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Ag entrepreneurs seek sources of funding

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Posted on November 14, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



MIDDLEBURY — A frozen vegetable operation. A bistro that serves up local, vegetarian foods. A wood chip-fired kiln to heat and power a small business. By all accounts, Addison County boasts a veritable goldmine of creativity in the food, agriculture and forestry arenas — the so-called “working landscape.”

But that energy can go nowhere without funding.

Finding the money to start and run ventures that keep our landscape open and productive was the challenge a “Financing the Working Landscape” conference last Thursday sought to address. The event brought some 120 entrepreneurs, capital providers and others interested in the topic to the American Legion in Middlebury for a day-long conversation about finding that missing financial piece.

The event was a joint effort by the Addison County Relocalization Network, Addison County Economic Development Corp. (ACEDC) and Addison County Regional Planning Commission, and it drew capital providers based mostly within the state to speak about matching local ideas with local funding.

Vermont Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross said the event’s turnout and the ideas and businesses represented in the crowd demonstrated the sheer energy surrounding agricultural entrepreneurship.

“Fifteen years ago, we wouldn’t have been having this conversation,” said Ross. “This is the most exciting time to be involved in agriculture in decades.”

Financial providers, he said, need to be willing to meet that entrepreneurial energy with capital, and to be willing to do their part in building Vermont’s already strong agricultural economy.

“In both the agricultural and financial sectors, we need creativity and risk-taking,” he said.

And despite a slumping national economy, the sheer diversity of income sources represented at the conference made it clear that the adventurous entrepreneur has a range of opportunities to turn to: from loans from the National Bank of Middlebury to grants from USDA Rural Development to community-based funding methods.

Janice St. Onge, deputy director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, said the wide array of local options presented at the conference reflected a reality in today’s financial landscape: With capital providers less willing to take risks, entrepreneurs must gather a mix of sources to finance a project.

“Money isn’t simple anymore — loans aren’t available on a handshake,” she said.

On the national scale, she said, it’s become increasingly difficult to find traditional sources of funding.

“As banks become too big to fail, small businesses become too small to succeed,” she said.

The capital providers on the day’s first panel included National Bank of Middlebury CEO Ken Perine, ACEDC Executive Director Robin Scheu, David Robinson of the USDA Rural Development, Sarah Isham of the Vermont Agricultural Credit Corp. at the Vermont Economic Development Authority, and Ryan Torres of the Vermont Community Foundation. In addition, Gregory O’Brien of Worth Mountain Consulting spoke about choosing the right type of funding as an entrepreneur.

St. Onge, the panel’s facilitator, was also there representing the VSJF’s Flexible Capital Fund, which invests in companies working toward sustainable food systems and energy in the state.

All of the capital providers emphasized that they do take risks on small startup businesses, especially, said Perine, when the owners have a good idea, a strong business plan and some expertise or training in the area.

And for those paralyzed by the range of financial choices, Scheu said any of the organizations represented is a good starting place to seek financing.

“There’s no wrong door,” she said. “None of us can do it all, but we can help you do what you want to do.”

Kevin Lehman, an ACRPC planner, spoke later in the day about Three Revolutions, an agricultural “crowdfunding” platform he is building. Crowdfunding is a type of typically web-based funding — popularized by Kickstarter — that allows people to make small donations to projects they want to support.

And Bonnie Rukin was there from Maine to speak about slow money, a movement that encourages people to invest in small businesses in their own communities. The idea is that investors should put their money into an enterprise with which they have a direct connection, where they can see the payoff. Rukin spoke about the No Small Potatoes Investment Club, which makes micro-loans to Maine food businesses.

PITCHING PROJECTS

Entrepreneurs at the event also got an opportunity to showcase their projects. Eight pre-selected people got the chance to make a three-minute pitch to the crowd, followed by a matchmaker session that allowed entrepreneurs to have conversations with financial providers.

Presenters during the showcase ranged widely. Eric Rozendaal of Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro described his egg business, Eric’s Eggs. He said demand for local eggs from chickens living on pasture has grown tremendously in the wake of egg-related food safety scares. He’s seen so much demand that he is looking to make his operation larger and more efficient, and eventually to expand into Boston markets.

Erik Andrus described his rice and duck operation at Ferrisburgh’s Boundbrook Farm, where the rice is weeded and fertilized by ducks. He’s looking for funds to continue building up knowledge and techniques — including translating Japanese equipment manuals into English — so that others in the region can do similar things.

Other presenters included:

  Gail Busch of Montpelier’s Algepower, which grows oil-producing algae out of agricultural waste.

  Ken Gagnon of Pittsford’s Gagnon Lumber, who is looking to power his business with wood chips.

  Elizabeth Frank of Orwell’s Eagle’s Flight Farm, who is looking to create a local, vegetarian bistro along with a venue for seminars and conferences on her property overlooking Lake Champlain.

  Jeff Weaber of Salisbury’s Aqua Vitea, who is looking for funds to expand operations and distribution of his kombucha and cultured tea so that the business can continue to grow.

  Bay Hammond of Shoreham’s Doolittle Farm, who is looking to build infrastructure so that her family can continue to produce 22 agricultural products.

  Barney Hodges of Cornwall’s Sunrise Orchards, who is piloting a project to process and distribute regionally grown frozen vegetables for area co-op supermarkets.

O’Brien said it’s a good time to be a food-based entrepreneur. Increasingly, he said, investors are looking for projects that deal with food, forestry and agriculture.

“The working landscape has become a very attractive investment,” he said. “It’s actually a very good time to be growing a business.”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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