Sales of organic products have increased to $35 billion in 2013, according to the Organic Trade Association, but experts say production has not kept pace. That’s not surprising: Slow food enthusiasts are almost, by definition, sworn enemies of economies of scale. But in recent months, initiatives have emerged to focus on increasing the supply chain and funding food entrepreneurs.
The goal is to disrupt the existing pipeline, thus helping Americans eat healthier and make agricultural practices less environmentally damaging. We talked to startups and experts and identified four ways to grease the wheels of industry with locally-sourced, free-range lard:
1. A Million Small Business Plans. “Most of the businesses pitching at our conference aren’t ready for prime time,” says Jim Slama, CEO of Good Food Business Accelerator (GFBA), the country’s first accelerator program focused solely on sustainable, local food. “They don’t have a great business plan or a polished pitch. There are 2,000 accelerators worldwide, mostly in the tech space, but less than 10 in the food space. Looking at that, we said maybe we should create an accelerator focused on getting these businesses ready.”
2. A Network Connecting Them. GFBA is launching a six-month program where it will select eight fellows to join the accelerator, providing them with strategic support, mentorship and connections to investors. GFBA has the backing of several heavyweights: strategic partners include Whole Foods and United Natural Foods, Inc., the country’s largest natural and organic distributor. The funding numbers are community garden-sized: The USDA and the U.S. Small Business Administration have contributed a combined $150,000, and Food: Land: Opportunity, a local sustainable food initiative, also has contributed $125,000.
“There are all these entrepreneurs that are bubbling up and there are a lot of technical assistance providers to help them to do their jobs better,” said Sarah Knobloch, a senior program associate at the Kinship Foundation, which supports Food: Land: Opportunity. “That’s necessary, but not sufficient. You need an intermediary that connects the capital to deals.”
3. A Plan Built Around Existing Local Operations. GFBA, which will be headquartered at Chicago tech incubator 1871, will focus on nascent businesses that source their products within the Chicago food shed—areas in and around the city that produce local food. Several investors already have contacted Slama about getting involved with the accelerator, he says.
4. A Way To Empower the Yuppie Consumers Who Want to Help. “There’s a lot of money, smart money, that wants into this space,” Slama says. “There are funds popping up that want to put major dollars into good food.”
One of them is Barnraiser, a new crowdfunding platform that hopes to raise $1 billion for sustainable food projects. Its CEO is Eileen Gordon Chiarello, an entrepreneur who grew up in a farming family and who is married to famed chef Michael Chiarello. Chiarello says Barnraiser already has raised six figures for its sustainable food projects, such as an effort to build a mobile poultry processing unit at a Washington farm and an initiative by immigrant farmers to transform food deserts into sustainable food sources.
“The number one thing we have to do in America is grow the size of the market,” Chiarello says. “What this does is gives consumers a more direct way to accelerate that change.”