Lending

Announcing the 2014-2015 RSF Social Impact Fellows

December 19, 2014

RSF Social Finance is pleased to announce the 2014-2015 RSF Social Impact Fellows. This cohort marks RSF’s fifth year of the fellowship program, and the first year professionals have been invited to participate in addition to graduate students.

The Social Impact Fellowship is designed to support the development of the next generation of inspiring leaders in the social finance field. RSF also seeks to bring a fresh perspective to the organization’s business development activities.

Fellows will work closely with RSF’s Lending Team to identify prospective borrowers, conduct due diligence, and structure commercial loans that will become part of RSF’s $85 million Social Enterprise Lending portfolio. The Fellowship is an extension of RSF’s mission to build the field of social finance. Working with graduate students and professionals across disciplines and geographic areas not only allows RSF to build a network of advocates for the industry, it also spreads the work of social finance into places where the concept of values-aligned investing is still very nascent.

Twenty-seven fellows have completed the program since it began in 2010. Nearly half are now successfully working in the social finance field at organizations like Village Capital, Impact Assets, and OPIC.

“I know first-hand, this is an incredibly valuable experience,” said Kate Danaher, Senior Lending Associate at RSF. Danaher was a part of the first cohort of Fellows and now runs the program. “These fellows have the opportunity to identify and engage with pioneering entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of solving pressing social and environmental problems.”

2014-2015 Social Impact Fellows 
                                                                                                                                             

Lisa Fisher is the Founder and President of an independent consulting firm focused on cultivating vision, authenticity, and sustainability in individuals, organizations, and communities with an emphasis on social responsibility and social impact. For 17 years, Fisher has served nationally and internationally as a coach, a facilitator, and an educational, organizational, and development consultant for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. She is a graduate of Wellesley College and holds a Master of Arts in Teaching degree and a Master of Arts in Leadership and Organizational Development. She is currently completing a Master of Arts in Psychology and a PhD in Organizational Systems with a focus on catalytic philanthropy and social enterprise. Fisher is a certified yoga instructor, a former Junior Olympic alpine ski racer, and, most importantly, a mother. She loves to play in the glorious outdoors as often as possible.

 

Nakul Kadaba is currently a Project Associate at the Small-Scale Sustainable Infrastructure Development Fund and helps manage their projects and other initiatives in South and Southeast Asia. He has experience in innovative finance, enterprise development, and poverty alleviation for several organizations. He holds a Masters in Public Administration from George Mason University and a Bachelor’s degree from The College of William and Mary. He is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and is excited to add to the social finance conversation.

 

Sam.Kressler_Head Shot CroppedSam Kressler is the Executive Chef of Bom Dia Market, a neighborhood gourmet market in Noe Valley. Before joining Bom Dia, Sam ran Stir Consulting, a consulting agency that focused on menu and product development for hospitality and food businesses. Sam holds a culinary degree from the French Culinary Institute and a Masters in Food Systems from NYU. He is a founder of Slow Money NYC as well as a monthly happy hour that brings together Bay Area professionals across the sustainable food and agriculture industry.

 

Dave Hanold is a loan officer at NYBDC, a mission-based lender in New York State. Dave leads a team of community development lenders specializing in SBA loans of $25,000 and upward to businesses that are not eligible for traditional bank financing, with a recent focus on food and beverage producers. After graduating from Macalester College in 2009, he spent a year in the Americorps NCCC program, performing community service projects across the Midwest. When he’s not evaluating balance sheets, Dave’s probably at the climbing gym or playing soccer!

 

Stu Fram currently works at the High Meadows Fund, an environmental foundation in Vermont, where he supports the administration of the Fund’s mission spending budget. Prior to joining High Meadows, Stu received a BA in Human Ecology from Middlebury College, where he co-founded an organization that works to improve the amount of local and sustainable options available in the dining halls. While studying abroad in Madagascar, Stu received a grant to study local and institutional perceptions of integrated conservation and development projects in one of the country’s national parks. He resides in Burlington, VT.

RSF Makes a Loan to the Pine Forest School

December 15, 2014

PFS Logo.RSF is pleased to announce a new loan to the Pine Forest School (PFS). RSF financing will help fund the acquisition and renovation of a new campus property that will increase access to Waldorf education in the community.

