Food & Agriculture

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Malama Kaua’i’s Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training Program

October 16, 2014

by Ellie Lanphier

In May, the first Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training program was launched at Malama Kaua’i, a community-based organization that focuses on advocating, educating, and driving action towards a sustainable Kaua’i. Funded in part by an RSF Seed Fund grant, the program provides free job literacy training for Kauai’s young adults interested in green careers. Malama Kaua’i hopes to serve their community by creating economic opportunity for graduates, promoting environmental stewardship within the community, and enhancing the growth and success of Kauai’s green organizations and businesses.

Malama Kaua'i

The 10-week Green Careers Training program includes 60 classroom hours focusing on environmental and career development education, combined with a 100-hour internship with one of Kauai’s green or sustainability-focused organizations and businesses. Students gain environmental literacy, academic skills, leadership abilities, career development knowledge, and practical hands-on training. The course covers environmental topics such as water, waste, transportation, energy, green building, health, and food and agriculture, as well as community organizing and social entrepreneurship. Career development topics include self-assessment and career planning, resume writing, interview preparation, networking, and portfolio development. The 2014 class enjoyed guest speakers such as Dr. Carl Berg from the Surfrider Foundation and M?lama Hul?‘ia, and Ben Sullivan, Energy Coordinator for the County of Kauai Office of Economic Development.

Malama Kauai’s Director of Operations, Megan Fox, reported gladly that in their launch year they actually had more internship site invitations than students to fill the internships! Fox sees this as a promising sign for the demand for entry level talent in green industries. This year, students completed 100 hour internships at Anuenue Farms, Eddie Jo Organics, National Tropical Botanical Garden, Waipa Foundation, Kauai Community Recycling, Nani Moon Meadery, Kauai Nature School, ReStore Kauai, Kauai Juice Co., Malama Hule‘ia, and D.A. Solar.

An additional requirement of the program is completion of a business or community project which students are required to pitch to a panel of community leaders. Fox reports that some students took it a step further and actually launched their businesses:

H2O PonoH20 Pono

Nadia Kaley, 28, of Kapaa launched H20 Pono, a water conservation and water catchment business that provides both education and installation services. During the program, Nadia and fellow classmate Stormy Soza received WET Teachers Certificates from the Department of Water for water conservation education. They also gained hands-on conservation experience interning at National Tropical Botanical Garden. They will be launching their first community workshop soon.

Ho'okahe WailanaHo’okahe Wailana

Kaui Fu, 28, of Kilauea, and Shawna Blackford, 20, of Lihue, won the Green Pitch Night competition with their river stewardship community project, a partnership with Hawaiian Civic Club and Hanalei Canoe Club. Their project focuses on trimming and clearing the Hanalei River of excessive hau overgrowth, planting native gardens, and educating young canoe club members about native plants and ecology. They are currently fundraising for this nonprofit.

Kauai GardensKauai Gardens

Carey Tinsley, 24, of Kilauea began Kauai Gardens, a permaculture and pono landscaping company, with the ambitious goal of expanding into a full nonprofit venture focused on sustainable agriculture and healthy living. You can see Carey’s promotional video on You Tube.

RootlessYardcare & Small Engine Repair

Kanoa Nabeshima-Costa, 25, of Waimea, has launched his business that provides sustainable landscaping services focused on native plants, integrated pest management strategies, and small engine repair services.

Kauai Music ServicesKauai Music Services

Ryo Shintani, 26, of Lihue, won the “Judge’s Choice” award for his sustainable music therapy service aimed at providing services to developmentally disabled youth and seniors with cognitive disorders. This has been a long-time dream of Ryo’s since returning from Berklee College of Music after studying music therapy for two years and working as a behavioral paraprofessional on Kaua’i. Ryo performed at the groups’ graduation celebration.

Graduates will receive ongoing career services support as they create their future and shape the future of Kaua`i. The Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training program is offered free of charge to participating students by organizations and individuals who have invested in the future of Kaua`i’s economic and environmental sustainability. If you are interested in participating, you may contact Megan@MalamaKauai.org for more information.

