Highlights: Virginia Farm-to-Table conference
It took some prodding from an ice cream-making farmer I met for a story, but boy was I glad I decided to attend at least one day of the Virginia Farm-to-Table conference last week. Sure, it was a 3-hour drive to Wyers Cave, Va., but waiting there was a wealth of food story ideas and the people that are thinking about and investing in the future of food here — not to mention my second experience with Virginia-made apple ice cream.
I was sad that I couldn’t make it for both days of the conference, but day two provided enough topics to fill my food-minded coffers for the rest of the year, including talks on financing, aggregating and adding value to local food systems. And it’s always fun to see that stories you’ve written or are writing are tracking with the pulse of today’s food movement.
Speaker and author Elizabeth Ü gave one of the most interesting — and new to me — presentations on some great options for financing new food ventures. As someone who typically writes about food ventures that are already rolling, I found this step of the process intriguing. I realized just how intimidating financing must be for the passionate people behind food startups who’d often rather be planting or cooking than banking. Elizabeth just finished a book called Raising Dough that will delve further into her financing insight and should be on shelves this coming summer. A few highlights from her talk:
- If you go to friends & family for financing first, as most people do, be sure to document the loan carefully and, thus, avoid awkward holiday gatherings.
- Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) models are still a great way to get pre-season funding for food ventures, especially those that are heavy on the startup costs (i.e. planting crops) and a way to gauge interest in the final product (how many people will want your chocolate widgets once they’re baked and ready?).
- Along the lines of a CSA, online “crowdfunding” sites like kickstarter.com are helping food and other ventures fuel up on front-end funding while getting make-or-break feedback.
- (This tidbit was added by an audience member) Virginia is one of the few states that helps fund Individual Development Accounts that match a qualifying individual’s contributions to a savings account — doubling his or her savings over a period of time. Qualifications are based on income (for example, an individual making less than $21,660 in Virginia would qualify – see charts here). Sounds like a great way to save up for a food truck!
As I listened to seminars later on, it seemed most farm-oriented ventures still got their financial heave-ho from the more traditional route: their local Farm Credit of Virginia office, which has financed farms for generations. But the new-to-farming generation may be especially interested in some of the online and food-focused financing options that are sprouting up here and there.
It seems there is always a panel devoted to farm-to-school initiatives, an institutional market many in the local food movement see as key to helping growers scale up to meet the demands of the general population. But I am always surprised at how small a portion of school meals are made with local products, even at districts that are focusing on local. The conference featured a partnership between the Prince William School District and a hydroponic grower of bib lettuce (meaning he can grow the delicious greens year round in a soil-less, water-floating state via greenhouses). But that’s one veggie, and it’s the only veggie kids at those schools see all year. I find it funny that one of the biggest obstacles to local food in local schools — summer’s big growing season hits when kids are out of school — was originally intended to facilitate farming as we then knew it, with kids working on their family farms. (See my story about one produce aggregator’s big ideas for scaling up local food here.)
I’m glad I stayed through the end of the conference day to hear what ended up being my favorite panel discussion among a group of young Virginia farmers. I have yet to see a group of twenty-something farmers on a panel discussing how they always wanted to take over the family commodity farm — and keep it exactly the way they found it. The trend is more likely that A) They inherited a farm or came from a farming legacy and are working tirelessly to change the habits they inherited; B) They have no background in farming and came to it by way of food, a desire to know its source and to make sure it’s good, or C) They started with a garden or a pig or a brood of hens and it grew from there.
Many of these trends hold true across the country. I met very similar young farmers in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle, from the family farmer who wants to add value to the family crop with sauces and jams to the hippie coop-er who doesn’t care if she makes a dime, as long as she grows what she eats. I came away from this panel struck by the gumption and true grit of this handful of young, all-male Virginia farmers. (Though each made sure he sent a shout-out to his wife — “Every successful farmer has a wife who works in town,” said Matt Good.) As a group, they seemed to have a keen sense of the business of farming and a grasp of both its risks and rewards. They could wax poetically about getting to watch the sun come up while they work, yet talk in exhaustive detail about the pros and cons of leasing land. I hope to write some stories about this fascinating bunch of young farmers and the many others who are hitting the field for different reasons than the previous generation.
The best part was seeing an older man who’d grown up in farming shake — with all his vigor — the hand of one of the speakers, telling him just how impressed he was with his vision, his sense of the details of farming. I thought he was going to cry. Thankfully he didn’t, or I would have been right there with him.
Did you attend the conference? What were some of your highlights? (If I glazed over something you thought was a major highlight, it’s probably because I’m holding out to write a story on it later.)