Celebrating their 20th anniversary this school year, Pine Forest School is a publically funded, Pre-8 grade school in Flagstaff, Arizona using the Waldorf curriculum and methodology. PFS was founded in 1995 as a K-4 public school, and was originally funded by the Arizona State Department of Education. Through collaborative efforts by Flagstaff families interested in Waldorf education and enthusiastic, trained Waldorf educators and public school teachers around the country, Rudolf Steiner’s desire to bring the Waldorf model to public education became a reality in Northern Arizona. Over the next five years the school grew to be a complete K-8 program.

Michael Heffernan, PFS Executive Director, standing in front of the school's new property. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Sun.

Michael Heffernan, PFS Executive Director, stands in front of the school’s new property. Photo courtesy of the Arizona Daily Sun.

The school currently operates on a 1.5 acre campus located in a light industrial park area of north Flagstaff. For the past several years the school has been focused on developing resources and community support for a move to a site offering a more Waldorf-appropriate environment, as well as the capacity to embrace a larger community. With the help of RSF financing the school was able to acquire a 3.5 acre property in Sunnyside, one of Flagstaff’s oldest neighborhoods. The school has plans for over $1.4 million in renovations, and hopes to open the new campus for the 2015-2016 school year.

“Pine Forest School and RSF Social Finance have known each other for many years,” says RSF Senior Lending Associate Reed Mayfield. “I first visited the school in the spring of 2011 when they were seeking to build out new facilities – it was not the right time for a move. But now as the school and community have grown, we are proud to co-create a path to the new space. Talk about long-term relationships!”

The Waldorf-modeled curriculum that Pine Forest School follows uses a child development model that nurtures and embraces learning for the head, heart, and hands of each student. With nearly 250 students currently enrolled, PFS offers Waldorf main lesson blocks intertwined with Southwestern culture, tradition, and history. Special classes and extra-curricular activities include German, Spanish, eurythmy, woodwork, handwork, art, archery, chess, basketball, and volleyball. The school is led by a passionate group of teachers and administrators, and seeks to facilitate strong family and community involvement through events, volunteer opportunities, and communication.

The Pine Forest School is currently the only public charter school in Flagstaff using the Waldorf methodology. PFS believes all children should have access to Waldorf education, regardless of their financial resources, and hope that the move to a new location will provide greater access to underserved children. The new site is more centrally located in Flagstaff, and is surrounded by several different neighborhoods and communities of people from varying ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“I am very excited that PFS has been blessed with the opportunity to expand our enrollment and bring this form of education to more children and families, and move to a location which is in the heart of Flagstaff, surrounded by neighborhoods, other schools, public libraries, city parks and national forest,” says PFS Executive Director Michael Heffernan. “We will be able to build our program with the larger facilities and more acreage, and the possibilities for community collaboration are many.  RSF is the perfect organization to partner with as their mission for social finance is aligned with our mission for excellence in education.”

Video courtesy of Pine Forest School:

About Pine Forest School

Founded in 1995, Pine Forest School (PFS) is the only public charter school in Flagstaff, Arizona using the Waldorf methodology. PFS provides an education of the whole child, with a curriculum that is a truly comprehensive balance of academic, practical, and artistic activities. The school is dedicated to helping individuals achieve their full intellectual, emotional, and physical potential, in a sustainable and beautiful environment that reinforces integrity, understanding, respect, and trust.  www.pineforestschool.org

Spreading the Word About the Next 25 Social Enterprise Stars

December 12, 2014

Word continues to spread about our campaign to add 25 social enterprise stars to our loan portfolio over the next year—over 1700 enterprises and referrers had checked out our campaign page by the end of November. Now it’s time to give thanks.

Thanks to 3BL Media, B Lab, Justmeans, SOCAP, Social Earth, and all of our other partners and friends who have been talking about the 25 #socentstars campaign on Twitter and elsewhere.

Thanks also to Alissa Sears, Amanda Kemp, Jocelyn Demirbag, and others we’ve reached out to who have dug through their contacts and introduced us to some great candidates.