2014 Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training Program participants

2014 Roots of Kauai Green Careers Training Program participants

 

Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate, Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

This Land is Whose Land? A Call for Agrarian Reform in the United States

October 9, 2014

This essay was originally published by Food First.

Eric-Holt-Gimenez_headshot_credit Leonor Hurtado_cropby Eric Holt-Giménez

Introduction: Land, Race, and the Agrarian Crisis

The effects of widespread land grabbing and land concentration sweeping the globe do not affect all farmers equally. The degree of vulnerability to these threats is highest for smallholders, women, and people of color—the ones who grow, harvest, process, and prepare most of the world’s food.

International market forces have invaded every aspect of economic and social life, and have introduced new layers of inequality into our food systems. The destruction of smallholder agriculture in the Global South has sent millions of rural people on perilous migrations in search of work where they often enter low-paying jobs in the food system. They are pushed to underserved neighborhoods of color where labor abuse, diet-related disease, and food insecurity are the norm.

At the same time, despite record agricultural profits, farming communities in the US heartland are steadily emptying out, reeling from unemployment and the environmental consequences of 70 years of industrial agriculture. Though surrounded by former peasant farmers (now turned farmworkers), many older farmers wonder who will farm the land when they are gone, and young, beginning and immigrant farmers find it too costly to access land.

Big farms in the US are getting bigger. Small farms are getting smaller. The same structural adjustment polices and free trade agreements that devastate the livelihoods of farmers in the Global South are steadily reshaping the agrarian landscape of the United States.

The New Agrarian Transition

The land grabs occurring in the Third World are the tip of the iceberg of a long process of capitalist reconfiguration of land and resources known as the agrarian transition. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, this meant mobilizing resources from the countryside to the city to subsidize industry with cheap food and cheap labor—largely accomplished by destroying the commons and dispossessing peasant farmers. The agrarian transition has gone through many permutations since then, but has generally kept its anti-commons and anti-smallholder thrust.

Today’s agrarian transition is about the countryside’s role in the rise of agri-food monopolies, the intensification of extractive industries, and the emerging dominance of international finance capital. A commodities boom within the industrial grain-livestock/agro-food complex coupled with a global crisis of capital accumulation (too many goods and too few buyers) have made land a hot investment offering global investors an opportunity to treat it “like gold with yield.” One result is that land is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, dispossessing millions as it swells corporate portfolios. At the very time that the equitable and sustainable use of land is imperative, we find that it has also become more scarce.

Land Dispossession in Historical Perspective

Historically, by the time land is lost, a process of political and economic restructuring has already destroyed much of the public sphere. Farmers’ room to maneuver is greatly reduced, thus giving free reign to those with market power to bring land under their control. Land is lost after civic and human rights have already been systematically trampled upon. Dispossession then takes place through a combination of coercion, power of capital, and the market.

The Green Revolution is a classic case of market-based dispossession affecting Third World and US farmers alike. This publicly-funded campaign to “feed the world” took the genetic material from traditional varieties developed over thousands of years to produce commercial hybrids. Farmers in the Global South took out credit to buy back their repackaged genetic material, as well as the fertilizers and pesticides needed to grow these crops as monocultures. The Green Revolution gained momentum in the 1970s just as US farmers were encouraged to plant “fencerow to fencerow” to save the world from hunger. The result was global overproduction, the fall of commodity prices and staggering debt in the Third World as well as in the US farm sector. As a result, millions of farmers were forced out of farming.

Land Justice Approaches: From Access to Reform

Today, family farmers are fighting to hang on to their farms and aspiring farmers are struggling to access land. Their prospects could not be worse. Unregulated market forces—in commodities and land—are both a means for dispossession and a barrier to entry. Because of the structural and historical racism in our food system, immigrants and people of color are at a particular disadvantage.

New rural and urban initiatives for farmland access, farm protection and sustainable, equitable food systems are springing up across the US. They provide hope that another food system is possible. But do they have the potential to confront the modern agrarian transition?

