Edible-Alpha® is your source for actionable insights into making money in food. Hosted by Tera Johnson, we talk to a wide range of stakeholders about what it really takes to grow a successful food business. Learn more at www.edible-alpha.org
Impact Investing Fosters Organic Farmland Security
Tera’s second Edible-Alpha® Live! famous founder interview featured David Miller, co-founder and CEO of Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT. Founded in 2007, this innovative finance company provides secure land access to organic and regenerative farmers through long-term leases and mortgages.
To kick off the conversation, David delved into the genesis of the company. After a 30-year career in banking and real estate financial management, he had purchased a family farm he wanted to transition to organic, doing his part to change the “dead-soil monoculture” of the Midwest and benefit the environment and human health. Simultaneously, he and longtime friend Dr. Steven Rivard had been discussing the dearth of solid investment opportunities and came up with an idea: What if they could connect mission-driven investors with organic farmers, who struggle with land security and whose needs often go unmet by traditional financing?
Many people thought they were crazy for asking investors to sink money into a long-term proposition with no option to exit. But as David explained, that structure was necessary to secure sustainable leases and garner farmers’ trust. Soon, enough investors had seen the value in supporting small to midsize organic farms to get Iroquois Valley off the ground. This was impact investing long before that term was used.
David described how the company has evolved over 14 years to meet the financial needs of farmers. Iroquois Valley became a Certified B Corporation and, three years ago, a Public Benefit Corporation, which allows everyday people, not just accredited investors, to invest. The company also added a redemption mechanism for investors and mortgages and operating lines of credit for farmers.
Iroquois Valley increasingly collaborates with other credit providers, nonprofits and other entities to broaden impact. Lately, they’ve begun planting trees on farms, helping to build investment cases for silvopasture, permaculture and other regenerative agriculture practices that don’t easily attract conventional financing. The company also recently purchased its own farm, Rock Creek Farm south of Chicago, for research, collaboration and demonstration.
Although Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT has already done a ton to foster the next generation of organic and regenerative farmers, David and company are nowhere near finished. They are continually buying more conventional farmland to convert and working to scale up these sustainable systems for the good of people and the planet.
Tune in to Tera’s full interview with David, as well her chats with other famous founders from Edible-Alpha® Live!
Gary Zimmer Shares How Healthy Soil Yields Success
Among the highlights of the inaugural Edible-Alpha® Live! event, held online December 9, Tera interviewed agriculture pioneer Gary Zimmer and his daughter Leilani Zimmer Durand. As the founder of Madison, Wisconsin-based Midwestern BioAg, Gary is considered the father of “biological farming”—essentially the first iteration of regenerative agriculture—which focuses on balancing soil biology, chemistry and structure to produce greater, higher-quality yields.
When Gary started the company in 1983, his approach was virtually unheard of in the U.S. Convincing organic dairy farmers that the ticket to more efficiency and profitability was improving their soil required a lot of education. But as Midwestern BioAg’s processes and nutrient-rich and carbon-based fertilizers got great results, the company grew steadily, expanding beyond just dairy farms and beyond Wisconsin. Gary and Leilani also wrote the book on biological farming—literally—which helped spread his philosophy and practices around the world.
Still, investors weren’t lining up to jump in. Gary bootstrapped the endeavor, including establishing the fertilizer processing arm, landing no outside capital and getting by on debt financing. And when he couldn’t convince university researchers to help him test his innovations, he established his own organic, 100% grass-fed dairy farm for in-house R&D and demos.
Today, the company continues to thrive, and Gary now works with some of the world’s largest farms, both organic and conventional, on incorporating biological farming. He also has his hand in many tangential projects, including processing ventures, a new consulting business with Leilani and an initiative to revitalize rye as a vital soil-regeneration crop. He’s also thinking about succession plans if ever he opts to slow down.
Next, Tera asked Gary and Leilani what’s next for regenerative agriculture. This led to a great discussion on what the term truly means, its potential benefits for the planet, the role big food companies can play, how Big Ag needs to evolve, and how eco-minded consumers are a driving force for change. They also discussed the challenges and opportunities for food and farm entrepreneurs today and the need for more impact investment to further these endeavors. Visit the Edible-Alpha® YouTube channel to watch the extended Video Podcast that includes audience Q&A!
Scaling Managed Dairy Grazing for Max Impact
Tera talks with Joe Tomandl of Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship about the massive potential for managed grazing to promote farm succession, help mitigate climate change, localize food systems and revive rural communities.
Urban Ag Venture Blends Business and Social Mission
In Edible-Alpha® podcast #78, Tera is joined by Mark and Judy Thomas, co-founders of Garfield Produce Co., an indoor vertical farm and wholesale food operation in Chicago. The “failed retirees” started this for-profit business/social enterprise in 2014 to provide job opportunities for people with employment barriers.
Following successful careers—Mark as a newspaper production leader, Judy as a corporate lawyer—the Thomases volunteered at a food bank and shelter in East Garfield Park, one of Chicago’s roughest areas. Through their service, they learned that many in this neighborhood struggled to find jobs nearby, especially men who’d been incarcerated. Mark had been wanting to start a business, so they decided to launch an urban hydroponic farm right in this neighborhood, hoping it could open doors for people recently out of prison and ready to build a better life.
Given their social mission, the Thomases could’ve gone the nonprofit route. Instead, they tapped into their business and accounting acumen and made Garfield Produce a for-profit venture. As Mark explained, this ensured a focus on revenue, expenses, bottom line and careful growth and would allow them to share equity with employees if the business proved successful. Tera commended their approach, noting that many urban agriculture entrepreneurs, while well intended, grapple with the business side and don’t end up making it.
