501(c)3 Public Charity…Here We Come! @F2SMonth #FarmtoSchool

Have you ever had one of those “I’ve gotta Press this” moments? Well, I’m smack dab in the middle of one!

I’ve spent the last couple of months doing some truly grassroots reaching out…my front yard has been a non-stop, honesty-based, fresh local produce stand. In the beginning, I was working elsewhere part-time. At that point, most of the maintenance and interpersonal communication was handled by my wife. Things changed, and I was able to devote my attention to what turned out to be a multi-faceted operation…exactly as I would have had it, looking back. More on the specifics of recent events can be found on the Facebook Page.

Today, on October 19, we have a display that boasts fresh local tomatoes, sweet corn, peppers, zucchini, garlic, and pumpkins. Non-food items such as straw and decorative corn are also available. The local fresh food at this time of the year is pretty much unprecedented in our little community in East-Central Illinois, and we receive thanks on a near-daily basis from our customers. It can be the norm, and others are stepping up to help it become so!

There are obvious hiccups associated with a front-yard stand, especially when the front yard has about six feet of space in the most visible area. Weather…. Oh, I could complain about the weather, if that was what this blog was about. As my neighbor so aptly stated, “Anything to do with agriculture is reliant on the weather.” The gist of the comment on weather refers to rain, frost possibilities, and of course heat. We lost approximately 38% of what would otherwise be high quality, marketable goods to weather. We lost sales due to adverse conditions (Really, who wants to shop in the rain?). But, we kept track of all of that, and it’s also helpful to the cause. We helped people…profitably.

What’s more, we have had customers drive 50 or more miles from nearly every direction, while operating on a budget of less than $30 for Advertising/Marketing!

For those who have followed Illiana Ag Alliance for very long, you likely know that the form of organization is a sole proprietorship. Frankly, I did not know anybody that was able to see the movement through without risk of perverting it. I also thought that the only way a quick decision could be made was through this form of organization. I have been, and am, willing to take the risk of making the wrong decisions…. I was wrong…or at least, to think that remaining as a sole proprietorship now is the best solution is incorrect.

I made my decision about a week ago. I’ve been reading up on all IRS Regulations that concern a 501(c)3 Public Charity…and it fits well. (I have not yet studied State requirements). It’s going to be fun wading through the necessities for a non-profit for the first time, but it can be done.

Here’s the blogworthy event:

I received a message to call from a like-minded old friend. Ironically, I was going to soon ask him to be a member of the Board of Directors. Well, my friend, Robert Houpt, starts our conversation with “I’m going to start a non-profit.” Wow, the idea was amazing…encompassing all of the basic tenets of the 501(c)3 that I wished to form and more!

I’ll fill in more on how it evolves once it is more clear, but the bottom line is that the conversation led to each planning on asking the other to be a part of the charity. As of now, papers are not signed. The way the IRS sees a non-profit, the moment two or more sign a particular document, the 501(c)3 can begin operating as such, but with limits naturally imposed on an unrecognized 501(c)3. Funding, especially locally, is reliant on the approved 501(c)3 status.

Without funding, the charity will have a 3/4 ton truck with a towing package, a couple of growing lights, two pieces of land directly down the road from each other that will, when funded, sport housing that would most likely attract low-income tenants due to the greenhouses and hoophouses that tenants will use, with our support, to grow and sell their own vegetables.

I guess I did not mention who Robert is….. Robert is a graduate of the Class of 2000 here in Martinsville–the class that built the school greenhouse (see picture below). He currently owns an HVAC/Construction Company. More importantly, Robert acts on his charitable thoughts, and has a keen view of ethical and sustainable business. He shares my vision, and our skills, abilities, and arguments complement each other well. He built a flower garden for the local Pre-K, and is volunteering his services, labor, and supplies as In-Kind Contributions to rebuild the greenhouse at our school now.