And thanks to everyone who suggested potential stars in comments on our previous blog posts. The lending team is following up on all these suggestions. Keep them coming!

Our campaign is still going strong. We’re seeking for-profit or non-profit enterprises that are doing groundbreaking work in food and agriculture, education and the arts, or ecological stewardship—and could significantly expand their impact with a loan of about $200,000 to $5 million. (See the Social Enterprise Stars campaign page for detailed criteria).

To illustrate, here are a couple of examples from our current roster of borrowers:

training program 2 largeDC Central Kitchen is earning growing recognition for its work to create economic opportunity in the food industry for low-income and at-risk communities while addressing issues of food insecurity and food waste. The enterprise’s Meal Distribution program provides 10,000 healthy meals per day to local schools, homeless shelters, and other social service non-profit organizations. All meals are prepared by students and graduates of the Culinary Job Training program for unemployed people, many of whom are homeless, have been incarcerated, or have struggled with addiction. Find out more about DC Central Kitchen in this NPR story.

playworks-stories-playgroundPlayworks provides structured recess in public schools. Its programs improve school climate, reduce bullying, and increase student engagement through play and physical activity. Playworks provides public schools with trained, full-time coaches who use recess and play to support learning, and it provides training in structured recess for educators and youth workers.

Know any loan candidates like these? Please send them to Wanted: Social Enterprise Stars.

And please keep spreading the word! The more #SocentStars posts there are on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, the more social enterprises we can reach and assist. Here are a few post ideas:

RSF_SocentStarsLOGO-for website@RSFSocFinance wants to fund the next 25 #SocentStars. Are you one? Apply: bit.ly/1tH0ytE #socent

Have a breakthrough social enterprise? @RSFSocFinance has #funding for the next 25 #SocentStars: bit.ly/1tH0ytE

Successful #socent with funding woes? See if you qualify for an @RSFSocFinance loan: bit.ly/1tH0ytE #SocentStars

 

RSF Makes a Loan to the East Bay Waldorf School

December 2, 2014

10685579_10152799061635734_4161669210641885723_nRSF is pleased to announce a new loan to the East Bay Waldorf School (EBWS). RSF financing helped the school complete renovations to existing classrooms and facilities and lease additional classroom space.

The East Bay Waldorf School was founded in 1980 when a group of parents and friends opened a kindergarten in the Julia Morgan Center in Berkeley. Each subsequent year another grade was added toward the full complement of eight grades. The school moved to Emeryville in 1984, where it remained for 12 years. When the school district reclaimed the Emeryville site in 1996, EBWS purchased its current home – an 11-acre hillside campus in El Sobrante, California.

Born from the insights of Rudolf Steiner, the Waldorf model of education unfolds an enriching and rigorous synthesis of academic, artistic, and practical pursuits for intellectual, moral, and physical development. The mission of the East Bay Waldorf School is to ignite the spark of individuality in each child, developing a lifelong commitment to learning, creativity, and excellence. The school’s curriculum integrates the sciences, humanities, mathematics, music, movement and the arts to offer a diverse and profound learning experience.

IMG_7128RSF’s relationship with the East Bay Waldorf School dates back nearly two decades, when RSF provided the mortgage loan for the purchase of the El Sobrante property. Two additional loans were made, in the fall of 1996 and in 1999, and were used for construction costs, classroom renovations, and the purchase of computers and science lab equipment. The new loan has allowed EBWS to complete renovations and lease three new portables.

“The new classrooms needed to be in place and the upgrades had to be completed in time for the start of the new school year,” says Ted Levinson, RSF Senior Director of Lending. “The East Bay Waldorf School community was extremely helpful and cooperative in completing the process. It was exciting to be of assistance in the completion of the improvements to the school!”

ourbackdoorAn extraordinary feature of the East Bay Waldorf School is their remarkable hillside campus, adjacent to thousands of acres of regional parkland accessible by foot. The campus and adjacent wild lands function as an extension of the school’s classrooms, providing fantastic opportunities for students to spend time learning and playing in nature.