After constructing a food-safe climate-controlled grow room with the help of grants, Mark and Judy determined that microgreens made the most sense to grow. As specialty products, microgreens command a much higher price than commodity produce and appeal to high-end chefs looking for consistent, top-quality supplies.
The Thomases’ business plan, including their focus on the foodservice channel, worked wonderfully. Garfield Produce amassed a large clientele while providing great job opportunities locally. By the beginning of 2020, the company was finally in the black.
Then came COVID-19. When Illinois’s governor ordered all restaurants to close in March, Garfield Produce’s sales sank 95% overnight. Fortunately, the company received government grants and loans and was selected for the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program, all of which kept the business alive through the fall. Now, as the pandemic persists and restaurants remain closed or at limited capacity, the company is building up its e-commerce and retail channels to reach more consumers and exploring growing baby greens to appeal to a wider audience.
Through it all, Garfield Produce has maintained what Mark called “the best, most self-directed work team I’ve ever had.” That’s high praise, seeing as Mark once oversaw some 7,000 employees. The Thomases have proven that, beyond just giving ex-cons a chance, working closely with them to develop their job skills and practicing open-book management increases employee engagement and teamwork.
Mark and Judy are excellent examples of how leading with empathy and emphasizing self-empowerment can transform lives while also benefiting the bottom line.
Transparency and Trust Fuel The Honest Bison’s Rapid Online Growth
The Honest Bison founder Sean Lenihan talks with Tera about being an early e-commerce food company, connecting consumers to their food sources, offering total transparency and great value to earn trust, and how to navigate the rapidly changing food space during COVID-19 and beyond.
Lost Creek Farm Shares the Stories Behind Food
In Edible-Alpha® podcast #76, Tera talks with Mike Costello and Amy Dawson, owners of Lost Creek Farm in Lost Creek, West Virginia. Although Mike officially holds the titles of chef and farmer while Amy is farm manager and baker, the duo does everything in tandem, from restoring the long-vacated family farmstead to sharing the rich cultural heritage of their Appalachian-inspired farm-to-table cuisine.
Both Mike and Amy grew up on farms in West Virginia, but neither started their career in food. Mike initially wanted to be a chef but headed to journalism school instead, which taught him the value of place and storytelling. Amy earned a law degree. Eventually, their interests in food and farming were reignited, and when the opportunity arose in 2013 to purchase the property and reconstruct the farmhouse Amy’s great-great grandfather built in the 1880s, they jumped on it.
So began a long, challenging but highly rewarding journey. For two years, Mike and Amy rented an apartment nearby while restoring the farmhouse and doing popup dinners and guest chef nights. They marketed their business as Lost Creek Farm from the start, knowing they’d eventually host formal dinners on the farm featuring ingredients grown and foraged onsite.
Once their farm-to-table dinners got going, they went all in on elevating the unique ingredients, recipes and culinary traditions of Appalachia. Along with growing heirloom beans, corn, squash and other vegetables from seeds passed down for generations, their efforts include lots of historical research and collecting oral histories. Because to Mike and Amy, the stories behind ingredients and dishes, which illustrate people’s connection to place, are just as important as flavor. This is especially true given the widespread misconceptions about what Appalachian cuisine actually entails.
As the years have gone by, Mike and Amy have built a solid business, attracting guests from all over the country to their farm-to-table dinners. The late Anthony Bourdain and his crew even spent a day dining, swapping stories and filming with them to be featured in one the final episodes of his TV show.
But Lost Creek Farm also attracts a fair number of locals familiar with common Appalachian food narratives of shame and desperation. West Virginia's culinary traditions were largely born of necessity––that is, food people ate not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Rather than defining food by the shame of hard times, Lost Creek Farm offers proud narratives about innovative cooks who created complex, healthy dishes with extremely limited resources. Through culinary storytelling, Mike and Amy strive to change the way West Virginians see food as a source of place-based identity.
Although they were geared up for a bustling 2020, COVID-19 forced Lost Creek Farm to cancel all dinners and other events for the year. Mike and Amy have stayed plenty busy, though, developing their education curriculum, planning the buildout of their commercial kitchen and classroom, and producing a long-form-narrative podcast, The Pickle Shelf Radio Hour.
Lost Creek Farm’s success has proven that people are hungry for authentic, local experiences, flavors and culture. If anything, the pandemic has increased their appetite, which should bode well for this unique multifaceted business.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Great for all types of food businesses
I've been an advice listener to Edible-Alpha for over 2 years and look forward to each podcast. The information Terra shares and her guests is insightful, valuable and I'm always learning. While based in Wisconsin and sometimes focused for that region you will always here information you can put in place or share with others.
Love the focus on the entrepreneurs who are changing the ecosystem!
Food Entrepreneur Must Listen
This is an excellent podcast for food entrepreneurs: part inspiration, part nuts and bolts, part strategy. I eagerly await every new episode because I know I'll learn something. Too often entrepreneurial podcasts are done by celebrity hosts that don't really know what questions to ask (think How I Built This) or former venture capitalists who say ridiculous things like "you have to have the very best people in every position" (think Masters of Scale). Tera's podcast is awesome because she's built an incredibly successful food business of her own, she's done a tremendous amount of food entrepreneur consulting, and she knows that most of us out here have a passion for our product, and we're just trying to figure it all out with the skillset and budget we have. She's trying to help us where the rubber meets the road to help us get traction in growing our business. Awesome!