.

Closer look at rural gives Sacramento new economic direction Wed, 01 Jun 2016 21:09:49 +0000 The little northern California town of Winters (pop. 7,212) is a local-foodie destination on the verge of turning its strategic location and “beautiful produce” into a new crop of non-farming jobs.

“Most of our residents commute to urban centers for work,” said Winters’ city manager John Donlevy. “They head out before 6:30 in the morning and return after 6:30 at night.”

That’s about to change, he said. New economic analysis details the success that regional market-focused food manufacturing and distribution sited in Winters could have.

“Five venture capital groups have visited in just the past three months,” Donlevy said. He sees real opportunity in their potential investments for local people to work closer to home. “That’s huge for quality of life,” he said.

How this investor interest in Winters came to be is a story of the nearby Sacramento metropolitan region taking a fresh look at the lay of its land. Its new view of outlying rural areas has prompted a full-scale mobilization of area leadership in recognition of how much the region has to offer, and to gain from, soaring demand for local food.

The conversation about local food and farming changed dramatically in Sacramento when regional planners added crop detail and other eye-opening specifics to its generic land use map. It had long pictured agriculture as just one big green expanse. Photo: SACOG

The conversation about local food and farming changed dramatically in Sacramento when regional planners added crop detail and other eye-opening specifics to its generic land use map. It had long pictured agriculture as just one big green expanse. Photo: SACOG

Map Detail

Metro Sacramento’s six counties are at the northern end of California’s agriculturally diverse and rich Central Valley. They produce $4.2 billion worth of food and agriculture products. The metro also includes the local- and organic farming-rich Capay Valley, which is just north of Winters.

Sacramento regional planning, however, had not really included agriculture.

Sacramento had at least used the color green to designate agriculture on its planning maps, said Ed Thompson, California Director at American Farmland Trust. Most of the time those agricultural areas are just white, as if they’re empty and waiting for some other “higher and better” use.

Nevertheless rural areas were still just one big blob in most minds, said David Shabazian, manager of the Rural-Urban Connections Strategy at the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG).

The first thing Shabazian and staff did when launching Rural-Urban Connections was to fill in agricultural areas on SACOG’s planning maps with soil types, crop detail, water use, sales, employment, and more.

And that has made all the difference.

“It really started getting people thinking holistically about what we are as a region, how the land base is made up of both urban and rural spaces and that both are needed to really thrive,” he said.

Aha Moments

Two big realizations are now fueling a move to build more “local-serving” agriculture into the region’s food and farm economy.

One, only two percent of the 1.9 million tons of food consumed in the Sacramento area comes from food and farm businesses in those six counties. In other words, Sacramento eats the same produce the rest of the country eats — grown for long-distance shipping and run through distant, massive warehouse and processing facilities.

Two, new analysis shows significant farm-to-table development potential. Rural communities can strengthen their economic position by developing supply chain facilities and services, like food manufacturing, that more “local-serving” agriculture needs. In turn, the city of Sacramento and surrounding counties gain the fresh and local food they want and need for both health and wealth.

“We’re exporting so much of our own bounty, we miss taking care of ourselves,” said John Nicoletti, a supervisor in metro Sacramento’s rural Yuba County.

The irony is motivating a full spectrum of interests to take action, said Trish Kelly, senior vice president of Valley Vision, a 16-county leadership organization.

“We are really getting to scale,” she said. “You go in a room now for discussion, and there’s a food bank person there, a food distributor, a grower, an elected official, a chef, someone from local economic development, someone from regional planning, or a professor from the University of California-Davis …”

Leaders Lead

These regional leaders now function as the Local Food Economy Partnership, which the Sacramento Area Chamber of Commerce hosts. They are taking seriously their job of supporting the food and farming innovation they want to see.

The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau took a big first step when it declared the city “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital,” which launched a major public awareness and engagement campaign.

More than a slogan, Sacramento’s new brand — America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital — speaks for a region-wide focus on building the farm-to-table value chain. Photo: Valley Vision.

More than a slogan, Sacramento’s new brand — America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital — speaks for a region-wide focus on building the farm-to-table value chain.
Photo: Valley Vision.

Valley Vision led the regional food economy team in a bid to win major federal support for building more farm-to-table food supply chain services and facilities into the Central Valley’s agricultural economy. The region’s new Economic Development Administration designation as an “Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership” will support regional food hub development, food business incubation, workforce development and more.

