Raising dough: Elizabeth Ü on 
financing food

08/08/2013

A new book by a Marin native helps entrepreneurs navigate the complex and daunting task of financing their food ventures, whether they have only the vaguest notion of a void in the market they could fill or are seasoned producers looking to finance an expansion. Raising Dough: The Complete Guide to Financing a Responsible Food Business will be the topic of discussion on August 20 at a free Dance Palace event in hopes of helping entrepreneurs as well as those seeking to invest locally. 

West Marin is no stranger to passion-driven individuals determined to contribute to the local “food shed,” whether through organic crops, pastured meat, tangy cheeses, baked goods or fermented foods. But the financial realities can be intimidating, especially to those who have cultivated expertise in the field or kitchen but are cowed by calculating interest on a loan or untangling the reporting requirements of federal grants. 

Enter Elizabeth Ü, who has for years been at the forefront of financing for sustainable and socially responsible food and agriculture. Ms. Ü’s experiences range from harvesting vegetables and slaughtering pigs at Gospel Flats to helping launch a fund so that philanthropic institutions can more easily offer loans to food ventures. 

Today she runs Financing for Food, a business she founded in 2010, which provides consulting to socially aware food and agricultural entrepreneurs.

In Raising Dough, Ms. Ü advises hopeful business owners to consider which values are sacrosanct—especially when a partner or investors are involved. Must every ingredient be purchased locally, every crop grown organically? What kind of packaging will encase your wares, and will it be recyclable, biodegradable or compostable?

For Betsy Fields, who started the San Rafael-based From the Field, which produces granola and oatmeal, ensuring her business adhered to her own values was paramount. Packaging is one aspect of the business that Ms. Fields strives to keep in check, and she said that over 65 percent of what she sells through retailers, like Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, is through bulk bins. “I don’t believe in waste,” she said. Her business partner, she said, is on board with her value system, though he has quipped more than once, “Could you make this any harder?”  

In her book, Ms. Ü recounts a cautionary tale of Katie McCaskey and Brian Wiedemann, who moved to Virginia and entered into a partnership with another couple to open a local grocery store. But although both couples agreed on the importance of buying locally, Ms. McCaskey and Mr. Wiedemann learned that their definitions of local differed after the other couple purchased bulk cheese from a nearby Costco.

After driving home the importance of bookkeeping and business plans, as well as the factors involved in deciding whether the venture will be nonprofit or for-profit and whether it will take the form of a sole proprietorship, a partnership, a limited liability company or a traditional corporation, Ms. Ü runs down the array of financing options.

The place to start, Ms. Ü writes, is with oneself: “You will be your business’s very first investor, through the hard work you put in, the personal assets you commit to business use, and infusion of real, hard cash.” So save up for as long as possible, she advises, and prepare for the long haul, because if often takes much longer to lure outside funding than one might expect.

Tamara Hicks has owned Toluma Farms in Tomales with her partner for 10 years, but only this year did they launch their goat creamery. They had been selling the milk on the commodities market for a few years, but the cheese is their first product under their own label. “It’s taken a lot longer than we anticipated,” she said. 

In addition to one’s personal savings, debt is also an important financing option. Although the idea of debt brings apprehension to many, “It can also be an amazing short-term tool, as long as you understand the terms you’re getting yourself into,” Ms. Ü told the Light.

Debt can take on a multitude of forms: credit card debt, a second mortgage, loans from family and friends or loans from major institutions such as banks.

Janet Brown of Allstar Organics said she and her partner, Marty Jacobsen, declined to enlist friends and family, instead relying on a mixture of their own savings and a credit card when they started their small farm in West Marin in 1994. At one point down the line, they took out a line of credit to ramp up and expand. 

Ms. Brown and Mr. Jacobsen also worked to minimize their costs, using recycled and repurposed materials for a greenhouse, for example. “We took all the risk,” Ms. Brown said, explaining the decision as a mixture of her own discomfort with gambling others’ finances and the desire to blaze her own path. “Part of the entrepreneurial thing is wanting to do it your way.”

Major lending institutions—banks, community development financial institutions, credit unions, and an innovative organization called RSF Social Finance—are also options, and each comes with benefits and drawbacks. RSF, where Ms. Ü worked for three years, provides loans and lines of credit to either nonprofit or for-profit ventures whose social mission, structure and sustainability meet specific criteria. 

One increasingly popular means of financing, online crowdfunding, a strategy Inverness restaurateur Luc Chamberland employed for Saltwater, is a relatively new method. But Ms. Ü emphasizes that there are key differences between online campaigns soliciting simple cash gifts, pre-selling a product such as a meal, and using online peer-to-peer lending networks, where people expect a return on their investment.

Although the latter can be useful for those who are seeking loans but have no collateral, there could be serious consequences if the entrepreneur does not have a firm understanding of the legal requirements surrounding securities law.

Federal grants and loans are also available for some businesses, though Ms. Ü warns that grants especially are often distressingly cumbersome, especially for small food businesses that may not have the capacity to keep up with the reporting and documentation the government requires. 

Toluma Farms used $150,000 in federal funds from a rural development grant from the United States Department of Agriculture in 2010, for which the farm had to provide matching funds, to support a few staff positions, including the newly hired cheesemaker. And although Ms. Hicks has no regrets about accepting the grant, the reporting requirements were cumbersome, to say the least. “I have a doctorate degree, and I still can hardly figure this thing out,” she said.

Ms. Ü covers a number of other options, including foundations, public offerings, various types of investors and selling the business to a large corporation. 

But no single means of financing a sustainable food business will cover every expense, and a successful venture will almost certainly take advantage of a slew of funding sources. 

She refers to the process as a jigsaw puzzle, especially as the marketplace is not yet efficiently connecting those people who want to invest in local or sustainable food sheds with entrepreneurs. Still, she writes, “the field of food finance is shifting in a positive direction, more rapidly now than at any other time since I’ve been paying close attention.”

 

Elizabeth Ü will discuss financing socially responsible business with West Marin entrepreneurs Luc Chamberland of Saltwater Oyster Depot and Teddy Stray of Point Reyes Compost Company at the Dance Palace Community and Cultural Center on August 20 at 7 p.m. The event is being presented by Point Reyes Books, Slow Money North Bay, Mount Vision Local Investment Opportunities Network and Marin Organic.