Sustainability Visionary Anya Fernald Speaks About Small Farming Success Models

Here is the transcript of the extended conversation. Our News Director, Lorraine Dechter, talked with Anya Fernald, keynote speaker at this week’s This Way to Sustainability Conference on the Chico State Campus.The students putting on this conference were most excited about meeting Fernald, who started the California Buy Fresh/Buy Local campaign; the Slow Food Nation festival; started the Food Craft Institute in Oakland; and is an owner of Belcampo, the organic meat business that sells through their own restaurants and butcher shops. They are open in Marin and will open five more stores this year in Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto and San Francisco.


FERNALD: “I’ve been to Chico a couple of times. I love the local food scene there. It’s an interesting example to me of a smaller, more rural community that’s got a vibrant ,local food scene. And, of course, the interesting thing about being in a community where a lot of people are considering agriculture as a career, it’s a great opportunity to make a difference. So I love to go and speak to communities with universities in places like the whole program in education, and the mayor is geared toward agriculture, and a lot of people are going to be pursuing agricultural careers. So I love to get a chance to share my story and approach and thoughts with that kind of community.”

DECHTER: “We have such agriculture here, as you say. Almonds, rice, walnuts – just for some of the crops. And I’m wondering, you have so much experience in really inspiring success for small scale food producers. I wondered if you have any stories you could tell us that would be inspirational to us in Northern California maybe involving some of the same ingredients we have.”

FERNALD: “One of the great stories that I have is about a region in Bosnia that I worked in which produced a stone fruit – a plum – and made a jam from that. And it wasn’t a particularly unique product. It was made around Bosnia in lots of different communities. But this fruit managed to really differentiate their product based on the origin and the story of the woman who made it. And by telling their story they were getting 4-5x standard price and were beginning to export around the rest of the European Union because of it. So to me the chance to put a big multiplier on your base product value. Even if it’s not necessarily that distinctive product in terms of how it’s made and produced, if you’re able to really extract the unique element of the story out there and explain what it is that makes it a unique product. Because every product is unique. So maybe it seems like its the same thing everywhere, but actually each one has some story, and they’re each going to resonate with different people. So if you can find a way to tease out that story, and build it up, and have an authentic differentiation, you’re able to get oftentimes a multiplier of 4-5 plus on your general pricing.”

DECHTER: “What kind of inspiring stories would people be looking for – if they’re not really used to doing that in their business day?”

FERNALD: “For me, one story is about individual struggle. You know people who have overcome challenges to be able to pursue a dream. In this case in Bosnia it was, of course they had a war, and it was of a woman who had been through that and triumphed etc. So that’s a particularly dramatic story, but the human story is really important.

I think another element is family. You know, of course, families that are being sustained by farms and doing things in the right way and being committed to a legacy of sustainability or a commitment to a piece of land. I think that when customers are understanding that it’s multi-generational, that there’s a mentality from the farm owners to think about their grandkids and great-grandkids living on and thriving in the farm environment. They understand the vested interest that that farmer has in producing things in a quality way.”

DECHTER: “Now you’ve been involved with the micro-invest programs and I’m curious if farmers are looking at the possibilities of putting out their small-scale artisan food products. What kind of access do they have for funding for these operations on these small farms?”

FERNALD: “There’s not much in the way of micro-investment in the U.S. right now that I think’s at a useful scale for small farmer.s I think you see a lot of micro micro grants, like $2000 to $15,000 which maybe will help with a business plan or something but isn’t going to really launch a business. That’s one big focus that I have now is to launch an angel investment fund – focus on value-added products. I think, though, that part of the challenge has been that there are very few documented business cases in the U.S. People who’ve done it – they don’t have any motivation to share their financial story with other farmers. In fact there’s probably a disincentive from their perspective. So I’m looking with our non-profit Food Craft Institute, to actually create a group of studies of small scale food enterprises, how they work, the math, how long until they become profitable. All of that stuff. Really trying to build a generic business plan essentially for lots of different sectors of value-added products so that a farmer who’s considering a jam business could look at the P&L for 3 or 4 small scale artisan jam businesses and say, this is something I can tackle or I can’t. Here’s the number of years that typically it takes before a business starts a cash flow in this space. Here’s the amount of start-up investments that other businesses in states have received so they can actually see if it’s realistic to them.