The movement for sustainable agricultural land trusts is gaining ground. Over 1,700 state, local, and national organizations manage 47 million acres in trusts and easements. Over 60 percent conserve agricultural land. “Farm incubators” provide training and services to help new farmers enter farming. Promising state legislative proposals seek to protect farmland from urban sprawl. Farm cooperative federations and legal services foundations in the southern US are working to protect African American farmers. Stock sharing options and ownership transfer programs are putting farmworkers in control of the land they work. Community land trusts are beginning to address urban agriculture. Many food policy councils work to make idle urban and peri-urban land available for farming. Following the Occupy movement, small land occupations are spreading. Indigenous and rural resistance to fracking and land-grabbing projects like the Keystone pipeline is growing.

Set against the powerful array of international markets, monopolies, and institutions of the agrarian transition, land trusts attempt to carve out “niches” in the global land market. However, very few work with underserved communities. While they serve as important sociopolitical and environmental leaders, ensuring equitable land access and viable rural livelihoods in the United States is beyond the scope and the pocket book of niche markets. Rather, structural changes are needed in order for these important efforts to become the norm rather than the alternative. Their future depends on agrarian reform.

The call for agrarian reform is not new in the United States. In 1973 the National Coalition for Land Reform held the First National Conference on Land Reform. Participants from Appalachia, the South, the Northern Plains, Midwest, New England and indigenous lands, as well as from the organic farming sector, the coops, the land trusts and farmworker organizations, called for land reform. These diverse actors discussed the creation of a National Land Reform Act to address poverty, privilege, and the racial and class inequities determining land distribution. They proposed a progressive land tax structure, public land banks, trusts and funding mechanisms, as well as supporting institutions for new farmers. In short, the Act demanded a set of accountable public policies and mechanisms to support all of the things that today’s land niche initiatives struggle to do privately. It is time to reignite this conversation.

Overcoming the injustices of the agrarian transition will hinge on whether or not today’s disparate efforts can move the land struggle from the global market to the public sphere and redirect capital investment to support this end. It will also depend on whether or not they can collectively address the inequities that hold the present system in place. It requires building a broad-based, national social movement for land justice—a movement that unites actors across racial and economic divides. Successful social movements are formed by integrating activism with livelihoods. This integration creates the sustained social pressure that produces political will—the key to changing the financial, governmental and market structures that presently work against the change that is so critically needed.

Eric Holt-Giménez, Ph.D. is the executive director of Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy. Eric is the author of the recent Food First book, Campesino a Campesino: Voices from Latin America’s Farmer to Farmer Movement for Sustainable Agriculture (2006). Previously, Eric served as the Latin America Program Manager for the Bank Information Center in Washington D.C. He earned a Ph.D. in Environmental Studies from the University of California –Santa Cruz. At Food First, Eric’s research and writing has concentrated on the global food crisis, the U.S. Farm Bill, the expansion of agrofuels, Fair trade, and neighborhood food systems.

RSF Fall Quarterly: Can Food Create Community?

October 8, 2014

In the latest issue of the RSF Quarterly we focus on the community building aspect of food and land. Hear from John Bloom as he explores various views of land and money, and the dynamic tension between the two. Catherine Covington gives us an update on RSF’s Local Initiative Fund which supports the growth of regional food systems and resilient local economies. In Clients in Conversation, Ethan Schaffer of Viva Farms and Rita Ordóñez of Community Action of Skagit County reflect on their experience in the Shared Gifting circle held by RSF in Skagit County, Washington and explain how they are building a sustainable, local food system. Learn about what RSF borrower Uncle Matt’s Organic is doing to revolutionize Florida’s citrus groves. And, see how you can help us find the next 25 social enterprise stars.

To download an electronic copy of the Quarterly, click here.

Fall 2014 Newsletter_COVER

RSF Makes a Loan to Madécasse

October 2, 2014

RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to Madécasse, a social enterprise that makes chocolate and vanilla products in Africa. RSF provided a line of credit that will allow Madécasse to finance their inventory purchases and assist with cash flow gaps throughout the year.

