I had the pleasure of starting and ending one of the last weeks of 2018 at Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, a working farm that views itself as a “laboratory dedicated to sustainable farming practices,” and also home to the world-renowned restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns. I was there to observe portions of their first-ever Entrepreneurship Intensive, which gathered 18 ‘farm-preneurs’ from around the countryto learn from each other, the Stone Barns team, and entrepreneurship experts, including William Rosenzweig, a UC Berkeley professor and long-time social enterprise champion. As I hoped, both events I attended were deliciously enhanced by Blue Hill food, including the so-simple, but delicious radishes, which epitomize the natural beauty and nourishment for which Stone Barns farmers, and all of the 18 farm-preneurs in the Intensive, work so hard to grow.
The program was born out of a connection between Jill Isenbarger, CEO of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, and Will Rosenzweig, which revealed that they’d never seen farmers appreciated as social entrepreneurs. And yet, from their work to improve our food system, both of them knew farmers who were pursuing exactly those business models, designed to create impact far beyond profit. Isenbarger and Rosenzweig also knew firsthand how hard it is for those ‘farm-preneurs’ to achieve the ‘simple’ goal of economic survival, much less their ultimate target of “MVB: meaning, value, and beauty,” as Rosenzweig put it. After speaking with dozens of potential ‘farm-preneur’ participants to understand the interest, needs, and constraints of their target audience, they rallied financial and organizational support to put on the pilot they had designed accordingly. And that was the week in December that I’m so grateful to have experienced. I wanted more of us to benefit from the nourishing lessons I gained from the week, and so here are five particularly rich take-aways.
- Connection has to be fed.
The facilitators were careful to design the program to fit their audience: early to mid-career farmers, who spend a lot of their time in isolation. They assigned meal partners for the first five meals of the week, and provided discussion questions, to ensure that the group would connect, even with the more introverted members. Many of the farm-preneurs also shared their desires and needs to build connections in their work, resulting in informal and formal groups. One example is the Common Grains Alliance, established by farm-preneur Michael Grantz and his colleagues to “build a vibrant, integrated, and sustainable grain economy in Virginia and surrounding areas”.
- Define and engage your community.
The farm-preneurs, like most social entrepreneurs, talked a lot about the communities in and with which they work. But the week’s introduction to entrepreneurship tools and strategies revealed that many weren’t engaging as fully or productively with the players in those communities as they could. An eco-system mapping exercise that Rosenzweig led helped the farm-preneurs to recognize opportunities to serve and benefit from the people and institutions around them. Stacy Brenner described the ongoing and expanding relationship she has with their landlord, a nonprofit Land Trust, as a powerful win-win collaboration.