The picture:

10/19/2014

10/19/2014

I’m not sure if the picture has the clarity to see, but the end nearest the white building has a geothermal heat pump with propane backup. Robert has volunteered to attempt to repair the heat pump, which is what is stopping the school from putting up plastic immediately. Once repaired, I will start the veggies and fruits in my basement, for now. We will help to put in a sink, help lay out the greenhouse, source seed, train volunteers, get the community active, etc. There are other future plans and needs for curriculum-based School Gardens, starting with Martinsville School District, but the “curriculum-based” is just that. The school, Ag/Industrial Arts teacher, and the students will be running the Martinsville School District’s greenhouse. We’re just providing a medium for the community to help.

And there’s the preview, folks. I’m awaiting a meeting with the President of our County’s Farmer’s Market…and likely many more meetings in the future…but this is how Illiana Ag Alliance looks today.

We Have Our School Garden! (And So Much More is Coming!)

Okay, maybe we are building our School Garden. And, I must confess, I am using the term “we” loosely here. I will be meeting tomorrow with the person who is ultimately responsible for rebuilding and re-establishing a profitable school greenhouse.

Here are the facts:

  • Martinsville High School has hired a new Ag teacher, Mr. Brian Haskins. Our previous Ag teacher quit about a week before school started.
  • I have been asked to assist in the planning and rebuilding of a greenhouse that is essentially nothing more than a frame and a broken heater…on what I believe is a current budget of pretty close to $0.
  • I have spoken with the President of the School Board, the Superintendent, the Principal, and Mr. Haskins is my neighbor and friend. Progress is permitted and desired, but grant funding is seemingly necessary. At the least, we could be a school year ahead of the game.
  • School Garden grants (that I know of) have already been awarded for Fiscal Year 2015.
  • As a community, we have bits and pieces of what is needed to get the greenhouse operational before winter.
  • Winter is fast approaching.

Now, I have a Certificate in Horticultural Science…but it has been a decade since I’ve truly operated a greenhouse. I also remember that among my bookmarks and notes many resources exist for education and collaboration. I’ve communicated with so many people in the past couple of years that I am not immediately sure who to speak with or where to apply for grant funding on behalf of the school that will reach the school on time. Readers: Is there any money out there for us? If so, please email me at bburson@outlook.com.

In the local food arena: Success…at least as I measure it. I have touched base lightly with the municipality, and I know a couple of City Council members that are interested in furthering the Food Hub while adhering to the principles that I hold dear. The President of our County Farmer’s Market is willing to meet next month to discuss a collaboration, also. Another 501(c)3 called “Martinsville on the Move” has also been informally contacted, and supporters of the Non-Profit also support Illiana Ag Alliance. I hear rumors about a charitable trust. The greater community has shown overwhelming support through purchases from a little retail stand in my front yard.

The next steps: First, I need to get proactive with my resources and skill-set and help this greenhouse get started. My resources are few physically, such as having some plastic to cover some of the greenhouse, unplanted colorful carrot seed, and time. The remaining resources will come. I fight an inner fight now: Do I go full steam ahead now that the links are coming together, or take slow, cautious steps to prevent the pitfalls of the past?

Second step…tenuous…. Another charitable foundation has built a community ampitheater this year. I could not imagine a more perfect venue to address the community–parents, educators, municipal leaders, charitable foundations and non-profits, Farmers Market vendors and customers, and area businesses that can assist…if they so choose. I have two misgivings about this; I am a terrible public speaker, and Ms. Julia Govis is not here to help guide our local movement any longer. (I sure miss her wisdom and sage advice, as well as her network that would be so beneficial now).

It appears that I have left out the contact and support of our local Food Bank. Illiana Ag Alliance, as a Food Hub, was able to make a few donations this season. My wife and I have established a rapport with the Food Bank, but processing and storage of frozen foods is not something that they are especially well-equipped to handle. I must say that I am truly amazed at the number of volunteers at the Food Bank in such a small community. I am proud to say that many are childhood friends who are now adult friends with shared values.