Sea-SaltMadécasse was founded in 2008 by Tim McCollum and Brett Beach. As Peace Corps volunteers in Madagascar, the pair fell in love with the country and wanted to do more to help its economy after their PCV service. Troubled by the fact that Africa supplies 70% of the world’s cocoa but less than 1% of its chocolate, they crafted a mission to create real change in Madagascar by keeping the entire chocolate production process local. Madécasse buys cocoa from local farmers and provides them with skills training and above-market wages. The company takes advantage of the full production capacities of Madagascar: From grinding and processing the cocoa, to making the chocolate, to wrapping and packaging. This creates additional jobs and helps build industries to drive sustainable economic development in one of the poorest countries in the world. By keeping all manufacturing in Madagascar, local farmers benefit four times more than they would have from the fair trade system.

Cocafa1

“Companies like Madécasse take the concept of fair trade to another level,” says Kate Danaher, Senior Lending Associate at RSF. “By turning raw materials into finished products in-country, they provide skilled jobs and economic opportunities to people that have few options.”

man picks cacao_AmbanjaMost of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa, where it is mainly grown on small plantations by farmers living in poverty. By contrast, most of the world’s chocolate is consumed in the wealthy regions of Europe and North America. Despite the high price tags on chocolate at the grocery store, most cocoa farmers only earn a small fraction of the profit. But by producing their products in Africa and sourcing all ingredients locally, Madécasse has created meaningful income for more than 200 people in Madagascar.

In addition to providing workforce training and fostering poverty alleviation and sustainable economic development, part of Madécasse’s mission is to help preserve the natural environment. Due to its unique geographic location, 85% of the plants and animals in Madagascar exist nowhere else in the world. But the pressures of extreme poverty force many Malagasy people to cut down trees for firewood and charcoal in order to survive, contributing to the loss of the country’s storied rainforests and indigenous species. Madécasse works with cocoa farmers to regenerate the shade-giving forests that shelter their cocoa trees, restoring biodiversity to the soil, flora and fauna. To date, the company has planted over 5,000 trees to help create the needed shade for cocoa to flourish.

SONY DSC

And RSF is helping Madécasse to further its mission. “Working with RSF means we can pursue our two bottom lines with ease and comfort,” says Madécasse co-founder and CEO Tim McCollum. “RSF ‘gets’ what we’re doing, and they embrace it. This loan means we can grow our business, which means we can have a bigger social impact in Madagascar.”

It couldn’t be a better fit.

About Madécasse

Founded in 2008 by former Peace Corps volunteers, Madécasse is the only company producing high quality bean-to-bar, hand-wrapped chocolate and vanilla products on the continent of Africa. Unlike traditional chocolate manufacturing which creates only minimal income for cocoa farmers, every process in the Madécasse chocolate value chain happens within the borders of Madagascar. By providing equipment and training – and producing the entire product locally – Madécasse is able to return 100% of production costs to the people of Madagascar. As a social enterprise, they measure success by the quality of their product and their social impact in Africa. www.madecasse.com

RSF Makes a Loan to Eastern Carolina Organics

September 29, 2014

RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO), a farmer and employee-owned food hub distributing fresh, seasonal, organic produce to retailers, institutions, distributors, and restaurants across North Carolina. RSF provided a line of credit through its PRI Fund that will be used to help bridge cash flows between timing of payments to farmers and sales receipts from customers.

ECO started in 2004 as a project of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and as a recipient of a $48,000 Tobacco Trust Fund Commission grant. The goal of CFSA was to support emerging organic produce and tobacco farmers while improving the supply of local organic food. In 2005, ECO became a private, grower-and-manager-owned LLC with 13 growers and 2 staff.

Stefan Hartman of Black River Organic Farm, an ECO farmer

Stefan Hartman of Black River Organic Farm, an ECO farmer

Today, ECO works with over 60 growers and 100 wholesale, retail, and institutional customers to provide an efficient and sustainable route to market for organic produce. Several of ECO’s initial farm-owners started farming under five acres of land and have grown to over 200 acres as a result of ECO opening the market, paying good prices, and providing technical assistance for organic certification. Farms with histories in conventional farming but aspirations of transitioning to organic also have a place within ECO, during and after the transition.