“This location provides us with rich opportunities to venture regularly into the natural world,” says Kelly Chappie, Interim Administrator at EBWS. “We are committed to offering Waldorf education to a broad constituency while cultivating a school resonant with the impulses of the first Waldorf school: a development of thinking, feeling, and willing in children, which offers them an education in service of realizing and making their own unique contributions to the future.”

javelin

About East Bay Waldorf School

Founded in 1980, the East Bay Waldorf School is situated on a remarkable 11-acre hillside campus adjacent to thousands of acres of regional parkland in El Sobrante, California. The school offers an infant through 8th grade program and is committed to offering Waldorf education to a broad constituency. The East Bay Waldorf School ignites the spark of individuality in each child, developing a lifelong commitment to learning, creativity, and excellence. http://www.eastbaywaldorf.org/

Who Are the Next 25 Social Enterprise Stars? We’re Still Looking to Meet Them

November 12, 2014

RSF_SocentStarsLOGO-300dpi (2)Our campaign to add 25 social enterprise stars to our loan portfolio over the next year is introducing RSF to hundreds of social enterprises striving for outsized impact—about 1,600 enterprises and referrers had checked out our campaign page by the end of October.

Why is this important? Most growing businesses face challenges raising capital at some stage in their development. But for social enterprises, which use the power of business to directly improve society and our environment, the funding obstacles tend to be tougher and more persistent. By definition, they upend the expectations of traditional investors, lenders, and donors. RSF provides the kind of flexible, mission-aligned capital that meets social enterprises’ needs—but they’re often operating in isolation and don’t know we exist.

So please keep spreading the word! The more #SocentStars posts there are on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, the more social enterprises we can reach and assist. Here are a few post ideas:

Are you one of the next economy’s #SocentStars? @RSFSocFinance can fund your growth: bit.ly/1tH0ytE #socents

Every #socent needs a savvy funder. @RSFSocFinance has loan money for the next 25 #SocentStars: bit.ly/1tH0ytE

Do you know any #SocentStars? @RSFSocFinance has loans for the next 25. Send them here: bit.ly/1tH0ytE #socent

Not sure who would be a good fit? We’re looking for more enterprises like these new RSF borrowers (also see details on the Social Enterprise Stars campaign page).

Liberty Source staff young woman stockLiberty Source

Liberty Source, a public benefit corporation and subsidiary of existing RSF borrower Digital Divide Data (DDD), employs military spouses in U.S.-based business process outsourcing work. Although founded just this summer, Liberty Source already employs over 90 people at Fort Monroe in Virginia. The more than 700,000 military spouses in the U.S. have a higher rate of post–high school education—80 percent—than the general population, but are four times as likely to be unemployed or underemployed because of frequent moves and the limited number of job opportunities near military bases.

“Without support from RSF, we would not have been able to get Liberty Source off the ground,” said Deborah Kops, Board Chair, Liberty Source and Board Member, DDD. “The RSF loan provided us the seed money to hire staff and buy equipment. Only a mission-aligned lender understands both the social impact and the imperative to operate a commercially viable company.”

Stefan Hartman - SK- Black River Organic FarmEastern Carolina Organics

Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) is 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 our PRI Fund to help ECO bridge the time between payments to farmers and sales receipts from customers.

“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,” says Kate Danaher, RSF Senior Lending Associate.

Know any loan candidates like these? Please send them to Wanted: Social Enterprise Stars.

Now Hiring: Underwriting Manager

October 28, 2014

RSF seeks to hire a full-time Underwriting Manager. This position is a combination of two roles: (1) a senior commercial loan underwriter who focuses on underwriting of new and existing commercial loans to the most catalytic social entrepreneurs in the USA and Canada, including formula-based ARIF lines of credit, commercial owner-occupied real estate credits, and equipment loans, for non-profit and for-profit social entrepreneurs, and (2) a manager who leads RSF’s underwriting process. The Underwriting Manager provides oversight to and participates in loan performance monitoring and compliance processes; realizes and administers portfolio management policies, methods, and reporting; and partners with the Social Enterprise Lending Business Development Team to ensure effective communication, hand-offs, and values-aligned client engagement. This position supervises the Associate, Credit & Portfolio Management. The application deadline is Friday, November 21st.