Today is the webinar I’ve been awaiting–The NGFN 2014 Food Hub Benchmarking Study. Learning more about what works sustainably in such a thin-margin business, while accomplishing altruistic goals and helping others obtain a basic need…priceless. My outdated research should pale in comparison to what I learn from that webinar! Hopefully, it will help me answer the how behind going forward and establishing a true collaboration on a local scale, backed with advice and support by non-local individuals and organizations that care.

At this point, I will work with what is in front of me. Tomorrow, I will catch the long-awaited webinar. I will also go up to the school and learn/share visions for the greenhouse–already dedicated by the school for long-term growth of food for student consumption. I wish to help the “long-term” change to “immediate.” Secondary plans include tidying up the front-yard stand, unloading pumpkins, and replacing the hitch on my pickup truck to accommodate a trailer load of pumpkins from a local auction on Friday.

For now, I am glad to be able to post about true progress, spearheaded by locals beyond myself. Life is good….

I am home.

Who Says You Can’t Go Home?

Well, I have shifted to part-time as Process Control Engineer at Rowe Foundry. Apparently, this is a pretty unprecedented option I was given. I have referred to the foundry as being Christian and having Christian values before, but I truly get to experience it first hand now. And the security combined with opportunity for the food hub…priceless. Continue reading

My Organic Garden

Well, I must say that the whole blog idea is great…for those with the time. I’ve not forgotten to blog; in fact, I have tens of drafts that span March and April. But…. They became obsolete before they were published. I stopped trying for the next couple of months, watching and doing….

I guess I will start at what I remember prior to be the break from blogging. First, I went hog-wild laying out plans and deadlines. I hate deadlines, by the way. Well, I was poised to purchase the “perfect” home for Illiana Ag Alliance and my family. Instead of securing the deal, I started anew with recruiting/reassuring local farmers and buyers. I ranted about how I was going to approach the School Board, the City of Martinsville (and Martinsville on the Move), etc. I spoke of the Clark County Farmers Market probable shutdown…. While on the tirade, well, life happened.

I missed out on the house and pole barn–someone else followed through more quickly than I. I then received a phone call (hours after learning of the missed opportunity) from an interested local intern focused on Organic foods, and I shut the conversation off immediately. I regret that decision, yet I had no clue what to tell her. I may well have alienated a boon to the Food Hub. Almost immediately following the phone call, I read a message from someone that states that she not only reads this blog of mine, but that she is excited about “what I am accomplishing.” I’m not sure if I thanked you for that, Janet, but I thank you now. At the time, it hurt. My “accomplishments” were swirling away. That’s the inherent problem with deadlines and timelines…they evolve, and not always in the way one desires!

I hit the brakes…hard, and without warning to most people. Part of the reasoning behind the fall from online interests lays in the fact that I had to make some hard decisions. I had to decide which parts of my life demanded immediate and full attention and which ones could wait. Work…my career…took its place above the struggles of the Food Hub. This was a bit of a no-brainer, in hindsight. At the time, I felt like a sell-out. I love what I do, and an unbelievable number of my personal values are encompassed within my job description.

Part of the reasoning that led to a full stop was tied to my family’s needs. These correlate directly to my great career and the time I needed to make for my wife and children. I believe that I briefly mentioned both before now…Process Control Engineer at Rowe Foundry, Inc., in my hometown of Martinsville, IL…newborn preemie son and six-year old suffering from jealousy/perceived long-term fatherly neglect….

A huge part of the reasoning behind the stop was that the Farmers Market held a meeting…and there was discussion about NOT closing! The desire to not interfere with direct-to-consumer marketing and my ideas of local wholesale did not mesh well in my mind. I wanted to see how things panned out…and there is a Farmers Market this year. I’ve not made it to one yet, but I will!

There are other reasons…no soil close to home for so much as a garden, unless I chose to use chemicals to take care of weeds. I chose not to. To list more reasons/excuses would be…whining?

