Monthly Archives: March 2010

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Grist.org ~ Silicon Valley Places Bets on Sustainable Ag

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by Todd Woody

I attended an agriculture conference this week at the Four Seasons in Palo Alto.

There were no pickup trucks in the BMW-packed parking lot, and few farmers with dirt under their fingernails could be found milling about the sleek hotel lobby. But the place was swarming with venture capitalists from some of Silicon Valley’s marquee firms looking to grow profits with investments in sustainable agriculture.

Welcome to Agriculture 2.0.

That was the name of the conference and represents a growing effort to scale up sustainable agriculture from a hodge-podge of hippies and back-to-the-land types into a viable big business by bringing together venture capitalists and startups doing everything from rooftop farming to high-tech soil mapping to identifying the best areas for growing crops.

The big idea is that venture capitalists can help disrupt industrial agriculture much as they have the computer, entertainment and energy industries by investing in sustainable ag and using information technology to connect producers and consumers.

“We want to create an opportunity for a market, not a movement,” said Roxanne Christensen of SPIN Farming, which promotes the creation of urban microfarms.

The Palo Alto conference was organized by NewSeed Advisors, a New York firm that acts as a matchmaker between investors and sustainable ag startups.

Janine Yorio, a young former Wall Street investment banker, founded NewSeed and persuaded such high-profile venture firms as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital and Mohr Davidow Partners to spend Wednesday hearing pitches from a roster of sustainable ag entrepreneurs, who ranged from twenty-something Los Angeles farmers to silver-haired engineers developing environmentally friendly fertilizers.

So how to crack a century-old food production system that has become both increasingly centralized and globalized?

It won’t be easy, says Melanie Cheng, founder of FarmsReach, a San Francisco startup developing an online market to connect farmers to local buyers like restaurants. Continue Reading →

Fast Company ~ Eat-Onomics: The 10 Most Inspiring People in Sustainable Food

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by Stephanie Schomer

The way America eats has to change, that’s no secret. Thanks to the efforts of these ten trailblazers, that change might be closer than we think.

Dan Barber, executive chef and co-owner of Blue Hill Farm

Barber is the brains behind the “Know thy Farmer” philosophy embraced at Blue Hill Farm. He was recently honored at the USA Network’s Character Approved Awards for his achievements in “green” food cultivation and preparation. A passionate advocate for regional farm networks, Barber continues to practice what he preaches at his family owned farms, as well as with the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.

Deborah Kane, Vice President of Food and Farms at Ecotrust

Last month, Ecotrust began allowing Northwest food producers and buyers to utilize FoodHub, an online resource aimed to simplify their connections with each other and increase food trade in the Pacific Northwest. Kane continues to expound Ecotrust’s mission to inspire fresh thinking that promotes social equity, economic opportunity and environmental well-being.

Mike Yohay, CEO of Cityscape Farms

Yohay’s Cityscape Farms continues to work to produce great-tasting fresh food for local buyers with its hydroponic greenhouses. “Hydroponic farming is incredibly innovative and resource economical compared to conventional farming. It’s well-suited for cities because you can do it anywhere,” says Yohay.

Gary Hirshberg, CEO, Stonyfield Farm

In the past 26 years, Hirshberg has taken his organic yogurt company and turned it into an organic yogurt empire worth $340 million. Stonyfield Farm doesn’t just deliver high-quality food to consumers, but pays farmers 60-100% more than conventional farmers, to ensure the use of sustainable farming practices. What does he ask of his customers? “When you shop, you’re really voting for the kind of world you want. It is power,” he says. “We should use that power for good.”

Roger Doiron, founder, Kitchen Gardeners International

Doiron can proudly take credit for bringing a garden to the lawn of the White House with Eat the View, a campaign that rallied Americans’ desire to see a healthier First Family. “I knew this garden had been proposed in the past, and it had its champions–Alice Waters, Michael Pollan,” he says. “I wasn’t a rock star like them, but thought I could play the role of a roadie, making sure the mics are on and the amps are cranked up to make sure other people’s voices were heard.”

Jamie Oliver, chef

The Naked Chef is on a mission to bring healthy food to every child in America. His campaign, Jamie’s Food Revolution, aims to replace junk food and processed snacks with fresh and nutritious meals, in school and at home. ABC will air a six-part series tracking the campaign as Oliver heads to Huntington, West Virginia, which has been called the unhealthiest city in America. If Oliver can make Huntington healthy, he might be able to make America healthy.

Melanie Cheng, founder, FarmsReach

San Francisco-based FarmsReach pairs farmers up with buyers for sustainable local food systems, with plans to be nationwide by 2011. “If you look at statistics, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture are awesome, growing distribution methods, but they still make up less than 1% of food volume sold in the country,” she says. “That’s why we’re working with the wholesale channel, for distributors and bigger institutions.”

Michael Pollan, author, Food Rules

Pollan’s latest book, Food Rules, offers memorable tips on making wise eating choices. In his new book, Pollan (who has been described as the nation’s most trusted resource for food-related issues) shows Americans that “eating doesn’t have to be so complicated.”

Dickson Despommier, Vertical Farms Project

The Vertical Farms Project is the brainchild of Despommier, a professor at Columbia, and his students. Envisioning a world of sustainable farms housed in urban skyscrapers, the project proposes paying traditional farmers to simply plant trees on their land, in an attempt to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Crazy? Maybe. But it’s inspiring more thought, more solutions.

Robert Kenner, director, Food Inc.

Kenner’s documentary Food Inc. did its fair share of grossing viewers out by exposing the heinous slaughter practices (and eating habits) found across our country. More importantly, the film, which showcased leaders like Hirshberg, showed that it is possible to eat healthy and enjoy it.

Civil Eats ~ Produce to the People: Collaboration for Food Access

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by Twilight Greenaway

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When it comes to local food, supply and demand aren’t always in sync. Many Bay Area shoppers still lack convenient access to affordable local food while many farmers struggle to expand their markets, even as awareness of the value of their products continues to grow. And while traditional farmers markets and CSAs are crucial to the success of many small farms, they ultimately account for a relatively small percentage of the total food that people buy.

How then can communities provide access to more fresh, healthy local food that is sustainably produced? How do we to create more demand (and a fair market) for farmers, while ensuring food security for people otherwise entirely dependent on the industrial food system? These were a few of the critical questions on the table at Produce for the People: New Ideas for Local Distribution, a panel co-hosted last week by CUESA and Kitchen Table Talks.

More people than expected turned out for this evening conversation and with a 138-person limit to the Port Commission Hearing Room at the Ferry Plaza Building in San Francisco, many people stood in the doorways to hear what was being said. Clearly, the conversation is an important one, worthy of further talks; and this one addressed the tip of the iceberg, addressing topics such as the history of this essential part of the food system, projects in the works, and suggestions for change.

The evening’s moderator, Roots of Change’s Michael Dimock, began with a definition of the challenge at hand. “The [food] system is incredibly concentrated,” he said. “That concentration has destroyed the system’s diversity and resilience.” Dimock briefly explained how problems arise with a concentration of production facilities, the increasing size of the average farm, and the concentration of distribution, retail outlets, and capital. One of the many consequences, he added, is a startling number of food deserts – or vast, under-resourced urban and rural areas where there is little or no fresh food available and the shocking reality that the people who grow our local food can rarely afford to buy it. Continue Reading →