This article was written by past Local Food Program Director, Steve Russell.
Last month, we convened with over 200 members of the local food industry, from startup entrepreneurs to industry savants at the Biosphere 2 in Oracle, AZ to discuss how we can improve the local food economy in Arizona. Born from the idea of connecting local food entrepreneurs with sources of funding and collaboration, The Arizona Food and Farm Finance Forum celebrated its inaugural congregation from January 13th – 15th of this year.
The conference was filled with exceptional speakers and workshops featuring big name government and nonprofit organizations, such as: Slow Money, United Food Bank of Arizona, USDA Rural Development Office, Roots of Change, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Raising Dough, BALLE, Prestamos and many more. Between all members and organizations in attendance, the group collectively represented around $373,000 in personal funds and $2,430,000 in institutional funds. Topics covered ranged from assessing financial options and strategies for rural and urban food development to sharing best practices in panel discussions featuring food enterprises that have already made it.
In addition to the learning and collaboration, members in attendance made great networking connections, especially those members who pitched during our Entrepreneur’s Showcase. Representatives from eight innovative local food businesses and nonprofits got up to speak, including: Agrarian Justice, Barrio Bicis, Barrio Kreoger, Recycled City, Seed the Future, Bokashi Evolution, Hayden Flour Mills, La Belle Terre, Lucky Nickel Ranch and Tepa Burger.
According to Natalie Morris of Good Food Finder, “The small-scale grower and artisan production based supply part of the food chain here in Arizona is growing, even more rapidly than is realized. Arizona isn't where it was even five years ago … but this growth naturally leads us to two, very specific needs that Arizona does not currently have in any significant way: for financiers and food distributors to help make opportunities a reality for both our food providers as well as our consumers.”
In this spirit, the showcase was a unique opportunity for these businesses to pitch their needs to an audience of experts and funding avenues. At the end of the day, new ideas and connections were shared, and the strength of our local food industry grew in true Slow Money fashion: by making small-scale relationships and collaborations.
Lina Austin, the Director of Seed the Future and one of our Entrepreneur Showcase presenters, informed us that post-event she already began talks with a local manufacturer in the room, who sought them out to grow produce for him on contract! Another farmer also followed up to present a proposal to share resources and allow use of their three refrigerated vans for his produce transport.
Local First Arizona hosted this conference in partnership with the University of Arizona Southwest Center, Good Food Finder, Pima County Food Alliance, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Edible Baja Arizona and Edible Phoenix. Local First Arizona would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Steele Foundation, whose generous support enabled us to organize this event.