Skip to today:  I have relocated six miles away into a rented home. It is located approximately two blocks from where I had my first roadside stand in my early teens–where I attribute the beginning of my local food passion’s growth. I am also less than half of a block from work–convenient and a fuel saver. My back yard holds a thriving 1,200(ish) square foot Organic garden! Beyond the need to replace a couple of heirloom tomato plants and the current head-scratching over how to keep my eggplant leaves from being eaten in an organic manner, it is looking immensely successful!

Sales? Well, I guess I never mentioned that one of the Owner/Managers at Rowe Foundry is also the President of Martinsville’s School Board, huh? I’ve yet to approach him, that will come in due time. First, I need to establish a processing method for most of the crops I’m growing. I’ll do the colorful carrot thing as a second-cropping, but promising without delivery is something I’ll refrain from now. I’ve done a bit of that, and it does not give me the warm fuzzies. (Current idea: Work with the Farmers Market and the local Food Pantry–they have an established connection–and follow the previously outlined idea of a % to be destined to processed school sales and a % for donations).

Melons will still be sold. Whether I continue down the path I’ve prepared with the purchase of a 3/4 ton beast of a truck and a fifth-wheel hitch, leasing a trailer locally, and placing someone else in the position to deliver melons to grocers and restaurateurs is undecided. What will be done is a permanent roadside stand in my shaded front yard. I’ll have plenty to sell (hopefully), my wife is a stay-at-home mom that loves the melon run/direct sales thing, and if local ordinances are persuaded to follow the best possible guidelines (following recent legislation at the State-level), there will be some consignments to complement our offerings. The stand will likely be closed during the Farmers Market time, I think. Maybe not a Food Hub, per se…but local foods (including Organics) will be available locally.

I am connecting and have reconnected with new and old friends here; including farmers, some members of the Fair Board, and some current and former City Officials. “A bug in the ear” is the newest approach I’m trying in an effort to increase local awareness and support. I still hold dreams of a Public/Private/School collaboration, but the timeline has changed to “if/when the time is right.”

Did I mention that the Jr./Sr. High School has a greenhouse that is not visibly used? (It is not in use, according to one staff member). Read: School Garden potential! Well, the “bug in the ear” has been initiated, and I’m ready to help however I can. Circumstances here are a bit different than in Casey: Martinsville is a tiny school…supposedly the smallest to have a boy’s athletic program in the State (we have three). Martinsville also has a positive budget (one of eight? in the State). We are also the only City that is growing within the County, according to second-hand knowledge. Yes…much different than Casey.

And some ramblings:

Hmmm…. Well, one of my pet peeves is judging others by family name. I hate that about small towns. It has caused me grief. Worst of all, I’ve been as guilty as possible of doing  just that–judging and condemning a governing person’s family and family businesses due to kinship. This is another reason for my online disappearance; I’ve noticed that the foot in my mouth was gagging my brain. I’m guilty, and I apologize to anyone reading this that this relates to.

I did not complete the “State of the Food Hub” information that I was invited to fill out from the Wallace Center at Winrock. At the time, I was considering closing the Food Hub as an official entity…and I was not doing anything to forward the Food Hub physically or financially. Putting ideas into words for others to read does not meet my criteria for Food Hub status.

One last thing:  The “Seeds and Starts Campaign” was abandoned. I only have so much time, and my email program/Social Media information was so spread out that it hit the back burner. I bought seed and starts from local nurseries instead.

I guess that’s all I have for now. I’ll most likely blog again someday…deadlines/timelines are now officially removed for any posts in any forum!

The Farm Bill, the Produce Rule, and Illiana Ag Alliance

The Four Hour Workday…. 

I have published elsewhere about my being referred to this book (thanks L.A.). I listened to the YouTube audio a few times, learning and forgetting to listen equally. The truth is that the lessons I gleaned may or may not have been those intended. Patience and…well, that is about all I remember. I still am not that guy that can stop the grinding of the brain-gears easily, but doing the right thing helped.

Before I go into a lot of detail about the Agriculture Act of 2014 and how it impacts the movement here, I must make a confession: I tried to walk away again. I did. I also failed…those gears are connected to my heart somehow. There is more to the story than that: My son was born prematurely, I landed a great career position in my hometown…many personal occurrences…and yet, I am here blogging with a smile. I still have a duty and an amended plan on fulfilling said duty.