“It’s important to us that our business partners are mission-driven like we are and align with our core values and vision for building a sustainable food system,” says Sandi Kronick, CEO of ECO. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to partner with RSF, a leader in lending with a commitment to understanding our needs and unique business model. For example, by granting us flexible winter terms they acknowledge the unique challenges of our seasonal produce business which allows us to continue operations even when the fields are under a blanket of snow.”

Inside the ECO cooler

Inside the ECO cooler

Since ECO’s founding, Sandi has been a leader in the sustainable food movement in North Carolina. By recognizing the need for viable production and distribution networks between organic farmers and their existing and potential customers, Sandi and the ECO team have forged new pathways to success for organic food systems.

The purpose of RSF’s PRI Fund is to support the advancement of a more just and sustainable food system. Food hubs are seen as central and catalytic to developing this system.

“ECO has an incredible reputation for its integrity and service to small farmers and are arguably one of the strongest food hubs on our radar,” says Kate Danaher, RSF Senior Lending Associate. “Food hubs like ECO have the ability to connect producers with growing market demand, which holds incredible promise for positive impact on the local economy, social equity, and the environment.”

2014 ECO Owners

About Eastern Carolina Organics

Started in 2004 as a project of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) is a private, farmer/worker-owned for-profit company with a mission to support established and emerging organic farmers while improving the supply of local organic produce. ECO is a “Food Hub” that markets and distributes wholesale Carolina organic farm produce to retailers, restaurants and buying clubs. They currently work with over 60 growers and 100 customers throughout the state of North Carolina. www.easterncarolinaorganics.com

RSF Makes a New Loan to Hummingbird Wholesale

September 4, 2014

RSF is pleased to announce a new PRI loan to Honey Heaven Wholesale (D.B.A. Hummingbird Wholesale), a bulk food distributor offering high quality organic, local, and regional food crops to wholesale customers from Bellingham, Washington to San Francisco. Hummingbird is located at the southern end of the Willamette Valley in Eugene, Oregon. RSF financing allowed Hummingbird to purchase an environmentally friendly freight truck that will be used for deliveries along the route between San Francisco and Bellingham.

In 2003, Charlie and Julie Tilt purchased Honey Heaven Wholesale and eventually changed its name to Hummingbird Wholesale. Their mission is to serve people and the planet by providing regionally grown, high quality nutritious foods that nourish the body, mind, and soul.

Charlie & Julie Tilt

Charlie & Julie Tilt

Today, Hummingbird contracts directly with regional farmers whenever possible for organic and transitional staple crops and helps to market these products to consumers. They believe that sourcing locally makes ethical, nutritional, and logistical sense—this practice builds trust, deepens relationships, keeps money in the region, and helps strengthen the fabric of community. They sell over 900 different products including animal feed, honey, beans/legumes, grains and flours, granola, nuts, seeds, sprouting seeds, and spices and teas. In 2012, 50% of total sales came from items processed and grown in the Willamette Valley.

“Hummingbird exemplifies the type of organizations we look to support at RSF as it tries to make a positive impact in every aspect of their work – from ensuring local farmers are connected to markets to employing a zero waste strategy,” says Taryn Goodman, former Director of Impact Investing at RSF. “We are excited to support the organization’s growth and look forward to its continued success.”

In Eugene, Hummingbird uses two cargo tri-cycles to deliver its products; in 2012 an impressive 250,000 pounds of goods were delivered via bike. For deliveries outside of Eugene, the company uses three small trucks. RSF’s financing allowed Hummingbird to purchase an environmentally friendly freight truck that meets California Air Resource Board (CARB) standards, a set of state regulations aimed to lower vehicle emissions.

truck“With the capitalization of a high-efficiency and low-polluting delivery truck we were able to drastically improve our delivery systems,” says Charlie. “Our new vehicle produces 1/66 of the pollutants of the 2006 diesel truck it replaces and offers a 50% increase in fuel economy.” This new truck will enable Hummingbird to double its current capacity for deliveries to consumers.