To learn more, please visit our Jobs page.

Search for Social Enterprise Stars Off to Great Start

October 14, 2014

PrintOur Next 25 Social Enterprise Stars campaign is off to a great start—less than a month after our launch at the SOCAP14 conference, nearly 1,000 social enterprises and their referrers had visited our campaign page to check out borrower criteria and other details.

To recap, we’re looking to add 25 social enterprise stars to our loan portfolio over the next year—and we need the help of everyone in our community to find them. We know there are exciting enterprises across the U.S. and Canada that could grow with our help, but they may not know about us—and we may not know about them.

Please keep spreading the word! The more #SocentStars posts there are on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, the more social enterprises we can reach and assist. Here are a few post ideas:

How much social impact could your #socent have with $800K? @RSFSocFinance has loans for #SocentStars: bit.ly/1tH0ytE

Pass it on: @RSFSocFinance is looking to fund the next 25 #SocentStars. Get details and #loan quals: bit.ly/1tH0ytE

Growing a #socent & need capital? @RSFSocFinance has loans for the next 25 #SocentStars: bit.ly/1tH0ytE

Not sure who would be a good fit? We’re looking for more enterprises like these new RSF borrowers (also see details on the Social Enterprise Stars campaign page).

facebookPACT Apparel

PACT, a Boulder, Colorado–based apparel company, makes supersoft organic cotton essentials that are ethically produced and easy on the environment. Here’s what they say about themselves: “We’re out to change the apparel industry and that change starts with your underwear. At PACT we care about our clothes so much that from seed to shelf, we pretty much follow them everywhere they go.”

RSF is providing a line of credit that allows PACT to build inventory to meet growing demand. It’s a natural fit: “PACT is more than just a sustainable brand,” says Mike Gabriel, RSF Lending Manager. “They are really fostering a community—suppliers, producers, intermediaries, and consumers—to accelerate change in the fashion industry.”

truckHummingbird Wholesale

Hummingbird Wholesale, a bulk food distributor based in Eugene, Oregon, delivers high-quality organic, local, and regional food crops to wholesale customers from Bellingham, Washington, to San Francisco. RSF financing allowed Hummingbird to purchase an environmentally friendly freight truck.

“Hummingbird exemplifies the type of organizations we look to support at RSF. It tries to make a positive impact in every aspect of its work—from ensuring local farmers are connected to markets to employing a zero-waste strategy,” says Kate Danaher, Senior Lending Associate at RSF.

Cocafa1Madécasse

Brooklyn-based Madécasse is the only company making high-quality, hand-wrapped chocolate and vanilla products in Africa from bean to bar. Unlike traditional chocolate manufacturing, which creates only minimal income for cocoa farmers, every process in Madécasse’s chocolate production happens in Madagascar. A line of credit from RSF allows Madécasse to finance inventory purchases and cover cash-flow gaps throughout the year.

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

Know any loan candidates like these? Please send them to Wanted: Social Enterprise Stars.

A Celebration of Giving – Part 2

September 11, 2014

Click here to see the first story in this series

KelleyBuhles_Books_Large (2)by Kelley Buhles

As RSF Social Finance celebrates its 30th anniversary, we feel deep gratitude for all the supportive relationships that have nurtured, inspired, and challenged RSF to expand and deepen how it goes about transforming the way the world works with money and that are bringing associative economic principles into daily practice.

Over the next few months we will be posting a series of stories about some key catalytic gifts and givers who saw potential within RSF, seeded future possibilities, and in turn, have become part of our destiny.

A Prophetic Gift

Voices of the prophets have been heard in most cultures throughout human history. They are traditionally seen as harbingers if not agents of change. In 2002, RSF received a prophetic gift from an anonymous donor that would eventually transform the way we work with lending.

Prior to this gift, RSF was making loans solely to non-profit organizations. At that time, the field of social finance was nascent and there were few models for how to work with money in alignment with social and environmental values. Through dialogue with RSF’s community of clients and partners, the idea emerged to expand our work to begin lending to mission-aligned for-profit businesses.