Another challenge I think with micro-investment is we’ve gone with… America… our system has, we’ve gone with a one size fits all. We’ve chosen the agro-industrial path at a broad cultural level. We’ve chosen to produce cheap food in America. So what does that mean for small scale farmers? It’s basically the system has chosen to not work to support a paradigm where they’re going to thrive. And the system is about them being pushed more and more to the margins because they’re unable to have the same efficiencies that large farmers can have. So I also really think that bold stories and bold steps by small scale farmers is the only way. You’re trying to get in and be a medium sized player in a big player world is just a fast path to slowly burning through money and never being able to compete and be efficient. So if you are in that medium or small scale, I say pursue the unique varietal. Pursue the heritage plants. Get out there and find that unique flavor and build a story about how it fits in with your ecosystem, with your lifestyle. Find that narrative, but don’t be afraid of embracing the really, kind of oddball, small scale product because essentially that’s a differentiation that you can claim that none of the bigger producers can take away from you because it’s simply not in their wheelhouse to be able to produce that kind of product.”

DECHTER: “And what kind of programs inspire you that you’ve been involved with in other places besides the United States that have successful micro-investment?”

FERNALD: “The program that I ran in Italy for slow foods was great. We increased, in Italy, businesses by sort of crazy numbers, like 800-900% within the first three years in an international program that would typically double in gross revenue within three years. Those were micro-investments of on average $15,000 that were mostly focused on marketing. But you know we were working in a context where there was a whole rural infrastructure of food production and in America we don’t have that rural infrastructure of food production anymore. We don’t have small scale co-packers who can do a long maceration on an amazing plum jam for our small scale farmers who have amazing plums. We don’t have the co-packers and the producers and the whole infrastructure around farming that makes it easy to develop these types of high quality value-added products. So what does that mean? It doesn’t mean it can’t be done. It just means that instead of needing to just spend money on marketing and concepts you actually have to build a jam-making plant. You have to put in a commercial kitchen. You’ve got to kit out an existing Grange kitchen and make it work. So the infrastructure dollars are much, much higher. So I think that’s one really big challenge.

I also think, in terms of why we don’t see the same types of programs here in the U.S., working with small amounts of money, that I’ve seen work in other countries … I also think that the narrative of the small scale farm has been taken by large industry – and sometimes I see that small scale farms almost want to pretend to be big because that’s the game that they’re playing. So I think there’s also been a challenge in terms of what’s the voice for the small scale farmer who wants to be evaluated by a differentiated product. How do they claim that knowledge of taste? How do they claim that narrative of the family farm? And that’s a very delicate thing that requires a marketing talent, of course, but also an ability to spend time thinking about marketing and spend time thinking about your story. And frankly most of these small farmers just don’t have time. They just don’t have the bandwidth to spend two days sitting days and running down ideas around their and values and their platform and what differentiates them. So those are the kinds of issues I’ve seen in adoption of the micro-investment model on a very small scale here in the U.S.”

DECHTER: “So how did you gain this experience to be able to consult on these types of projects?

FERNALD: “I worked doing micro-investments for five years in Italy. The products that I managed were in 35 countries. About 70 products total. Everywhere from Bosnia, which I mentioned, to Sweden, to Ecuador, to Poland – working with small scale groups of producers figuring out marketing and infrastructure challenges. Then I came back to the U.S. I worked with a great organization based in Davis called the Community Alliance of Family Farmers – CAFF. I directed the statewide Farm-to-School program for CAFF, and the California Buy Fresh/Buy Local Campaign. We started that. Then I ran Slow Food Nation, which was a big festival in 2008. And from there I started a consulting business. I consulted for about 2 ½ – 3 years. I love to do things. I’m not as much somebody who likes to advise on things. And so I really enjoyed consulting but I wanted to find what I was going to do. So I started BelCampo with an investor behind my company in 2011. He was basically a client of my consulting company that then, we co-founded the company once I developed the concept and the plan for him.”