Along with new agricultural detail in its maps, the SACOG Rural-Urban Connections Strategy put together a groundbreaking toolbox of parcel-level data and decision-support tools. It puts nuts and bolts on the many opportunities metro Sacramento has with its Mediterranean growing conditions, access to markets, and its agricultural capacity and heritage.

County-level reports project the relative profitability and desirability of different directions food and agriculture entrepreneurs in a particular county could take. Case studies compare return on investment, cash flow, and other variables such as labor, water use, and greenhouse gas emissions. SACOG has also developed actionable pro forma business planning information to help entrepreneurs, local governments, and investors take action.

SACOG’s toolbox has “driven a much higher level of consideration of how to make these things happen,” said Winters city manager John Donlevy.

Return on Investment

The toolbox is prompting regional leaders, for example, to look more closely at what’s available and what they can do with it, said Valley Vision’s Trish Kelly.

“We’re asking local jurisdictions: ‘Do you have facilities, do you have vacant properties, do you have sites ready, do you have broadband, what capacity do you have?”

Detailed scenario planning is also helping capital find its way to places like Winters.

SACOG analysis shows the rural town is in perfect position to provide its nearby local and regional food sector, west of Interstate 505, with the light industrial services it needs, like processing and distribution.

Winters is near a large concentration of local-serving farms and innovative sustainable agriculture enterprises in the Capay Valley. They include 400-acre, 30-year-old Full Belly Farm and nearly 40 more that market and distribute together through their regional hub, the Capay Valley Farm Shop.

“Ninety-eight percent of what we grow is consumed within 100 miles,” said Full Belly Farm co-owner Paul Muller.

As a municipality, Winters has some other key strengths to build upon.

“We have the infrastructure; we have the wastewater system,” Donlevy said. “We’ve also been progressive about how we look at things … We are a small town but what we do here is food.”

Winters is now on the verge of having the best of both worlds, he said. “We can develop jobs through the processing and industrial side of regional food. That combines with our town as a great place to live and visit, with its excellent restaurants, atmosphere and fresh food.”

This article was first published at the Wallace Center Good Food Economy Digest

Louisville, KY: Betting jobs on rural-urban food connections Thu, 05 May 2016 22:44:31 +0000 Mike Higgins had just become president of a national food manufacturing company based in Louisville, KY, when he met Sarah Fritschner from the city’s economic development department.

“Sarah asked if I would be willing to try local food in our products if she found the farmers and took care of getting it to me the way I would need it,” he said.

The conversation launched new recipes at Higgins’ Custom Food Solutions and high-volume sales for its initial Kentucky farm suppliers. It also brought into place a large-scale processing piece of the regional food supply puzzle.

Fritschner is tasked with pulling this puzzle together as part of metropolitan Louisville’s job creation strategy. Another big piece the city and nonprofit developer Seed Capital Kentucky have secured is a $56 million food business park that will break ground this fall in West Louisville.

The picture of how local food can spur both urban and rural revitalization is getting clearer in the Bluegrass State. Louisville has led the way with a strategic focus on finding and connecting entrepreneurs along the regional supply chain from farm to table.

System Shaping Up
“What Sarah does is very intangible but absolutely essential,” said Theresa Zawacki, senior policy advisor to Louisville Forward, which is two-term Mayor Greg Fischer’s economic development initiative.

Sarah Fritschner is Louisville's farm to table value chain coordinator.

Sarah Fritschner is Louisville’s farm to table value chain coordinator.

Ben Abell sold butternut squash to Custom Food Solutions for a new farm to school product the larger scale processor developed.

Ben Abell sold butternut squash to Custom Food Solutions for a new farm to school product the larger scale processor developed.

Fritschner herself joked: “It’s a lot of ‘Let’s get you and you together to talk’ and ‘What if we tried this?’ … Everything I do takes two years,” she said. “We’re building systems where there was nothing.”

Jim Barham is an economist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He calls this business-to-business relationship building the “soft infrastructure” that makes other “hard infrastructure” like trucks and packing lines work. USDA just launched a new program to support and partner with regional food relationship brokers like Fritschner, known as “value chain coordinators,” in 10 metropolitan regions. Louisville is one of the partners and the only municipality in the group.

Value chains are mutual-aid affairs; they are supply chains built by businesses that need each other to satisfy demand. In the case of local and regional food, they’re trying to deliver on higher purpose values that consumers and communities are bringing to market.

