Passionate entrepeneurs grow into savvy business owners through the Agri-peneur Program, providing small food start-ups with training, assistance, microloans, and the keys to success.
STORY AND PHOTOS BY JENNIFER CRAIN
At a historic cannery on Olympia’s east side, a few employees work at stainless-steel work tables that stretch, end to end, across the center of the room. They pull handfuls of sauerkraut from a large bowl and pack it into jars, spray stray bits of kraut off jars that are lidded and crowded onto trays, and pour cloudy brine into bottles. This is the processing facility for OlyKraut, the eight-year-old raw sauerkraut company co-founded by Sash Sunday and her former business partner, Summer Bock.
Like many small food producers, the two built their business around a central principle: source as many ingredients as possible from local growers in order to make a positive impact on the regional farming economy.
Their krauts sold well right away. In its first year, the company purchased 1,400 pounds of local cabbage, carrots, fennel, sea vegetables, and other produce. In year two, they were selling their products to a handful of South Sound food co-ops and had their first accounts in Portland.
The next logical step was to expand north to Seattle, but as the business grew, they could see a catch-22 forming on the horizon. Staying true to their philosophy by sourcing more expensive local produce might keep them from scaling up enough to stay afloat. They needed help to make the numbers work.
So in 2010 they signed up for a business training program designed for food entrepreneurs through Enterprise for Equity, an Olympia-based nonprofit that helps people with limited incomes start and strengthen small businesses. Since its inception in 1999, the organization has trained more than 300 South Sound entrepreneurs. Between 25 and 30 participants graduate every year.
Lisa Smith, co-founder and executive director, can name a flurry of organizations that the nonprofit partners with to support its participants: government agencies, farming and veterans’ organizations, conservation groups. With a background in policy (she worked for a lobby group that advocates for poverty and hunger alleviation), Smith has an exceptional ability to assess needs and match them with concrete re- sources. At Enterprise for Equity, she and her staff have created a program that provides current and aspiring entrepreneurs with business training, microloans, technical assistance, and ongoing community and market connections.
The group has helped a wide range of businesses, from clothing resellers to landscape designers. But in the mid-2000s, a new trend emerged: The number of food-based businesses applying for their programs spiked.
“The people going through our program drew us to food,” says Smith. “We could not understand why all of a sudden we had so many bee- keepers, farm-stand operators, farmers, and food-cart vendors. And these were not people who just wanted to do food. They insisted on quality and local and organic and ethics and different standards of production.”
To address their needs, Enterprise for Equity partnered with Washington State University Extension’s Small Farms Team and spent a year designing a program that caters to farm-, sh-, and food-based entrepreneurs. That decision was out of step with common practice. Business training programs tend to shy away from specialized programming because they don’t want to appear exclusive. But the need was so great, they Enterprise felt they couldn’t ignore it. They launched the Agri-preneur Business Planning Program in 2009.
Program participants spend the better part of a year exploring an idea’s viability and creating a business plan. To start, they attend a two-day intensive workshop. If an idea looks like it’s nancially feasible, the participant conducts market research, eld-tests products, and reports back to the staff for approval. Only then can a participant enroll in the program, where they spend 10 weeks developing a business plan that includes cash ow projections and nancial statements, operations, and a marketing strategy. Final business plans are approved following a comprehensive internal review and a second external review.
Though it’s rigorous, 98 percent of participants who enroll in the training course complete it. Graduates say the work is transformative.
“I think one of the helpful aspects of Enterprise for Equity was to get my brain focused on the fact that this is a business,” says Sunday. “We talked with a financial advisor at some point and she said I was a ‘sauerkraut social worker.’ We’re very purpose-driven, but that purpose can only be actualized if we stay in business.”
Mastering the art of trade has helped Sunday achieve more than just keeping OlyKraut’s doors open. In 2015, the company purchased 50,000 pounds of regional produce. Their products are sold in 65 stores, from Bellingham to Portland to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Four of their sauerkrauts are Good Food Award winners.
Enterprise for Equity has graduated 85 food-based entrepreneurs, including 30 food processors, restaurant owners, and food-cart vendors, and 46 terrestrial and shell sh farmers. Farms and food operations run by business owners who have completed the program dot the South Sound area.
Liza Judge and Marianne Copene of August Farm, a flower farm and livestock operation located 20 miles to the south in Independence Valley, went through the program five years ago. Following the training, the two took steps to become independent sellers. They extracted themselves from a third-party arrangement, picked a farm name, and put up their own website. They now sell direct to customers through their CSA programs and maintain a booth at the Olympia Farmers Market.
Selma Bjarnadottir of Flying Cow Creamery tested her yogurt recipe for two years. Because of the skills she learned in the program, she was able to invest in jars made of domestic glass that customers return for a refund. She now sells her yogurt across the South Sound and the Olympic Peninsula and to retail outlets in Vancouver, Tacoma, and Seattle.
John Adams owns and operates Sound Fresh, a third-generation oyster, clam, and geoduck farm north of Olympia, on pristine tidelands where Totten and Little Skookum Inlets merge. He credits Enterprise for Equity with strengthening his bottom line and helping him prioritize.
“When I started the program, I realized that success is about luck, timing, and managing your blind spots,” he says. “We had these areas of our business that I was avoiding because I was uncertain about how I was going to handle them. Enterprise for Equity provided a road map. Our marketing became much more deliberate and cohesive so we weren’t wasting energy in areas that weren’t important to our business strategy. Bookkeeping was also really big for us. It’s more efficient, so now I’m spending more time farming.”
Even with a solid business plan, most banks consider food-based enterprises too risky for a loan. Enterprise for Equity distributes microloans to graduates to help ll that gap. For graduates, like Adams, a microloan not only gives a small food-based business a financial boost, it helps a farmer or food vendor establish a track record of repayment.
Another microloan recipient, Evan Mulvaney, operates Hidden River Farms, an 88-acre operation located halfway to the coast along the Wynoochee River. Mulvaney was also the organization’s first on-site farmer. After completing the training, he got a year of experience farming vegetables on a portion of a 33-acre incubator farm established in collaboration with a local land trust, one of Enterprise for Equity’s newest ventures. During his time on the farm, Mulvaney gained enough new accounts that he was able to expand his business. He purchased the land he’s farming now and has added organic pastured pork and grains.
As Enterprise for Equity’s food-based program has grown, so has their involvement in the local food community. In addition to training individuals, they’re taking a new “industry sector approach,” exploring ways to strengthen small food producers and growers as a whole. One of their next steps is to establish an incubator kitchen.
Smith says engaged, successful business owners become vibrant contributors to the South Sound food economy, making the net effect of the program one that goes far beyond the individuals who bene t.
“We attract geniuses,” she says. “And what we do is help them develop that genius into leadership. You can call it a business training program, but it’s leadership development. The people who graduate our program are community leaders. They understand marketing, they understand production, they understand the research. It’s a workforce development strategy. It’s a poverty alleviation strategy. It’s an economic development strategy. It’s a social justice strategy.”
Jennifer Crain is a freelance writer specializing in food production and small business. She writes from her home in Olympia. Read more about her work at jennifercrain.com.