Amanda Edmonds, the executive director of the local urban farming non-profit Growing Hope just sent in the following letter in response to my recent post about real estate developer Stewart Beal’s newly launched, somewhat competitive, largely for-profit entity, CityFARM.
Many, many community members and partners have come to me this past week with concerns about CityFARM — some of which I share, some of which I don’t share, and some of which. whether I share them or not, it’s not really my place to say. And, I’ve gotten countless calls and emails asking where I stand, and where Growing Hope stands. Stewart did contact me to talk directly over the weekend (and had sent me the email a week ago with the announcement of CityFARM), and Lauren had reached out Thursday/Friday last week (but hadn’t reached me — I’ll meet with her tomorrow. I wanted to wait until talking to them directly before sharing my views in a public forum.
I want to share where I stand philosophically, first. I find absolutely no problem with someone launching a service business in a field they think they have the appropriate competencies, and see market opportunity. Has the work of Growing Hope and others in the Ypsi area contributed to there being a market opportunity in this area? Sure, we have partially made that space, and that in itself is okay. CityFARM will test out their business model and either confirm, tweak, or move on if they don’t find that they have set appropriate price points or have a market here — to me that’s no problem at all, and the market will regulate that. I don’t yet have enough knowledge to understand fully the background they bring to be doing this and specializing in urban food production, but again, I figure that like any business, they’ll test the market, try out their service, and see how it goes.
Growing Hope is launching a somewhat similar service later this spring that will support our raised bed installation program. Since 2009, we’ve helped 150 low and no-income households in our area install raised bed vegetable gardens, and as we’ve found a lot of impact in building families’ capacity to access healthy food this way, we’re looking towards how to sustain that program (which had grant funding in year 1, and has been supported via general donations to GH and utilized volunteer support since) so that we can ensure and grow that impact. So, we’ll do some raised bed installations for a fee for service to bring in income that will support the cost of installing them with other families for free. We won’t do the customization, gardening for people, or other services CityFARM is offering. Let me note, however, that I have zero issue with the fact that CityFARM is also in this “market” we’re about to enter.
One of our considerations when launching a new earned revenue (i.e. call it social enterprise) venture is whether we can start small and scale it up over time — part of what is needed in our context to make something sustainable — so the scale of this for us 2012 will not be super large. We’ll utilize job trainees (via Michigan Works, as we’ve done in the past for other programs), with an end goal of eventually creating some sustainable jobs for people and empowering people with skills. When our Michigan Works Summer Youth Employment Crew helped install the raised beds in 2009, several applied and got to install beds at their own homes– all of those youth were from eligible low-income families — and I found the impact even greater when these young people got to be experts and bring such a great resource to their families. We actually have a whole matrix we developed to assess possible social enterprises, which includes both the business areas (e.g. start up costs, return on investment, etc) and the social factors we care about (does it create jobs, is it helping to overcome barriers for people in growing food, can it be replicated, etc).
The question around CityFARM, however, that is the point of the tension and debate happening — is about the role of the social enterprise component in this new venture. This is something I spend a lot of time reading, thinking, and talking about, and I’d recommend people look up the May 2011 issue of Inc Magazine for by far the best series of articles I’ve ever read about the different legal structures (from nonprofit to for profit, and hybrid models) in social enterprise. I believe there’s a space for people coming from every sector to do good and do it in a way that can sustain jobs, economies, businesses, community, etc. The models of how to do this are still very new, and I think there are a lot of learning curves for everyone attempting this. I think that for some coming from the nonprofit sector launching into more mission-related earned revenue or starting businesses, there is often a learning curve around some of business skills. And, I think that for those in the for-profit sector, there is very real learning around how to further a social mission in a way that (like any nonprofit) is responsive to and fits into the community it impacts, is done in partnership or collaboration with others in the area and involves people in defining the need and best way that entity can make an impact, etc.