“As a socially and environmentally conscious company, Hummingbird Wholesale was delighted to connect with RSF and collaborate,” says Charlie.” Having an economic partner that meets investor needs while accomplishing social good is wonderful! We look forward to a long-term positive relationship with RSF as we grow our impact on the Organic local foods systems in the Pacific Northwest.”

About Hummingbird Wholesale

Hummingbird Wholesale is a distributor of high quality organic bulk foods that incorporates humanity into their business relationships. They are known for their Zero Waste practices and commitment to sustainable choices in all aspects of their business. They choose their products carefully, considering the sustainability of farming practices, nutritional value, and special dietary needs. Whenever possible, Hummingbird buys locally and directly from the farmers. www.hummingbirdwholesale.com

RSF to host 3rd Shared Gifting Circle in Philadelphia

August 28, 2014

RSF is excited to announce that we will host our third Shared Gifting circle working with organizations focused on building socially and ecologically sustainable regional food systems in Philadelphia.

The participants, listed below, were nominated by RSF’s community of grantees, borrowers, investors, and donors. We also worked closely with RSF borrowers Fair Food and Common Market, to help identify non-profits doing great work in the city.

Shared Gifting is a new model of grantmaking that RSF has been experimenting with for the past four years. This model gives ownership and allocation authority for gift money to the participants of the circle and shifts the power dynamic inherent in traditional philanthropy by giving grantees decision making authority. We have found that this process creates opportunities for grantees to collaborate, leverages community wisdom, and creates accountability among the participants.

One representative from each organization will meet in Philadelphia on September 16th to share proposals with each other and determine how to distribute grant funds in support of each other’s work.

The Philadelphia participants are:

We are really excited to be working with all of these wonderful organizations and look forward to sharing our experiences from the Shared Gifting meeting!

How Can We Fix Our Broken Food System? Start With the Base of the Supply Chain

August 7, 2014

Originally published on TriplePundit

Triple pundit food systemsby Don Shaffer

Social equity in the food supply chain was a strong thread running through the annual Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems Funders forum this June in Denver. If we’re going to fix our broken food system so that it delivers healthy food to the whole population while enabling farmers to make a decent living, we’ll need new models and alternatives across the entire supply chain.

The most potentially transformative enterprises, however, often face the greatest funding hurdles. The forum’s theme, “Stronger Together,” reflects a growing recognition that collaborative funding strategies involving investors, foundations and communities are essential to getting these types of enterprises off the ground.

We know this approach can work. A growing number of social enterprises supported by what we call ‘integrated capital’ are successfully addressing problems related to food production, processing, aggregation and distribution in ways that contribute to social equity and agricultural sustainability. They’re flying under the media radar, but they’re worth examining as models for the field.

Real progress on tough challenges

Problems at the beginning of the supply chain — dwindling agricultural land, fewer farmers, lack of access to production facilities, and missing distribution links between metropolitan areas and their surrounding farms — are among the most difficult to solve. But several enterprises we’ve worked with in these areas have made real progress.

Viva Farms: Cultivating new farmers

In terms of food production, the biggest hurdles are affordable access to land near consumers and the need to encourage and train more people as farmers (the average age of farmers in the U.S. is 57). Viva Farms, an incubator program operating on 33 acres in Washington state’s Skagit Valley, addresses both issues, working with a mix of highly skilled migrant farm workers who have no access to land or capital and young, educated urbanites who have little agricultural experience. Viva Farms gives these new farmers training in sustainable farming practices, small land parcels with shared infrastructure and marketing support.

The goal is to transition the farmers from incubator to farm ownership with secure long-term prospects. Once farmers establish stable agricultural enterprises at the incubator, Viva Farms helps them relocate to new land and expand operations via a loan fund that provides affordable start-up and growth capital. Start-up costs for beginning farmers in the Valley can range from $30,000 to $500,000; with Viva Farms’ support, farmers’ costs drop to less than $5,000.

