How did you get started with this, Jim? Did you grow up on a farm yourself?
Back in the late 1990s, the non-profit I run was interested in doing a "buy local" campaign. When I went to the local supermarkets, I realized that there just wasn't much local food available. So we started looking at ways in which we could support the development of local and sustainable food. As part of a feasibility study funded by the USDA, we surveyed growers, trade buyers and other stakeholders. We realized that the industry needed a trade show, so we created the FamilyFarmed EXPO. It has now become a national model as an event that brings key players together to connect, do business, and learn from each other.
You went to business school and became a certified financial planner. That's not the conventional trajectory to what you're doing now. What caused you to veer off course?
I veered on course when I launched a magazine called Conscious Choice back in 1988. It focused on ecology and natural living with a strong focus on good food. Publishing and editing it for 14 years really helped to shape my worldview and introduced me to many incredible leaders.
A very good magazine it was, too. I understand that personal health problems also led you to reexamine traditional solutions. Is that true?
I started using some natural health techniques and they were very helpful in addressing some chronic issues. I also became a better eater, and it made me appreciative of the benefits of organic agriculture.
How's it going? How do you measure progress? Since you got interested, has local and sustainable food made any inroads in the American psyche and the power of BigAg?
The movement has exploded. Local is the hottest trend in the food movement. Everybody wants to know their farmer and farm-identified food is everywhere from supermarkets to restaurant menus. In some cases, it is sustainably produced and the demand for local and organic is strong and will continue to grow.
That's encouraging. How does a consumer distinguish between locally grown organic and BigAg organic? And what difference does it make? Or does it?
In both cases, they are produced according to organic standards that disallow most synthetic chemicals and pesticides. Local organic is usually sold at farmers markets, CSAs, or farm stands directly by the farmer. Supply chains have not developed sufficiently to get local organic food into most other wholesale channels such as supermarkets or institutions. Some supermarkets and restaurants are now buying local organic food through regional packinghouses or direct from the farmer. Most of the organic food being sold commercially comes from mid to large farms in warm weather places. Some are family farms, some are larger companies.
To help develop the supply of local and organic food, FamilyFarmed.org is helping to launch three new packinghouses this year. Blue Ridge produce is an investor owned facility in Virginia that buys food from family farmers, packs it, and sells to wholesale buyers. It's a big facility and already 40 farmers have agreed to sell it product. We also helped develop two farmers owned packinghouses in Illinois, that just launched. The growers have warehouses and cooling facilities and are now buying food from neighboring farms to sell to buyers like Whole Foods Market, Chipotle, Goodness Greeness, and members of the Green chicago Restaurant Coop. This is really important work.
You've been recognized for your work with the 2007 Yahoo! for Good Green Award and Crain's Chicago Business's annual "Forty Under Forty" list. Has that been helpful in promoting your agenda?
This kind of recognition helps people know we are credible. That being said, I think the success of our events and programs really has contributed to our growth. People recognize that we have good ideas and the capacity to execute. For example, our EXPO has been extremely successful in Chicago linking family farmers with new markets both consumer and trade. As a result of its innovation, the City of Santa Monica has brought us in to develop and produce The Good Food Festival and Conference there in September. It will celebrate the 30th anniversary of their farmers market, which is one of the best in America, and create a legacy event that supports the growth of sustainable local food systems. It will have a financing conference that will link farmers and food businesses with capital, a trade show, a food policy and public health summit, and two day consumer food festival with nationally significant speakers, chef demos, and more.
I like what you write about "a financing conference that will link farmers and food businesses with capital" since money is often a huge challenge for family farmers and small businesses. What can you tell us about that?
Our Financing Farm to Fork conference addresses the fact that many farms and food businesses need capital to grow. In most cases these are successful enterprises that don't fit the typical formula's of bank, or investors. Our event educates farmers and investors about the opportunities in this niche and then has a financing fair that links them together.
Sounds good. What else would you like our readers to know, Jim?
We are also very excited about our food safety work. Our On-Farm Food Safety Project is developing an online tool that will help small farmers create a food safety plan. This is a critical step in utilizing best practices in food safety. We hope to launch it by September and it will be nationally significant and a great free service for farmers.
I'm intrigued. What's a food safety plan?
It is a written plan that documents farm practices for food safety in all areas of risk. In order to get food safety certified, farms need to have a written plan. They are pretty complex and many small farms don't have the technical capacity (or money to hire consultants) to write such a plan. Our tool will give them this expertise and also have other resources available.
That will be extremely helpful. Big Ag could use such a thing. What haven't we discussed yet?
Big Ag has lots of money to pay food safety consultants to develop their protocols. Small farmers don't. Thats why we have developed this and are making it available for free!
Thanks so much for talking with me, Jim. Good luck with your initiatives at FamilyFarmed.org!
Great Interview. Thanks.
Green Festival-inspired articles so far:
Bread from the Heart A Hit at Chicago Green Festival Monday, June 6, 2011
Young Chicago Entrepreneur Brings Green Cleaning Products to Market Thursday, June 2, 2011
Is This Megadairy A Threat to Health and Livelihood of NW Illinois Residents? Sunday, May 22, 2011