One example is schools trying to reconnect kids with the people and places behind food. Louisville’s Farm to Table program works with universities, schools and other institutions to source locally. Data from those buyers shows it’s resulting so far in at least $1.5 million annually to Kentucky farmers, Louisville Forward’s Theresa Zawacki said.

The overall big carrot for food value chain development in Kentucky is an estimated annual $600 million in local food demand among metropolitan Louisville consumers and commercial buyers.

Jose Cubero, head of Louisville-area operations for Indianapolis-based Piazza Produce, is part of the value chain Fritschner is pulling together. He explained there is an internal motivation as well.

“I live in Kentucky. I’m proud of my state and my city. I want to do something to make a difference here,” he said.

Piazza reached the $1 million mark last year in local food; half produce and half meats and value-added products like cheeses.

It’s helpful to have Piazza and other larger buyers on board, Fritschner said. It helps in conversations with rural entrepreneurs and leaders about the potential for growing their food and farm business connections with the city.

“Piazza’s trucks run up and down Interstate 65 every day,” she said.

Also encouraging is the news that Piazza Produce and several other companies with commitments to local food will soon co-locate and collaborate at the up-and-coming West Louisville FoodPort.

The West Louisville FoodPort is a business park geared to support and connect local and regional food businesses. The design included neighborhood-led ideas for gathering places and job training and recruitment. (Photo credit: OMA)

The West Louisville FoodPort is a business park geared to support and connect local and regional food businesses. The project includes community spaces and neighborhood-designed strategies for job training and recruitment. (Photo credit: OMA)

FoodPort Power
The FoodPort grew from non-profit Seed Capital Kentucky’s quest to help the city and state move more local and regional food to market, said project director and co-founder Caroline Heine.

She and fellow philanthropist Stephen Reily started Seed Capital Kentucky in 2011. The catalyst was Mayor Fischer’s campaign promise to build the local food economy, followed by his big step to place it squarely under economic development as a job creation strategy.

“The political environmental that our mayor established has been key across the board,” Heine said.

The FoodPort is anchored by a $23 million expansion of the Chicago-based company FarmedHere. Its new 60,000 square foot growing space in Louisville will be the first outpost for FarmedHere in a plan to replicate its indoor vertical farming operation.

Other initial FoodPort tenants include ingredient dehydrator Just One Organics and The Weekly Juicery, a busy fresh-pressed juice delivery business with five retail locations in the region. All are part of a growing local- and organic-leaning wing of Louisville’s important food and beverage business cluster.

Louisville Forward’s Theresa Zawacki explained the economic development thinking behind business clusters.

“The mayor sees opportunity here well beyond food,” she said.

FoodPort innovators could very well work in the future, for example, with others in the food and beverage cluster, such as equipment makers, Zawacki said. Louisville leaders there include Winston Industries of KFC fryer fame and First Build, a crowd-source designer connected to G.E. Appliances.

Another FoodPort economic development angle is neighborhood improvement.

“The site is large enough that we have the opportunity to develop community-oriented spaces as well as buildings to house the businesses,” Seed Capital’s Heine said.

It is close to the interstate and in a light-industrial part of town, which serves the needs of commercial-scale facilities. “But more interesting, it sits smack dab at the nexus of three West Louisville neighborhoods,” she said.

A 100plus-member community council was part of planning from the start of the FoodPort, also known as a food innovation district.

Training and recruitment of neighborhood residents to work in FoodPort construction and at tenant businesses is underway. So are commitments from tenants and construction contractors to hire them. A two-acre teaching farm is part of the FoodPort design as well as open spaces for everyday neighborhood life and special events.

Rural-Urban Reach
The FoodPort and Sarah Fritschner’s regional value chain work are building rural job momentum as well.

John Edwards is co-owner of the new Trackside Butcher Shoppe meat processing facility in Henry County, northeast of Louisville. Fritschner hooked him up with mentors and others that have been key in getting Trackside off to a successful start.

“Sarah’s a door-opener,” Edwards said.

State senator and farmer Paul Hornback (R-Shelbyville) is happy about it, too. “Getting a processor for meats here locally is very important for our farm economy. Before, we had to travel quite a distance to get those services,” he said.

“It’s all about relationships,” added Kentucky’s newly elected Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles. “Often times markets can be created when a restaurant or a distributor develops a relationship with a farming family and grows to have trust and confidence in them to meet quantity and quality needs.”

Custom Food Solutions’ Mike Higgins said that’s how he became a large-scale processing link in the regional value chain.

“Sarah’s trying to have a large-scale impact on farmers in the state of Kentucky. She helped me understand my role in that.”