The program, launched in 2009, has provided training to about 250 people and launched 15 farm businesses that produce on more than 70 acres.

The primary challenges for the Viva Farms model are maintaining and expanding capital for land purchases and national immigration policy. Migrant farm workers who have the skills and desire to be the next generation of farmers often are hindered by their immigration status. Even if they personally have legal status, an immediate family member may not, and the ever-present possibility of deportation makes it difficult to invest for the long term.

Read the full article here

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance

Uncle Matt’s Organic Revolutionizes Florida’s Citrus Groves

July 31, 2014

With its subtropical climate and rich pest population, Florida has been slow to embrace the organic movement: fewer than 8,000 of its 541,328 acres of citrus groves are organic. Matt McLean has made it his mission to change that. As the founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic—the largest and oldest organic orange juice company in the U.S.—McLean not only sells delicious juices, he’s making it easy for other small Florida citrus growers to transition to organic.

noelle mclean

Photo courtesy of McLean Photography

Uncle Matt’s sells a huge quantity of organic orange and apple juices, lemonade and whole fruits to retailers such as Whole Foods and Publix each year. But its most innovative initiative is its agricultural management company. Uncle Matt’s Ag provides “one-stop shopping” for grove owners who want to go organic. The company actively recruits conventional farmers, handles all the paperwork for them throughout the transition and certification process, creates a full farm plan and oversees every aspect of caretaking, from riding the tractor to tamping down the weeds. Uncle Matt’s then markets all the grower’s fruit at top dollar, ensuring that organic farming is economically viable.

It’s a model that—with the help of a credit line from RSF—has fueled both consistent sales growth and positive changes in Florida agriculture.

Inspiration

McLean didn’t set out to be an organic grower. A fourth-generation Florida citrus grower, he grew up working in the groves, and escaped to college as soon as he could to get away from “manual labor in Florida’s summer heat.” After earning a business degree from the University of Florida, he started an import-export company, selling juice to companies in Europe. When one of his clients asked for biologic white grapefruit juice, he consulted his father and grandfather.

His grandfather, who had used organic methods in the past, insisted that “not only could we grow that way, we should be growing that way,” McLean says. “We are too focused on single-factor analysis—if you have a pest, then you’re told to find a pesticide. Instead, we should think holistically: why is that pest attracted and how can we help the trees’ immune systems defend against it through better soil and plant health? This is an organic farmer’s way of thinking.”

UMO

Photo courtesy of McLean Photography

Innovation

McLean started Uncle Matt’s Organic in 1999 with just five acres. As the company grew, it needed more fruit, which meant it also needed more organic farms. But farmers were hesitant, even afraid, to go organic—despite the fact that prices for organic fruit are consistently higher—and McLean knew he had to make the process as easy as possible. Thus Uncle Matt’s Ag was born in 2002.

One of the biggest challenges in persuading grove owners to grow organically was—and is—the threat of citrus greening disease, or Huanglongbing (HLB), a bacterial infection spread by gnat-size psyllids that can wipe out groves. It hit Florida in 2005 and has killed millions of citrus plants in the southeastern U.S. While Uncle Matt’s groves have not fully escaped the disease, several groves have proved 100 percent resistant—an anomaly the University of Florida is studying. Uncle Matt’s Ag is experimenting with nourishing root and soil health to keep disease at bay, and unleashing parasitic wasps into groves to keep the psyllids’ population under control.

With its innovative approaches to grove management and increasing consumer demand for organics, Uncle Matt’s has grown continually. But like many food and beverage companies, Uncle Matt’s faces a cash flow gap between the time when it pays farmers for the harvest and when the juice hits grocery stores and starts generating a profit. By 2011, McLean needed more financing.

The company had a line of credit with a local community bank, “but it was post real-estate bubble in Florida, and the banks were very risk-averse,” he says. So Uncle Matt’s hired McLean’s friend Aubrey Hornsby, a manager of the Conscious Capital Fund, to help it find additional funding. “Aubrey introduced us to RSF in September 2011,” says McLean, “and at that point a lot of things came together.”