However, RSF’s ability to lend relies on the investments we receive from the RSF community. Because most of our individual investors don’t have the risk tolerance necessary to experiment with lending to an emerging field of borrowers, RSF was not able to experiment with this idea without a source of capital beyond the Social Investment Fund.

Fortunately, one of RSF’s donors was inspired by the idea and decided to make a gift of $2.5M to guarantee loans to mission-aligned for-profit businesses, thereby allowing RSF to gain experience lending in this new way. This initiative was called the Fair Economies Program.

The Fair Economies Program provided financing to businesses in emerging industries that were environmentally restorative while providing fair working wages, humane working conditions, and supporting self-determination in economic development. An additional goal was to support these social enterprises in underserved regions.

The program was developed both to provide early-stage socially responsible enterprises access to low-cost capital, and to demonstrate that enterprises created for social and environmental benefit could be sustainable and provide value to the communities they served.

Through this program RSF was able to contribute to the growth of many successful businesses such as Organic Bouquet, Indigenous Designs, and Root Capital.

RSF_30th_purpleAnother gift RSF received was experience—both the experience of lending to organizations in fields that we previously hadn’t worked in, and of using new and different types of financing. The Fair Economies Program provided bridge loans, term loans, convertible loans, purchase order financing loans, and working capital loans, most of which had not previously been provided by RSF. We also gained experience working in sustainable agriculture, independent media, and fair trade, whereas our previous experience was mostly working with Waldorf Schools and other organizations inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner.

Additionally, through our dealing with projects in need of early stage financing, RSF provided necessary technical assistance and client attention while supporting some of the companies through challenging situations. While not all of the projects funded by the Fair Economies Program were successful, the lessons RSF learned from it were documented, reflected upon, shared, and eventually fed back into our operations, thereby making RSF a more knowledgeable and experienced lending partner to mission-aligned, for-profit businesses .

The donor and the gift that facilitated the creation of the Fair Economies Program inspired and ultimately provided the experience necessary to create our for-profit lending program as it is today – standing at 50% of our social enterprise lending portfolio. For this we are very grateful.

Kelley Buhles is Director of Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

RSF Seeks the Next 25 Social Enterprise Stars

September 2, 2014

Socent logo

Today we’re excited to launch the Next 25 Social Enterprise Stars campaign to attract a new cohort of extraordinary borrowers.

We’re looking to add 25 social enterprise stars to our loan portfolio over the next year—and we need the help of everyone in our community to find them. You’ll be hearing from us about our search and our newest borrowers here on this blog, on social media, at events, in our newsletter—everywhere.

We know there are exciting enterprises across the U.S. and Canada that could grow with our help, but they may not know about us—and we may not know about them. So we’re asking you—our investors, borrowers, advisors, partners and friends—to be our eyes and ears and send compelling candidates our way. You’ll be expanding your impact, and the enterprises you refer will benefit from working with a pioneering funder that has a true commitment to helping social enterprises succeed.

Why are we doing this now? Our assets have grown 39 percent over the last three years, as more and more investors are putting their money to work for social benefit. That means we’re able to lend to more social enterprises than ever.

Here’s what we’re looking for: established businesses and non-profit organizations that are doing groundbreaking work in food and agriculture, education and the arts, or ecological stewardship—and could significantly expand their impact with a loan of about $200,000 to $5 million. (Our average loan is $800,000.)

To receive a loan from RSF, an enterprise should have these qualifications:

  • A social benefit mission in one of RSF’s three focus areas: Food & Agriculture, Education & the Arts, and Ecological Stewardship
  • Incorporation in the U.S. or Canada
  • Strong collateral (which may include pledge or guarantee communities)
  • Excellent history of repayment (both interest and principal) on any existing debt
  • Funding needs ranging from $200,000 to $5 million ($100,000+ for arts organizations)
  • 3 or more years of operating history
  • Operational profit, or a clear path to profitability in 12 months
  • Annual revenue of $1 million or more ($500,000 for arts organizations)

Please send candidates that meet the criteria to our Next 25 Social Enterprise Stars page.

Thank you for helping to build the next economy! And please share news of our search through the social media you use—we’re using the hashtag #SocentStars.

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.’”

6D9B2631

Photo courtesy of McLean Photography

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