This article originally published at the Wallace Center Good Food Economy Digest:

Farms Fuel Rural Main Street Mojo Thu, 04 Feb 2016 15:29:19 +0000 Just four years ago, Main Street in Corbin, Kentucky (pop. 7,300), looked and felt like most downtowns in rural America: Vacant buildings. Empty sidewalks. A few surviving businesses.

Today it’s hard to find a parking space on the mile and a half of Corbin’s Main Street.

“We have a vibrant 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. economy here now,” said Andy Salmons, the city’s Main Street manager.

What happened?

Kristin Smith came back home to her 6th generation farm. Now she's part of a new downtown business generation reinvigorating small town Kentucky life. [Photo: Community Farm Alliance]

Kristin Smith came back home to her 6th generation farm. Now she’s part of a new downtown business generation reinvigorating small town Kentucky life. [Photo: Community Farm Alliance]

Economic Stimulus

Corbin is among a growing number of towns discovering and capitalizing on the power of local food to provide a new economy stimulus.

Bringing people back downtown to live, work, and play is key, said Corbin Mayor Willard McBurney. “To do that you need places to eat, places to shop.”

A turning point was when Main St. manager Salmons partnered two years ago with the successful Whitley County Farmers Market. They brought vendors and live music to downtown’s Vibroc Park. The event gets people used to coming downtown. It also serves as a business incubator and networking service.

Kristin Smith, a farmer and co-owner of downtown’s new Wrigley Taproom and Brewery, got her start there. She field-tested her “New Appalachian” tacos, got acquainted with her now-business partners, and graduated with them to the brick-and-mortar restaurant.

Doing Business Together

Part of local food’s power is in residents’ desire to support neighbors like her. Smith came back home to southeastern Kentucky from California a few years ago to keep the sixth-generation family farm going.

“When someone you’ve known your whole life opens up a new restaurant, you’re rooting for them,” Smith said. “A large majority of our community is rooting for us, and a large majority doesn’t even drink!”

Read the full story at the Good Food Economy Digest:

Rural town aims to be “the place” for local food firms Mon, 02 Nov 2015 22:44:36 +0000 Veteran economic developer Todd Valline said it was a light bulb moment last winter when farmer Ellen Walsh-Rosmann walked into his office.

Valline is the new chief executive officer at the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce and Industry in rural western Iowa. He needs some good reasons for young entrepreneurs to build businesses and lives in Shelby County.

He never would have guessed the lynchpin to his strategy would be this young mother with a refrigerated truck.

Valline was just contemplating what to do with an empty business incubator in Harlan (pop. 5,075), the county seat. Harlan built the space nearly 10 years ago, hoping to attract high-tech entrepreneurs.

“Lucky for me, Ellen walks in,” he said.

Ellen Walsh-Rosmann sets up shop for her regional FarmTable Delivery business in the small town of Harlan in rural western Iowa.

Ellen Walsh-Rosmann sets up shop for her regional FarmTable Delivery business in the small town of Harlan in rural western Iowa.

Walsh-Rosmann, 29, was looking for a place to park her growing FarmTable Delivery business. Her refrigerated truck runs up and down Interstate 80 four times a week between nearby Omaha, Nebraska, and points in and around Des Moines in central Iowa. FarmTable started up in 2013 when Walsh-Rosmann began “peddling” products from her family’s farm and others’ out of the back of her Mazda.

“It’s crazy growth,” Walsh-Rosmann said. “I thought we were doing pretty awesome last year when my sales were $42,000. Now we’re averaging about $30,000 a month.” FarmTable currently works with about 50 local food suppliers and some 40 restaurant, grocery, school, and hospital customers.

Fast-forward six months: FarmTable is setting up shop at the business incubator in Harlan. Meanwhile the city, chamber, local utility, and other leaders are designing an economic development strategy around food and farm entrepreneurs. They see the potential for FarmTable to help them build a regional food economy, one that gets local products out and brings people in.

Jobs. Health. Place.

“Our goal is to establish Shelby County as the hub of the wheel of the local farm-to-table sector in the region,” Valline said.

‘We sit basically in a triangle of three major markets: Omaha, Des Moines, and Kansas City. If we can develop this hub, it will be attractive to those entrepreneurs out there in the 25-35 age range looking to take their businesses to the next level … The transportation part of their business plan is covered. That gives us a leg up compared to other places in the Midwest.”

