Every year, venture capitalists invest billions of dollars in the ideas of young entrepreneurs. Twenty-something graduates of Silicon Valley launch their tech startups with enviable capital and the resources that come with it.
Meanwhile, in America’s Heartland, a growing number of young people are bringing the same passion, energy, and innovation to the difficult task of launching a family farm or food production business. But unlike their counterparts in California, these entrepreneurs are starting out with little more than a meager savings account or perhaps a credit card. And they tend to know a lot more about planning a bed of spinach than planning a five-year business strategy. It can be a lonely and difficult journey.
One program is attempting to tip the scales—however modestly—in the favor of beginning farmers and food producers. The Good Food Business Accelerator (GFBA), launched in 2014 by the nonprofit organization FamilyFarmed, connects farm and food entrepreneurs with investors, advisors, and ultimately, consumers.
The competitive program, which serves the Chicago foodshed*, selects applicants with a track record in the food industry and commitment to what FamilyFarmed calls simply “good food”—local, sustainable, and organic. The initial program focuses on an intensive advisory process designed to provide the skills and polish required for a business that is investor-ready.
When it comes to those investors, GFBA has cultivated a network of mentors and advisors, including relationships with the likes of Whole Foods, Chipotle, SYSCO, and myriad Chicago-area restaurants, supermarkets, and other food companies.
The business accelerator program is only one of a handful of initiatives spearheaded by FamilyFarmed. Based in Oak Park, Illinois, FamilyFarmed began two decades ago as an activist group, the off-shoot of a local initiative to shut down a polluting incinerator. From those roots, the organization has grown into a multifaceted advocacy group focused on “good food.”
Perhaps the group’s signature achievement is the Good Food Festival and Conference, which was launched by founder Jim Slama in 2004, and has become the nation’s oldest and largest trade show devoted to local, sustainable, and organic foods. Over the years, it has expanded upon the trade show and added a festival aimed at also engaging and educating families and individuals on their role alongside farmers and retailers in the good food movement.
The group also supports a half-dozen programs, each with an innovative approach to the issues facing local, sustainable food production. For instance, the organization has been a leader in expanding institutional outlets for small-scale farmers. The vast majority of our food, after all, is purchased not at a farm market or off the farm, but in an institutional setting. And—ipso facto—institutional sellers operate on an institutional economic scale, usually off-limits to small-scale sustainable agriculture. FamilyFarmed helps farmers learn what they need to do in order to sell to wholesale markets, and also educates buyers and connects them with the resources they need to thrive.
At the end of the day, what sets FamilyFarmed apart from many similar groups is the eminently practical approach they take to incrementally improving the chances for all of us to experience the benefits of a “good food movement,” benefits that extend from individual health to the health of the world’s ecosystems.
* Similar to a watershed, a “foodshed” is a geographic region over which food “flows” to reach a particular population, encompassing where it is grown, the routes it travels, and the stores it passes through to reach a person’s plate.
Organic Valley has always been dedicated to saving family farms and is happy to support FamilyFarmed in their efforts to support organic family farms.