New Orleans Nonprofit Incubates and Connects Local Farmers and Growers
March 3, 2015 | Trish Popovitch
Since its inception in 2002, the New Orleans Food and Farm Network (NOFFN) has been sponsoring growing projects and providing technical and financial support to local agriculture.
But their latest project, Food & Farm Works @ Edible Enterprises — a collaboration between them and St. Charles Parish — takes the New Orleans local food movement a step further by incubating small food producers through a commercial kitchen and business education program.
“This is the time to think about food security in a very practical way; how do you incubate projects that are self sustaining? How do we help people make a living doing it?” asks Sanjay Kharod, Executive Director of NOFFN. Kharod took over the nonprofit four years ago, bringing with him a strong background in food justice. In his previous position, he worked as a partnership developer in New York’s highly successful Just Food organization.
“We started looking at markets. We’re trying to get food entrepreneurs to start using our kitchens and sourcing from local farmers,” he says. St. Charles parish opened the facility in 2010, but in December of last year re-launched the site as a local food and farm incubator.
Since 2010, the site has incubated 35 successful tenants and is currently facilitating projects with several startups including a baked goods company, two tea producers, a tomato grower, an elderberry extract maker and a local honey producer. One former tenant went from making a value-added product to expanding into opening their own restaurant.
“We’re trying to recruit food entrepreneurs, but also looking at what other things we can do with this kitchen,” says Kharod. A former warehouse facility, the Food & Farm Works space is approximately 30,000 square feet. The two kitchens on the site are approximately 3,500 square feet each and fully equipped for retail processing. The kitchen has a $20 per hour fee and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Due to local laws, the kitchen cannot facilitate catering companies or food trucks, but offers packaging, processing and warehousing space for small producers.
One of this year’s goals for NOFFN is working with a local tomato grower who has secured a restaurant contract. Kharod hopes the project will illustrate that by building firm contracts between local growers and commercial vendors, farmers will have the economic security to support expansion of their own businesses while retailers can capitalize on the niche of locally sourced products.
“Basically we’re matchmaking,” says Kharod. Actively seeking new businesses to incubate, Kharod attends local farmers’ markets looking for opportunities to facilitate the growth of local sustainable businesses.
Kharod feels that more small growers and producers could have the tools to expand and sustain their businesses if more regional stakeholders were proactively sharing information.
“Sharing of information is really important because you really want those who are motivated, who really want to do it, to take that information and run with it. I think that’s what we’re trying to bring to this incubator project and to our farmer incubator project,” says Kharod.
Sustainable businesses are on the rise in New Orleans, according to Kharod, noting a large amount of new residents in the city that have left the drought-worn fields of California in hopes of finding fertile ground in the south. For farmers, both established and new, Sanjay hopes their incubator can help connect the dots of local food economics. By encouraging the small value-added businesses he works with to source their ingredients through local farmers and by finding larger contracts for local growers, Sanjay hope to further strengthen the interdependence of a local sustainable economy.
The main challenge for the incubator kitchen facility is its location 15 miles outside the downtown area.
“They feel like it’s too far, but the idea is you are not there all the time; you are only there to make your product and the rest of the time you are trying to market your product,” says Kharod. He hopes more people will inquire when they realize it is the only facility of its kind in the region, and offers not only low-cost rental use, packing equipment and storage space, but provides the means for cottage industry style companies to obtain an occupational license.
Along with the processing facility, NOFFN offers its clients business training and financial assistance through their grant writing efforts and partner organizations Louisiana Small Business Development Center and Good Work Network. Using the new nonprofit focused on social enterprise Propeller, NOFFN is actively working to promote their facility by reaching out to retailers and restaurants.
“We’re putting real substance in the farm-to-table talk,” says Kharod. “We need to get food entrepreneurs into our kitchen because it’s underutilized. We need to show people that there’s real value in that.”