He adds that the free-range burgers and farm fresh produce that FarmTable will help Shelby County growers bring to market represent the same foods, and farming practices, that next-generation entrepreneurs and families want.

Ken Weber agrees. He is CEO of Harlan Municipal Utilities, the locally owned provider of electricity, water, and broadband. “We need to make sure our area is attractive to those millennials, who are concerned with what they eat and how they use energy and other resources,” he said. “As a utility we are looking at renewable and local resources and at making our system smarter and more responsive to customers. Farm-to-table is similar.”

Farmers and Eaters

Shelby County is confident that its regional food strategy is right in line with where the country is going even if the approach is still uncommon.

“In economic development, we’re always looking for the next big thing,” Valline said. “It’s huge when you see companies like McDonald’s moving to free-range eggs and other chains starting to promote their use of local produce. You want to catch that wave at the front.”

FarmTable provides some good momentum to start.

“Ellen’s business has revolutionized my business,” said Danelle Myer, owner-operator of One Farm in nearby Logan. She moved back home to western Iowa from Omaha to live and work her family’s fifth-generation farm. “FarmTable allows me to stay on the farm, and everything I harvest is sold!”

FarmTable’s new headquarters in Harlan will do more. It includes services and facilities to help local farmers grow their businesses also. Walsh-Rosmann will offer use of a processing kitchen, post-harvest handling area, classroom and potluck meeting space, and things like discounted boxes and other supplies that FarmTable buys in bulk.

Then there’s the new local food diner on the square in Harlan called Milk and Honey. The Walsh-Rosmanns opened it with Ellen’s brother, a restaurant manager, in charge. The move came after the one iconic mom-and-pop breakfast place in town closed, leaving only Burger King or the HyVee supermarket deli as choices.

Milk and Honey is the type of attraction for young people that Todd Valline was looking for when Ellen Walsh-Rosmann walked into his office.

“It just made sense,” Walsh-Rosmann said. “We have eggs. We have really great bacon. And we want a cool place to go eat lunch.”

This story ran originally at the Wallace Center Good Food Economy Digest.

Grocers test buy-local incentive for low-income shoppers Fri, 02 Oct 2015 16:30:40 +0000 Kansas City Price Chopper stores test a program that helps low-income shoppers buy local.

Kansas City Price Chopper stores test a program that helps low-income shoppers buy local.

A popular incentive for low-income shoppers at farmers markets is moving into grocery stores. It’s an expansion that promises nourishment for both rural and urban areas.

Around 5,000 low-income shoppers used the program from June through August in a trial run at four Kansas City area Price Chopper supermarkets. They spent nearly $30,000 on produce, mostly from smaller scale farmers in the region.

“This is economic development,” said Mark Holland, mayor of the Unified Government of Wyandotte County, Kansas. “It benefits the farmers selling local produce. It helps people who need it most to stretch their food dollars. It also benefits grocery stores; it brings people into the store.”

The Double Up Food Bucks retail expansion in Kansas City provides shoppers who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) benefits with a dollar-for-dollar match on their Price Chopper loyalty cards when they buy up to $25 a day of locally produced fruits and vegetables. They can then use the extra money to buy more of any produce, doubling the amount of healthy food they take home.

“It fit right in with our loyalty card program,” said Mike Beal, chief operating officer for Balls Food Stores, a regional family-owned chain with 15 Price Chopper and 11 Hen House supermarkets in the Kansas City area.

Shoppers are catching on; redemption rates jumped 70 percent from July to August. The pilot program runs through December.

Farmers are also feeling the love.

Balls buys from more than 150 farmers through Good Natured Family Farms. The regional marketing cooperative, or food hub, supplies local products for every department, from produce, dairy and meats to honey and other items like jams and pickles.

Diana Endicott, president of Good Natured Family Farms, said the group’s produce sales are up 20 to 30 percent at the four Double Up Food Bucks test stores.

See the full article at the Good Food Economy Digest


Growing regional food jobs: The Viroqua Story Sat, 29 Aug 2015 12:45:37 +0000 Since opening in late 2012, the Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua WI has added 14 tenants employing 45 people. It's a new local food focused strategy for the county's economic development organization. (Photo:

Since opening in late 2012, the Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua WI has added 14 tenants employing 45 people. It’s a new local food focused strategy for the county’s economic development organization. (Photo:

By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions

Next to Wal-Mart on the edge of rural Viroqua, Wisconsin, a 100,000-square-foot abandoned industrial building is now bustling with new businesses and jobs from an unconventional source: The local food and farming sector.

