What have we learned about the entrepreneurial journey within the local food movement?
As a founder and advisor of multiple businesses in the local food & agriculture space, I’m still constantly amazed at the rate of innovation and entrepreneurship that’s occurring on a global scale.
So for this year’s AgLanta Conference, our 3rd annual gathering in Atlanta of urban farming leaders from around the world, we decided to spotlight the entrepreneurial journey within this space.
What unique hurdles do urban farming and local food entrepreneurs face? What can we learn from their successes, from their challenges, and from their failures? How do other key stakeholders perceive this movement? What opportunities still exist for new entrants? And what will we find if we peel back the sexiness of local food to ask more challenging questions?
Below are five major takeaways from #AgLanta2019, drawing on some of the innovative examples represented by our ambitious speakers.
1. Storytelling is key to the success of any innovative agriculture business.
At Agritecture, we constantly advise our clients that developing an authentic brand story is a major predictor of future success. What distinguishes your operation, your product, or your service from others? How can you best convey that to your specific audience? I always tell my clients we need to “create a new product” that leverages our unique value to stand out from the competition.
Leigh-Kathryn Bonner of Bee Downtown, Chris Veillon of Pure Flavor, Jordan Czeizler of Handsome Brook Farm, and Darryn Keiller of Autogrow spoke on our panel covering growth. Today, their respective stories are well-received by partners and customers, but all faced their fair share of learning moments and iterations when it came to effectively communicating their brand identity. Storytelling became so critical to Bee Downtown’s progress, Leigh-Kathryn has an entire TEDx Talk built around the topic.
“Tell your story all day long,” recommended Bruce Rasa, who founded AgVoice in 2015 to aid farmers and ranchers in recording data hands-free via voice technology. The more you tell it, the more chances you have to gather data points that will guide you to the best manifestation of that narrative.
2. Properly evaluating sales channels is crucially important for small producers.
It’s not just about nailing the right story or message, but also about getting that message in front of the right people. “If you’re communicating to the wrong audience, your message often falls on deaf ears,” Elliot Roth, founder of LA-based Spira Inc., pointed out.
As urban agriculture consultants, we’ve seen this happen all too often with new entrepreneurs who have not fully examined the nuances of various sales channels, investing themselves too quickly in one specific strategy they’re most familiar with. “Every experience is unique; every market is local,” advised Emma Cosgrove, a former industry consultant who now reports for Supply Chain Dive. Therefore, she recommended, “Evaluate every opportunity on its own merits…and never put all your eggs in one basket.”
Johnna Hepner of PMA highlighted the steps that some large buyers are now taking to accommodate local producers, such as credits for farm audits to ensure that these smaller growers are not getting left behind when it comes to food safety standards. Brian Berry of Delta Air Lines and Kristin Sherman of Whole Foods provided first-hand accounts of local producers who were able to land these sought-after accounts. Sherman’s advice: it’s the little things. Having a plan to scale is good, but consider your ability to make accurate sales forecasts and maintain compliance standards, too.
3. If we want to solve issues regarding food access and waste, it’s about creating distribution solutions as much as anything else.
Local food production is exciting for a number of reasons, but it won’t solve all of our challenges. As Andrew Carter, co-founder and CEO of Smallhold, pointed out, “Urban agriculture is just one tool in the toolbox needed to feed the world.” That’s why innovation in parallel fields is so important as well.
Working as a hydroponic grower and consultant (our first hire at Agritecture!), Andrew realized that sales and distribution were still major challenges, even for many urban farms. His solution? Eliminate the need for distribution altogether. Today, Smallhold manufactures and installs controlled environment chambers that grow fresh, gourmet mushrooms on-site for restaurants and grocery stores. [Transparency note: I serve as an advisor to Smallhold].
Jasmine Crowe is the founder and CEO of Goodr, a food waste management startup taking another approach to the persistent imbalance between excess food amongst food businesses and lack of access within certain communities. “Hunger is not a matter of scarcity, it’s a matter of logistics,” she shared on stage. With that in mind, Crowe and team built a data analytics platform empowering food businesses to redirect their surplus, earn tax savings from their donations, and share their impact with the world. She hopes to have the platform running in 20 cities by next year.