From my vantage, when a business aims to engage with or further a social or community mission, there are an entirely different set of considerations (from the business part of the venture) in how that portion is planned, framed, how and when others in the community are informed, engaged, and involved. That is where, as I’ve communicated to Stewart and Lauren, I feel there’s been both naivity and some missteps. There is an active community of many partners in Ypsilanti urban agriculture and food systems in the nonprofit, for profit, and govt sectors — of which we’re clearly a big part — and I’d say we work together pretty well to support the greater issues of food security (which is very different from hunger), local food systems, economic development, making land available for urban growing, etc. Someone coming from a for-profit perspective may not, as has happened here, think about when and how you decide on that “doing good” part of the venture, in the context of a community where things are already happening. It happens, too, with people who show up in an area ready to start a new nonprofit without first contextualizing who is doing what where, what the needs and gaps are, how to gain community input, and, if taken from a positive perspective, where their intentions can really have the most impact. There was little thought — again, not out of any malicious place from my view — to whether it’s appropriate to call something a demonstration urban farm (and what that really means) without talking to someone like Growing Hope or others. We don’t have the monopoly on urban farming, but clearly play a big role here in Ypsi, and the community has invested time and money for now 4+ years to get our demonstration and training urban farm to fully open. (…and we’re getting super near re: this stage of fundraising and completion, ready to open this spring finally!!!!!) There was a lot of purposefulness in what we’ve developed, and before buying the Growing Hope Center property in 2007 we spent two years gaining input and planning for it. (Notably, the nonprofit process often moves much slower than for profit, but there are some advantages re: planfulness.) So, yes, as I told Stewart, I think their not thinking about the appropriateness or consequences of calling their demo donation beds a “demonstration urban farm” is one of the missteps. We’ve worked with Food Gatherers, and all of our area community gardeners, to identify what items are most needed and best grown for donation, and to help get the word out to those growing in the community how best their extra harvest can best impact food security. We’ve tried out systems so that multiple Ypsi gardens can donate their harvest and take turns dropping stuff at Food Gatherers, so we can better leverage the impact. So, we do have some expertise how demonstration donation beds could best showcase and further the impact of this endeavor, and indeed it would have been preferred to be contacted in advance to give input (that they could take or leave) in that design. Likewise, Growing Hope and others in the community teach gardening, through individual community experts like Lisa Bashert, mentoring that happens through small businesses like Ginny Golembewski’s, et al, so in offering that service as part of CityFARM it would have been more appropriate to understand or be in touch with the community of people doing this already and identifying, possibly, a new niche. And, offering an unpaid intern a “certification” in urban gardening can dilute the meaning of other such programs (e.g. the Organic Gardening certification course at WCC developed with Project Grow). I know they just didn’t think of that potential impact — and that’s kind of exactly the point of the issue.
I’ll note without speaking for them that this sort of thing happens in Detroit quite frequently, and I’ve watched the fallout and consequences over the years. An issue becomes “hot”, in part because people on the ground have been working for a long time to build examples of change, and others see that opportunity and get much media attention in their seemingly “new” efforts. It happens in the nonprofit and for profit sectors. I don’t think CityFARM is at all claiming to be the pioneer in this area, but some in and out of our area not familiar with what’s already going on across sectors in Ypsi will see and report on them as such. Clearly, from all the contact people have made with me around this (and I’ve not read most of the blog or a2.com comments yet), people in our community are sensitive to this, and that’s encouraging. In some ways it’ll be in CityFARM’s court to, in countering the storm and moving forward, make conscious effort to reframe their social enterprise part of the venture in the context of who and what’s already happening in the community. I’m confident they will.
And of course, as is happening here, when coming from the for-profit side particularly, some will question the authenticity of the effort, and whether the “doing good” part is more about PR than doing good. It is always worth examining closely for any venture. Ideally, it’s a win-win from both perspectives. While our work starts from the “doing good” side, we do believe we’ll have some competitive advantage because people know the direct impact of their hiring us. And likewise, many of us support businesses in our community because we know they support the community in various ways, from a bar who will host a nonprofit fundraiser, or a business that does pro-bono services, etc. I want a business to tell me what they’re doing good in a community, so that I can support them. People may question whether CityFARM is overstating their prospective impact through some donation gardens? Very possibly, but again in a way the market will to an extent regulate that over time if theirs are conscious consumers.
But, I work to stay positive. Lauren and Stewart both realized they’ve ruffled some feathers without an intention of doing so. I am confident that, as I said to Stewart, we’ll find the win-win opportunities in our community to further the “good work”, and I believe in now realizing what they’ve inadvertently done, they’re looking for that. How can they support local growers and suppliers (us and others) for all of their materials? How can they contribute their resources/assets (e.g. vehicles, et al) at times when other urban ag projects in the community really need them? Maybe their on-line marketplace will sell Growing Hope’s raised bed kits or another community members’ rain barrels. Maybe they’ll hire people who’ve come through ours and others’ training programs. I will offer my own suggestions for finding those win-wins and hope they’ll take some to heart. They of course don’t have to, but for now I’m going to trust that they will. I believe that all we can do is move forward, work towards more positive relationships, be open to really hearing where each other are coming from, and be responsive and respectful of where our community is at. We ultimately need a community — and more specifically a local food system — that supports economy, ecology, and community, and we need to recognize that there are going to be players from a variety of sectors and from a variety of scales in that.
So, how, if at all, does that change your opinion of Beal’s newest venture? And, more importantly, who are you going to hire when it comes time to build your next raised bed – CityFARM or Growing Hope?