It’s a turnaround for a small town that lost one of its largest employers and then bet on the growth of local food markets to enliven that vacant space and the area’s economy.

The Food Enterprise Center in Viroqua is also one of an increasing number of food and farm business development centers that are ratcheting up the economic development assistance.

Economic Engine
For Viroqua and southwest Wisconsin, the growing businesses at the Food Enterprise Center are a significant boost both for that abandoned industrial real estate and the regional economy, said Matt Johnson. He is editor of the Vernon County Broadcaster and a charter member of the Vernon Economic Development Association (VEDA).

“This was a very large facility that was going to sit empty for a really long time,” Johnson said. “It was great that our local economic development association saw (redeveloping) it in a different way,” he said. “One of the things we do really well here in Vernon County is food. We have the highest concentration of organic farmers in the state.”

VEDA director Sue Noble said she knew from a survey of area food and farm businesses at the time, and from “what came across my desk,” that businesses in the emerging sector were looking to grow but had no place to do it.

“The size of this building, with five loading docks, matched their need for mid-tier level facilities; that infrastructure was missing,” she said.

Read the original full blog post at the Wallace Center Good Food Economy Digest

Data Dive Explores Financials at Wholesale End of Local Food Fri, 21 Aug 2015 10:47:58 +0000 Counting Values study provides comparative data, or financial benchmarks, drawn from 48 of the more than 300 regional food hubs in the nation. (Photo: National Good Food Network)

Counting Values study provides comparative data, or financial benchmarks, drawn from 48 of the more than 300 regional food hubs in the nation. (Photo: National Good Food Network)

By Patty Cantrell, Regional Food Solutions

The wholesale end of local food is a growing business sector that walks a fine line between profitability and social change, according to a new study from the Wallace Center, home of the National Good Food Network.

The COUNTING VALUES: Food Hub Financial Benchmarking Study draws on financial and operational data from 48 of the nation’s more than 300 regional food hubs. Food hubs are social enterprises that combine the wholesale business of marketing local food with programs to strengthen community food capacity.

The benchmarks will help food hub managers analyze and adjust operations. Financial supporters also can use the benchmarks to evaluate and target investment opportunities, whether loan, grant, or equity.

“This study is an important step in attracting the market capital that’s essential for regional food systems to really take off,” said Teri Lowinger, co-founder of the Sustainable Local Food Investment Group. Since 2011 the angel investment group has moved more than $1.2 million into food- and farm-related businesses in the Chicago region.

Most food hubs that Counting Values studied are at or near the breakeven point before grant or donation income.

This is arguably a good indicator for the social enterprises, said Tina Prevatte, co-founder of the North Carolina food hub Firsthand Foods. It sells pasture-raised meats from North Carolina farms to restaurants, cafeterias, and retailers.

“We’re building something that is very intentionally different than the traditional food industry,” she said. “Slim margins and operating near breakeven are actually signs of success when your intention is to make good food accessible to all while also paying farmers fairly and equitably.”

See Counting Values at

Read the original full blog post at the Wallace Center Good Food Economy Digest

Region Finances Local Food with Team Work Wed, 24 Jun 2015 11:34:09 +0000 In northwest Michigan a team of investors and lenders is taking a unique community-based approach to capitalizing farmers and local food producers.

It is their commitment to both lending and learning that is making the difference.

In their first year, 2013-2014, members of the Northwest Michigan Food and Farm 20/20 Fund made 18 loans for a total of $1.5 million. This work resulted in 13 full-time jobs and two part-time jobs across five counties.

The group’s motto “Lend and learn. Learn and lend.” is working, says Susan Cocciarelli. She is a sustainable agriculture finance specialist from Michigan State University based at the region’s council of governments Networks Northwest.

“With 20/20 Fund successes — paid on time or even before due — conventional lenders are becoming more familiar with the sector and comfortable with the borrowers,” Cocciarelli says.

The 20/20 Fund’s innovative approach confronts some basic facts that complicate the already tough small business financing challenge that food and farm entrepreneurs face.

Bankers today are unfamiliar with the business of farming. Agricultural lenders are used to their mainstream of commodity production borrowers. All lenders and investors are averse to the high cost of servicing smaller loans and big risks inherent in the largely startup sector.

Farm-Financing-300x206Economic Engine

Northwest Michigan’s business leaders understand, however, that food from the region, and for the region, is a major economic player. It feeds both tourism and small town quality of life here on the Lake Michigan shoreline. Taking innovative steps to address big food and farm financing gaps is a natural.

