17 December 2012
When we first began laying the groundwork for VEGGI Farmers' Cooperative in 2010, it was just myself, Khai, two Vietnamese growers, who were both put out of work due to the BP oil spill, and my trusty 2000 Toyota Sienna (product placement not intended). Fortunately, we had a clear, community-driven mission:
We were determined to create a local, community-owned farmers' cooperative that would use sustainable agriculture and aquaponics.
Aquaponics is a process that creates a fertile ecosystem to symbiotically raise fish and vegetables simultaneously, which we use as a vehicle to create jobs for community members—many of whom were and are still unemployed due to the BP oil spill—and to increase food access in New Orleans. We'd harvest every Friday and do small deliveries to Hollygrove Market and Farm and the New Orleans Food Co-op, and we’d celebrate whenever we could put more than $200 in the pockets of our farmers.
Since then, my van has broken down three times and undergone more than $3,000 dollars in repairs, but we've also upgraded to a nice, partially insulated, commercial Ford E-350 which we use to make deliveries twice a week to 20+ local restaurants and grocers in New Orleans. We've also expanded from two growers to 16 and we celebrate when we're pulling in quadruple-digit incomes for our growers.
“Một cây làm chẳng nên non - Ba cây chụm lại nên hòn núi cao”
One tree cannot become a hill – three trees together can become a high mountain.
- Vietnamese Proverb
We love this proverb because behind our achievements is a great support network of partners, friends, and family that have helped transform us from two guys, two farmers, and a minivan to a farmers' cooperative developing significant acreage of farm land for community cultivation.
We have been fortunate enough to be able to work with great organizations, such as Oxfam America, MQVN Community Development Corporation, Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum, Greenforall, Cooperative Development Foundation, the Funding Seed, and of course, Propeller: A Source for Social Innovation.
VEGGI's involvement as one of Propeller's Accelerator Fellows has been transformative. We've spent months working closely with consultants such as Nora Ellertsen from the Funding Seed to polish our pitch, strengthen our local and national networks, develop fundraising and financial strategic plans, and fundraise over $100,000.
It definitely hasn't been an easy journey. We're eternally grateful to have an opportunity to be on this adventure with all of our growers. There have been long, contentious meetings, failed crops, many aphids, too strong of a hurricane (Isaac), destroyed greenhouses, rejected product, and ridiculous grant deadlines. At the end of the day, I'd do it all over again because I can say that everyone who has been brave enough to get their hands dirty (figuratively and literally) with us, whether it's been through helping with grant writing, learning Vietnamese, tasting our tofu, helping harvest spring mix, or even sharing a nice, cold beer after a long day's work, has become family.
As we enter into 2013, VEGGI Farmers' Cooperative is excited to grow from our initial small-scale operation to our second phase commercialized operation. Together with our partners, we look forward to creating even more community jobs, developing and beautifying acres of blighted property in our community, developing youth programs, delving into bio-diesel and composting, and of course, growing and eating good food.