Several members of the RSF lending team visited Florida, where they toured the groves, packinghouse and storage facility and closely examined Uncle Matt’s business model. “They understood our business right away,” says McLean, “and they really had a passion for our space and our mission.”

Based on this, RSF provided a $1.2 million line of credit that Uncle Matt’s uses to finance the juice inventory from season to season—and keep growing.

Impact

For the past three years, Uncle Matt’s sales have grown 20 to 30 percent annually. The company has also introduced two new juice blends, orange-mango and orange-tangerine, and has expanded to new retailers including Safeway, Kroger, Fred Meyer and Walmart Neighborhood Markets.

But the greatest proof of success is in the groves: In the last 12 years, Uncle Matt’s has converted more than 1,500 acres in Florida’s Lake, Highlands and Polk counties to organic cultivation.

“I started Uncle Matt’s as a business challenge,” says McLean. “But my grandfather’s passion just kept me thinking, ‘Hey, this is a better way to farm and we need to be a leader.’”

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Photo courtesy of McLean Photography

RSF Makes a Loan to 18 Rabbits

June 10, 2014

RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to 18 Rabbits, a social enterprise that produces organic granola products. RSF provided a line of credit that will help the company bridge funding gaps between production needs and sales.

The story of 18 Rabbits begins in Farmers Branch, Texas in the childhood home of founder, Alison Bailey Vercruysse. Allison used to play in her backyard with her siblings and her rabbit, Blackjack, while her mother made her special granola. One day, Blackjack ran off and returned with a family of 18 rabbits. Alison’s backyard was hopping with an abundance of rabbits, kids, and the delicious smell of her mother’s home made granola. It was that magical, childhood moment and a belief that everyone deserves to enjoy pure, nutritious food made from real ingredients, that inspired Alison to create 18 Rabbits Granola. Using homemade recipes and sourcing from farmers they know by name, 18 Rabbits is committed to using all natural ingredients including only whole grains, coconut, seeds, nuts and fruit, and leaving out fillers, additives, refined sugars, or wheat ingredients. Their products are certified organic and Non-GMO Project Verified.

18 Rabbits sources its ingredients from a pool of high quality organic suppliers. Almonds, dried apricots, butter, cherries, strawberries, walnuts, dates, and figs are sourced from California farmers; cranberries, flax seed, maple syrup, and pecans are sourced elsewhere in the US; and chocolate used is from TCHO made in Italy and Ecuador.

“We are honored to be part of the RSF community, a vast network of people dedicated to making the world a brighter place,” says Vercruysse. “Everything we do at 18 Rabbits is for the love of food. As part of the RSF family, we now can make a broader impact faster.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, where the company is based, one in four individuals experiences hunger. 18 Rabbits donates 1% of their bars to help fight hunger in their community by working with non-profit partners to get healthy snacks into the hands of kids in need. To date, they have partnered with Second Harvest’s summer kids’ camps, Morning Snack Program through the SF Food Bank, Hanna Center for Boys, and Headstand Yoga for kids.

“In a product category (granola bars) that gives the consumer the perception of being a healthy snack, when in actuality they are packed with refined sugars and other unhealthy ingredients, 18 Rabbits goes to great lengths to be transparent and honest about their products,” says Kate Danaher, RSF Senior Lending Associate. “With 18 Rabbits, what you see is literally what you get. It is a pleasure to work with Alison and other food entrepreneurs that are so dedicated to the integrity and efficacy of their brand.”

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About 18 Rabbits

18 Rabbits is a social enterprise that makes organic granola from scratch, using homemade recipes and wholesome real ingredients from farmers they know by name. With a mission of making it possible for everyone to enjoy pure, simple, real food that’s good for you and tastes good, 18 Rabbits is committed to using highest quality ingredients in bringing natural and healthy granola products to the market. http://www.18rabbits.com/

Food & Agriculture

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