“Farms, food processors, and food retailers are all important businesses in our area,” says Don Coe. He is a local winery operator and former state agriculture commissioner who advocated in 2012, as then-chair of the Chamber’s economic development arm, to join in the collaborative lending and learning effort.

Team Work

Consider an Amish farmer that applied for a loan through 20/20 Fund member Northern Initiatives, a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI). The collaborative worked together to move the application through Northern Initiatives’ loan review process successfully.

The farmer posed relatively little risk. He came with a successful track record plus purchase orders in hand from a regional produce distributor. But the farmer did not have collateral required to secure the $12,000 loan for plants and irrigation.

Two other members of the 20/20 Fund team stepped in to help.

One is locally owned and operated Honor Bank, which holds “Individual Development Accounts” (IDAs) that the 20/20 group makes available to farmers. These federally matched savings accounts are common in urban redevelopment efforts but only beginning to show up in rural food and farm development.

Another 20/20 Fund member, the regional Utopia Foundation, provided the required local match to bring the IDA total to $3,000. The farmer then brought the IDA to Northern Initiatives as a loan guarantee.

Bridging Gaps

“Its hard to get a traditional lender to finance some of these businesses,” says Venture North Executive Director Laura Galbraith. “They are mostly startups with little to no collateral, and it takes a long time to go to market so you have to be patient lender. We have had to be pretty collaborative and inventive in some ways.”

Sometimes it’s just the 20/20 Fund group’s willingness to jump in when it would take a traditional bank much more processing time, or cost farmers dearly in credit card debt.

“Having a community partner that is quick and flexible, that’s where the value comes in,” says Nic Welty.

He is a successful young farmer in the region and advisory member of the 20/20 Fund. His Nine Bean Rows farm has worked two loans through the 20/20 Fund. One involved an equipment grant from the state agriculture agency. The 20/20 Fund fronted Welty the $20,000 he would have had to pay out first before getting reimbursed through the grant.

“I didn’t want to be out $20,000 while waiting an indeterminate amount of time … Unless you’re super capitalized or have a close relationship with a banker, which most don’t have, it takes a long time to get that kind of capital.”

Regional magnet

Northwest Michigan’s 20/20 Fund participants work through challenging, unconventional food and farm loans because they see regional quality-of-life growing from this sort of economic development.

They are not the only ones.

The 20/20 Fund is just one of 45 related food and farm sector development projects that the Northwest Michigan Food and Farming Network featured recently in its first annual Report to the Community. More than 150 organizations are united, along with individual farmers and others, behind the 10-county Network’s goal of 20 percent local food by 2020.

All of this local food and farming effort contributes to the “livability” factor that is fundamental to the region’s economic development strategy and earning Traverse City national recognition.

Hans Voss has watched it unfold since the mid 1990s. He is Executive Director of the Traverse City-based Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities, formerly the Michigan Land Use Institute. The nonprofit helped kick off local food’s contribution with its annual 10-county Taste the Local Difference guide and marketing programs.

“Not only are restaurants, schools, and grocery stores prioritizing local, it’s enlivening the whole economy and energizing a growing sustainability ethic,” he said. “A new generation of socially and environmentally conscious people is coming to this forward-looking community.”

First published May 18, 2015, in the Good Food Economy Digest, a project of the Wallace Center at Winrock International

Local Governments Plan for Regional Food Fri, 22 May 2015 13:15:17 +0000 Local governments are seeing results on the ground as the local food sector expands. They range from new farmers enlivening old towns to new people visiting or moving to places where local food is on the menu – from downtown eateries to schools and nursing homes.

And local leaders want more.

All 16 regional councils of government in North Carolina, for example, last year listed local food network-building as a top action item in a joint five-year strategy delivered to the state’s department of commerce. Local food network development also tops the list in strategic planning at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a 12-state rural development network that includes North Carolina’s Department of Commerce.

Olivia Collier is the ARC Program Manager for the state of North Carolina. She says the missing link is the technical assistance and infrastructure that budding local food entrepreneurs need to get to market, and to collaborate and scale.

“A lot of people are starting to focus on that challenge, and the real opportunity in it,” she says. “That can have a big impact.”

Economic Developers Join In

Orange County, North Carolina, is one of several local governments leading the way.

