Confessions of a Non-Profit.

Sanjay Kharod, Executive Director of Farm City Initiative (NOFFN) and 2013-14 Accelerator Fellow, discusses his work to advance urban agricultural development, the success of NOFFN, and his experience working with Propeller.

8 July 2014

Think about the future. Not too far forward; say only 6 years away – to 2020. Where will your food come from? The dominant producer of the US's fruits and veggies – California – is in a drought right now, and climate change is expected to make its water supply increasingly scarce. Nowadays, people have the option of choosing local food over externally-sourced food, and many choose to do so because local food is fresher or because it impacts the environment more positively. However, in the future, as external sources of food become less dependent, finding sources of local food will be a necessity because it may be all that is available. Who is going to produce this local food? Farmers, of course. Did you know that the average age of farmers today is 57 (compared to the average age of all workers at 42)? That means there are not many folks getting into farming as a career. Therefore, we need to do all we can to encourage growth in this sector.

So how do we help those new farmers get started? This is the question I tried to answer during my Propeller Accelerator Fellowship. That isn't exactly true. I confess that I entered the fellowship with only a vague idea of what was needed to encourage the growth of farmers, an idea based on things tried in the past by us and other non-profits. Thankfully, that approach changed because of the "Propeller Effect". Working with Propeller Staff - AC, BL, JS, DK, TA, SS - my consultant SD, with help from RM, JW, SS, and insights gained from fellow Fellows and others, I came to realize that what needed creating was more than an initiative or a non-profit program. This region already possesses the people, land, and climate necessary to produce fresh, affordable, and healthy food. What we needed was infrastructure to support the diverse community of entrepreneurs and producers in creating a strong local food economy with their own sustainable businesses. What we needed was to build a movement that could adapt and respond to available opportunities while allowing entry for all interested in taking part.

NOFFN is supporting the growth of a resilient local food system over time by providing a methodology, knowledge, connections, and resources – handholds for people to grab onto as they negotiate the system’s complexities. We call it FarmCity Toolbox. It democratizes information access for everyone; it does not pander or paternalistically place NOFFN as the gatekeeper that folks need to call to get inside information or special treatment from a city agency. We are creating a transparent and understandable system to help advance urban agriculture by addressing the sector’s 4 main obstacles to growth:

  1. Land Issues (getting land – check out the pathways on Living Lots NOLA, water access, property liability insurance, materials)
  2. Lack of Farm Financing options to develop farms and begin growing
  3. Lack of Market Development
  4. Lack of access to Workshops/Training/Mentoring to nurture growth

And it's working. New market farmers and neighborhood groups are using the tools of the FarmCity Toolbox – the Living Lots NOLA map, the template leases between landowners and farmers, property liability insurance guidance, soil testing, and more – to initiate projects. In addition, private landowners have approached NOFFN to express their interest in leasing their properties for projects. Since the start of the Accelerator Fellowship, NOFFN has helped 6 projects start and has provided technical assistance to more than 120 others. The establishment of the new Vetiver Farm is a wonderful example of FarmCity in action. These farmers were looking for the right amount of land for their project for months. Their plan was to organically-raise produce and plant starts in greenhouses. By using Living Lots NOLA and the tools from the FarmCity Toolbox, they were able to secure a 1/2 acre in the Bywater by leasing from a private landowner who asked NOFFN to be listed on the map. Within days of being listed, farmers and landowners were negotiating a lease.

Let's go back to the odd title of this blog post. Working as an Accelerator Fellow over the past year forced me, as an Executive Director of a non-profit, to admit that I didn't know how to do some things (correction – a lot of things) and needed help, guidance, advice, support, organization building. There is a level of freedom that comes from this admission, and I'm thankful for the support I received and will continue to receive from my allies in this movement we are helping to build.