Evan Lutz sees the issue in a similar way. Hungry Harvest, born in a dormitory at Lutz’s alma mater, the University of Maryland, reroutes ugly produce destined for landfill into the hands of consumers. With plenty of grit, and aided by a healthy dose of recent press shedding light on the topic, Hungry Harvest has grown its customer base to over 40,000 people across nine states. Rethinking the supply chain also pushed Lutz and team to rethink points of access for consumers. The company now partners with local schools and community centers to set up weekly markets where SNAP and EBT are accepted.
4. Startups are not the only ones causing disruption.
Speakers Liza Milagro, James Coffman, and Stan Vangilder reminded the audience not to write off collaborations with the right corporate partners as a way to create scalable impact.
Milagro is the Resilience & Sustainability Manager at Hartsfield-Jackson International — the busiest airport in the world. Because of their size & authority, operational capacity, and ability to connect so many different actors at once, Milagro believes that airports have a unique opportunity to be part of the paradigm shift away from an extractive, wasteful food system. By implementing aggressive zero waste policies and sustainable procurement strategies — and with even more ambitious plans in the works — Milagro wants to make “sustainability sexy” and to see Hartsfield-Jackson regarded as “the greenest airport in the world.”
Coffman, Director of Tower Farms, echoed some of Milagro’s key points. With partners including NASA and Google, Tower Farms has created a model for corporate allies to amplify their impact and scale local food production on a national level. And in an environment where innovation is increasingly built with its effect on the end consumer in mind, Tower Farms’ mission — to “enable farmers to make a difference while making a living” — stands out.
Stan Vangilder is a Program Manager at the Energy Innovation Center with Southern Company. He presented independent research, with data corroborated by Southern Company, detailing the huge opportunity for vertical farming companies to work with utilities and regulators to lower their operating costs by smoothing the energy load curve. The best part: in doing so, these operations can offtake energy from more renewable sources.
At Agritecture, we see this type of entrepreneurship often. Many of our clients, in fact, represent larger organizations. They’re investment officers, procurement managers, innovation leaders or sustainability directors. The string that ties them all together? An innovative spirit and a willingness to embrace change. I like to view them as internal entrepreneurs-in-residence who can be the key to driving more sustainability through the massive reach of their organizations.
5. Finally, we’ll continue to do the movement a disservice by discussing these topics without also shedding light upon the racial and gender inequities that are still too prevalent in agriculture.
Abiodun Henderson of The Come Up Project, speaking on Urban Ag as an Education Mechanism, recounted the legacies of slavery and black labor that built the industrial agricultural system that feeds America today. She detailed the ways in which racial discrimination has created systemic barriers for black farmers to acquire land and find careers in agriculture, reminding everyone at AgLanta that we have a collective responsibility to empower farmers of color and educate ourselves about this history.
As just the 35th woman of color to secure $1M+ in venture funding, Jasmine Crowe believes that her experience as an entrepreneur was also impacted by systemic biases. Crowe spoke with optimism, though, with regards to the progressive attitudes shared by many millennial consumers and investors. “When millennials control more of the dollar,” Crowe said, “that’s when there will be a tipping point.”
Off stage, attendees highlighted the impact of hearing from a diverse set of players in this space as a major plus. Attending his first AgLanta Conference, George Carter shared that “after nearly 5 years in sustainable agriculture, this was the first time I felt like I belonged.”Some brought up the importance of seeing black-owned family farms; others noted that the range of approaches and perspectives created a more honest and balanced conversation throughout both days.
So what have we learned about the entrepreneurial journey in this growing industry?
The creation of an effective, resilient, local food system is highly ambitious. It’s combative. It’s rapidly evolving. It’s wrapped up in solving specific problems and creating measurable impact. And those showing up to contribute to the conversation mirror these traits.
Supporters of this movement don’t hold back — and it’s a fact that we love. AgLanta participants valued the effort put into driving honest conversation first and foremost, and they wanted even more. Some attendees pushed us as organizers to bring up the topic of race, diversity, and power dynamics more directly on certain panels. Others requested more time for conversations with potential partners through focused breakout sessions next year. Newcomers and emerging entrepreneurs alike want to hear about real stories and real challenges — not be inundated with another sales pitch.
The AgLanta Conference is certainly about spotlighting and celebrating successes in the local food system. But it’s become just as much a platform for honest dialogue within this space, too. And given that, I challenge us all to continue pushing, continue critiquing, and continue evolving. Complacency is the enemy of progress.
Do you want to create unique local agriculture experiences? Contact us here.