Orange County sits on the more rural west side of the busy Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “Triangle” region, home to three major universities where local food is big. Along with three neighboring counties, it operates the Piedmont Food and Agriculture Processing Center. The three-year-old business incubator has 40 clients. Orange County also hosts the Breeze Farm incubator with space and support for startup producers.

“What we need now is a broker to facilitate the connection between producers and markets,” says Orange County commissioner Barry Jacobs.

Mike-Burris-photo-300x225Mike Burris of North Carolina’s Merchant Distributors discusses wholesale marketing of local foods.

The county created a new position in its economic development office to help get that done. Mike Ortosky is now on that job full-time.

His charge is to grow the business cluster of local food producers, processors, distributors, retailers and others now emerging. Helping these entrepreneurs connect and collaborate is the path to scaling up the entire cluster, or local food business network.

“The environment is right to move some things forward,” Ortosky says. “The demand is there, from county purchases for the jail or senior meals, to the universities and other wholesale buyers in the region.”

The bottleneck is logistics.

Ortosky and his county commission know they need a place where local food producers can pool and stage their products for distribution. They are also ready to front the research and development costs of getting such a “rural aggregation site” up and running. Their goal is to attract and support an entrepreneur that could take it from there.

Business Network Grows

One model is western North Carolina’s successful TRACTOR Food and Farms, which coordinates the flow of products from area farms to markets in and around the local food hot spot of Asheville. TRACTOR is one of more than 300 “regional food hubs” now operating nationwide. Food hubs are businesses that provide the middleman services that both local food producers and buyers need to succeed.

TRACTOR is well known to local food buyer Mike Burris.

Burris recently wrapped up 27 years as director of produce at Hickory, NC-based Merchant Distributors (MDI). The food wholesaler serves more than 600 retail stores in 11 Southeast states.

Today Burris spends most of his time out of the office with his windows down and his tie in the back seat. He now works fulltime as MDI’s local food gatherer in North Carolina.

“I just met with TRACTOR two weeks ago,” he says. “We’re coordinating with the local growers, getting crop forecasts and letting them know what we want grown for us and how we can support them.”

MDI believes smaller farms can be a big part of the distributor’s regional supply chain. Burris travels across the state now, seeking suppliers at what he calls the “deeper levels” of local, smaller farmers down at the food industry’s grassroots.

“I think we’ve tipped the iceberg,” he says of local food’s move from market edges to the mainstream. “But you just got to work it, you have to work it.”

For Burris, “working it” is beating the bushes for farms he can sign up, or groom, for wholesale. It is also interacting with more and more local governments that are ready to help.

“I’d really like to see (rural aggregation sites) happen in more places,” Burris adds. “I’m working with different areas trying to put these together.”

Ortosky says what they’re putting together long-term in Orange County is a larger food innovation business campus, or district. They want to foster the kind of business synergy that occurs when related businesses co-locate and collaborate.

It’s much like state leaders expect with their new Food Manufacturing and Processing Initiative.

Orange County’s planned food innovation campus is a “deeper” grassroots version. Ortosky believes the local food cluster it will support can grow in statewide economic value and importance.

Mike Burris does, too.

It’s his mantra when he sits down with smaller, local growers every day across the state and says, “Let’s see what we can stimulate.”

This article originally published April 27, 2015 in the Good Food Economy Digest for the Wallace Center at Winrock International, home of the National Good Food Network.


In North Carolina, local food networks have been growing and connecting through statewide facilitation and nurturing from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems. CEFS is a partnership of NC State, NC Agricultural and Technical State University, and NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

For example, a CEFS program focused on scaling up local food, NC Growing Together, introduced Mike Burris and MDI’s main grocery buyer – the regional Lowes Foods chain — to some of their first “deeper level” local food suppliers.

Lowe’s is up to six dozen smaller local food vendors after starting with about half a dozen in 2012, says Rebecca Dunning who heads up NC Growing Together. “The value of sales has doubled each year.”

Another CEFS program, NC Choices, drills down to the niche meat sector to strengthen both smaller scale producers and processors. It offers training and technical assistance. It also brings the niche meat sector together every year at the Carolina Meat Conference.

This work has helped North Carolina’s niche meat sector grow from a “handful” of producers a little over 10 years ago to more than 800 in 2013.

Dunning says local governments can play a key role, as they do in other sectors, by building infrastructure. Everything from cold storage to high-speed Internet access allows new enterprises to collaborate and scale.

“Local government can mainstream it,” she says. “Farms are really small and medium-sized businesses that can play a dynamic role in the local economy.”