DECHTER: “And what kinds of foods are available through BelCampo?”

FERNALD: “We produce all organic and Animal Welfare Association approved meats. We have 12 species from beef through to quail. We sell them all in our own restaurants and butcher shops. We have one in Marin and I’m opening five more by the middle of this coming year in Santa Monica, downtown Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Palo Alto and San Francisco.”

DECHTER: “Just one more question, about the Food Craft Institute. I understand that’s a non-profit and you’re the board chair and you helped found this organization. How would the Food Craft Institute be a resource for people in Northern California?”

FERNALD: “Its a huge resource. We’re basically writing the book on how to advise and develop a small scale food business. So what we’re doing with Food Craft Institute are intensive three month long courses in the actual food safety requirements; government regulation adherence; the craft of making the food, how to make the jam; how to butcher animals; how to make coffee; how to roast coffee beans; how to brew beer; so those kind of actual practical skills. And we have a component of the course which is focused on the business skills. So we actually have our students work one-on-one with business advisors and begin to draft their business plan. So the Food Craft Institute offers basically kind of business-intensives to launch your business in specific sectors. Brewing, beer brewing, coffee making. We’ve got butchery coming up this spring. We’ve done courses on sauces and jams and fruit preserves. And then in addition to that we do these four day long business intensives which are again really focused time with experience people who have run and launched and raised money for their own food businesses who advise start-up entrepreneurs.”

DECHTER: “Can you attend virtually, or do you have to go to a certain campus somewhere to obtain this kind of knowledge?”

FERNALD: “The classes have two formats, and they’re both face-to-face, unfortunately. One type of class if our two week intensive which is an off-site basically. So we’ve had students from all across the U.S. come to those. We include hotel stays as part of the tuition. You basically do an condensed, intensive version based here out of our Oakland classroom. And also these courses do include visits to practitioners, to existing food businesses. So typically every food craft course you visit between 6 and 8 businesses doing what you are intending to do as a food business, and talk to people who are actually doing it. The other format that we have is once a week. It’s a Saturday or a Sunday, full day. And that’s the three month course. For someone living in Chico, its definitely doable in terms of getting a place to stay in the Bay Area and coming down on a Friday night and leaving Saturday night. A wonderful amount of driving, but its doable. We’ve had people coming from as far away as Fresno coming into those weekly course. So we don’t have a virtual format yet. I’m not 100% down with doing that in the future simply because I like the hand-to-hand face-to-face connection of artisan and it can’t be always supplanted by interaction online. A lot of what we’re trying to do in rebuilding the artisan quality food movement is relearn the ways of doing things that are grandparents knew how, intuitively, and part of that means going back to older fashioned methods of communication.

It’s Every month we have a different course launching. The classes have, in the first 18 months of operation we launched I believe a total of 45 new food businesses through the program. So people come out of it ready to go. And the great thing too is that a lot of people do the course, they talk to a lot of food businesses, they see the numbers, they get a chance to really think about what it’s going to mean for them and talk to people who are doing it, and they say, “This is totally not for me,” which is another good outcome. Instead of heading into something not understanding what it takes to start up a small business and the amount of comfort that you have to have with risk. They decide that its not for them and they get a job with an existing food business. We have a great track record with that as well, placing graduates in existing food businesses.”

DECHTER: “Is there anything you’d like to add?”

FERNALD: “I’m really excited to come to Chico and looking forward to meeting all the folks who are coming to the talks and the presentations. I say there’s not much rural infrastructure left, but in places like Chico there still is. It’s like development hasn’t happened that quickly. I think that there’s an opportunity to repurpose, rethink and rebuild that infrastructure that we need.”

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