UNC nourishes sustainable local food business

March 15, 2010 at 9:27 pm 2 comments

Jennifer Curtis had a great idea for a sustainable food processing enterprise. But she needed some help executing it. So two years ago she turned to an array of consulting services offered by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Jennifer Curtis, right with Tina Prevatte, at Weaver Street Market.

She had been hired as a consultant to the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) to manage NC Choices, an initiative funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to promote local, sustainable food in North Carolina.  Her goal was to develop market opportunities for local family farms raising pasture-based livestock.

“My background was primarily in nonprofit and academic organizations, rather than for-profit business management and development,” she said. “So I thought I could use some help.” She applied for and was accepted into the Business Accelerator for Sustainable Enterprise (BASE), created by the Center for Sustainable Enterprise (CSE) at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

“(It) was an awesome way for me to meet other business people and begin to understand different business models and various stages of business development,” Curtis said. “It was an opportunity to do some serious networking and consider possible business solutions.”

BASE helped her solve a key challenge facing NC Choices: A collaboration of several local farmers and Weaver Street Market, the southeast’s largest natural foods grocer,  wanted to provide as much local, sustainably produced meat as possible.  After two years with help from NC Choices, they are now sourcing 100 percent of their grass-fed beef and 40 percent of their pasture-raised pork from local farmers.

Despite that success, the program is difficult to scale, Curtis said. There remains a major bottleneck blocking local, small-scale farmers’ access to larger-scale retail and food service markets.

“BASE helped me to see that bottleneck as a business opportunity and to identify potential solutions that would both benefit farmers and local buyers interested in sourcing local meats,” she said.

Her plan evolved to focus on incubating a sustainable business that could provide local, pasture-based meat and value-added products to local retail grocers and restaurants on behalf of small-scale farmers.

CSE consultant Kelly Boone helped Curtis realize she had to get a handle on the financials before investing any more time in developing the business.  When CSE ran a preliminary financial model, Curtis met another CSE consultant, Tina Prevatte, a UNC graduate student in planning and business. It was Prevatte’s idea to get NC Choices involved in UNC’s Launching the Venture program that provides help in market testing the feasibility of ideas and launching the ones with high potential for success. The program is part of the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative (CEI), which fosters innovation in the liberal arts and sciences, as well as in business.

Curtis’ team refined its business model and received the LTV Coaches Award, recognizing the team closest to actually launching its venture. NC Choices eventually hired Prevatte as its full-time business development director in 2009.

NC Choices is now nearly ready to launch the business: a branded meat-processing company that will use only local farmers and local markets. She credits UNC’s “suite of entrepreneurial support services” for this success.

–Excerpted from the Carolina Entrepreneurial Initiative newsletter.

Entry filed under: Learning, Sustainable Farming, Sustainable Food, Uncategorized. Tags: , .

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