The HVADC Cultivator
The Farm and Food Funding Accelerator
Since 2016, the Farm and Food Funding Accelerator (FFFA) program has been one of the signature programs offered by the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation. Beyond the primary suite of services offered by HVADC, the FFFA program offers participants expert instruction, one-on-one counseling and technical assistance, group interaction and industry networking events to learn how to build their sales in anticipation of speaking with investors, discover new market opportunities, and pitch to potential funders.. Amidst the pandemic, the third class of FFFA Peers completed their eight month training in June with a virtual pitch session to potential funders.
There have been two classes of the FFFA administered during the most recent funding award period of 2018-2020, and the projects developed by the 19 participating businesses have, to date created 82 full-time-equivalent positions and accounted for $1.6 million in private, federal, state and personal investment. These figures will undoubtedly grow, as the business plans of the 2019-2020 class are baring fruit more slowly as a result of the unforeseen impact of the pandemic.
This year, COVID-19 brought unique challenges to the program as social distancing requirements intrinsically altered the interpersonal collaborative nature of the FFFA. However, while 2020 was the most complicated years for the program it was also very successful. Online meetings and presentations through Zoom succeeded due to the enthusiasm and investment of every member of the cohort. Nine farms and food businesses participated in the program’s most recent class and each made meaningful steps towards their businesses development projects through FFFA’s professionally guided financial planning and the eventual procurement of funds through loans and grants.
“We are always so proud of the hard work and perseverance of all of our FFFA participants, but this year we are truly in awe of the work this class put in and the courage they showed to undertake major projects to better their businesses, especially given the unknowns presented by the shifting COVID economy.” Said Todd Erling, HVADC Executive Director. “All of the participants this year were strong businesses with confident visions for the future and HVADC is grateful for the opportunity to help them reach their goals. Their success is the Hudson Valley’s success.”
This year’s FFFA graduates included Ardith Mae Farmstead Goat Cheese owner Shereen Alinaghian who has already used the plan she created through the program to raise significant funds to buy new land, move her farm and build a new processing facility. While the project is ambitious, her FFFA backed business plan is bolstered by a major increase in business as she has wisely navigated emerging online and home delivery markets.
Other class participants included Carrie Dashow and Suresh Pillai of Atina Foods who were working to expand and increase production of their unique and popular line of South Indian Ayurvedic fermented condiments.
“It’s been great with HVADC. They really helped us professionalize what we were doing,” said Dashow. “We get to bounce things off mentors who have been in our position before and it helped us speed things up that we needed to do anyway, like the online store.”
Emily Elder and Margaret Thomas of Great Song Farm weren’t looking for immediate funding but instead used the FFFA to solidify their corporate structure and arrangement with their landlord. This new technical fluency gave them the confidence in their bookkeeping they needed during the pandemic to balance financial stability of their own sales with a robust food donation program.
Cousins Jude Goldman and Reuben Schwartz of Vital Eats LLC. were already selling their line of plant-based condiments and packaged snacks through major retailers when they came to the FFFA. Their pitch was to seek funding to further their marketing efforts. This would include improving their Amazon presence, augmenting their website with new e-commerce tools, and hiring a marketing employee. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they also refined their current website, streamlining online ordering, offering products from other food makers, and new delivery services.
Zack and Annie Metzger of Laughing Earth Farm in Cropseyville, were focusing on sustainable growth of the business through the addition of a commercial kitchen and processing facility that will allow an increase in the product line toward more value-added products such as cured meats. Laughing Earth has been a recipient of a NYS Grown & Certified grant, as well as a grant for estate planning which was enabled by working with the FFFA legal advisor. They quickly implemented an online ordering system when the pandemic hit and brought in goods from other producers. They also completed construction of their new farm market this year, which has further enabled their Farm Share distribution and self-serve pick-ups.
Kristin Nelson founded The Ardent Homesteader on her small family farm in Ardent, to create one product – a stellar salted caramel sauce. With the help of the FFFA she was planning the launch of a caramel popcorn snack line, working with the program’s advisors and resources on the logistics of processing and packaging.
“One of the most important elements was the incredible support from our mentors and great learning opportunities and camaraderie among peers,” said Nelson. “Meeting the others in the cohort and being able to see how our businesses all face distinct challenges has been reassuring...no matter if our issues are similar or different; we all have something to learn from each other’s experience.”
Richard and Alicia Romano of Screamin’ Onionz in Millbrook are passionate about getting their flavorful and healthy condiment into more markets, schools, institutions and even stadiums. The Romanos used the FFFA program as an opportunity to refine their business plan, branding strategy and pitch presentation.
“We went to the FFFA Program because we knew they could help us build a bridge to get the product where we need it to go,” said Richard Romano. “One thing that kept me going when I was previously starting restaurants, was passing on the philosophy that every guest needs to feel cared for. I feel that with HVADC. We feel cared for. We feel that they want us to succeed.”
Pamela Clarke Torres of Prospect Hill Orchards: Farm Markets in Milton came to the FFFA to find tools to help refine plans for the fruit farm that has been in her family for over 200 years. Pamela worked with the program’s legal, business strategies and marketing advisors to develop and progress a plan to expand marketing of the her dried apple product, as well as work through the logistics of the generational transition and increasing the farm’s public facing U Pick operations.
“Every one of this year’s FFFA graduates went above and beyond. The crops and products they are producing are some of the best in the region. Helping them reach wider markets is good for all of us and we can’t wait for the public to get their hands on their delicious offerings.” Said Mary Ann Johnson, HVADC Deputy Director. “In a year with more than it’s fare share of bad news, the growth of these farms and food businesses is some welcome positivity.”
After the completion of this, the third FFFA confab it’s clear the program is much needed, especially in the current climate. COVID sent a shockwave through the farm and food industry creating disruptions and closures. Economic relief available to other industries was slow to become available to farm operations. Farms selling direct to consumer faired the best during this time as they implemented creative plans to get product to their customers in a safe manner. However, value-added businesses struggled due to unavailability of commercial kitchens, processing facilities and a tremendous decrease in wholesale orders as stores and restaurants shut down. While it is likely too soon to fully understand all of the implications of a post COVID business environment, HVADC has encouraged its businesses to remain engaged with their customers as we emerge from the pandemic. The FFFA has provided the tools to do just that.
Funding for the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 classes of the FFFA program was made possible by the US Department of Commerce Economic Development Agency. For more information about the FFFA program, visit https://www.hvadc.org/farm-food-funding-accelerator.