To quickly summarize the reference to the proposed Produce Rule: It’s perfect…at least from my vantage point. Perfect, however, is to be interpreted as “the best that one could hope for when others with varying agendas are involved.” All of the major aspects of the proposed rule were covered in their entirety by the GAPs Training provided by the University of Illinois Extension last year. Illiana Ag Alliance is poised to exceed all requirements!

The above link to the 959-page Farm Bill is…dull reading? I have not yet parsed down the exact verbiage. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition summarizes and breaks down the bill well. I will leave the reading of the synopsis to those interested in following the preceding link. I will instead focus on what is going on here currently, what is probable, what has changed, and what is still standing strong from the preliminary plans that have developed and evolved over time….

Setting up/keeping shop in Casey, Illinois, is changed. This is almost home…a mere six miles away. However, it’s the people and the municipality that spur the change. It’s the school system, the town’s dynamic, and the fact that the town of 1,300 individuals is where it all started for me. Mostly, it is the fact that Martinsville, Illinois is my home at heart. Shortly, it will be my home by location, also….

I will begin expounding here, with the forthcoming 6-mile move. As some may know, my new career position is with a family-owned company that has been a cornerstone of Martinsville’s economy and sustainability since 1898–providing fair wages, implementing a system of impeccable ethics, and offering an opportunity for many successes within, outside of…and very much in line with Illiana Ag Alliance’s goals today. We share values, and that is irreplaceable.

I had not yet read about this Farm Bill (truthfully, I had no clue that one was finally nearing completion) until today. However, it seems that legislators heard my prayers in so many ways. A Farm-to-School Pilot may be the best part. I have already spoken with a School Board member and two teachers, and I hope that a presentation is able to be added to the next Board Meeting Agenda following my request.

Other initiatives, such as expanding local food initiatives to include aggregators, are great to read about. The NSAC synopsis (above) mentions a grocery initiative. Leonard, the owner of Martinsville’s grocery store, is prepared to ally with Illiana Ag Alliance as a provider of source-identified local foods. There are still the other 20+ local/regional grocers and ? restaurants that desire local, sustainable food…but the in-town option helps fill the void left by the recent absence of a Clark County Farmer’s Market. Markets outside of Clark County and adjoining Counties are now in the “local melon/pumpkin-only” category insofar as planning is concerned for the forthcoming season.

I heard about the signing of the Farm Bill on my return trip to what I hope is to be my family’s new home in Martinsville. (The seller is also quite interested in furthering the local food movement). Our potential home sits on two lots…one with the house and room for a greenhouse, and one with an approximately 40’x100′ machine shed. Yes, a machine shed…destined to be the aggregation and wholesale distribution point for local foods. How? Truthfully, I’m not sure. I can tell you a million possibilities, a handful of probabilities, and some definites. Instead, I will wait for the next City Council meeting before I post more. It’s still in a “Don’t count your chickens….” stage today. The short story is that a Public/Private Cooperative is to be explored. The City was willing to assist the former Farmer’s Market in almost any way, so hopes are high!

So much is missing from this post: the most local Amish community is moving away, there are many new (very local) growers, the “Seeds and Starts Campaign” is about to begin, Organic Initiatives, invitations, and so very much more. Many events are destined without dates, what is to come and what is planned always evolve…and yet it is time to bring this local–where it all began.

At this second, however, I’m off to bed. 2:45 AM comes awfully early nowadays. The next step? Well, beyond the previous highlights, procuring the other 75% of the money to purchase the home and building outright–for roughly half of its value. This means I have a lot of research and number-crunching to do quickly, while exceeding the expectations of my new position AND keeping my family life in order…but the financial outlook is so much better than when I was trying to single-handedly change the local food system mere months ago. A modestly healthy revenue stream and expanded self-imposed timeline bring much opportunity and relief!

In short, Illiana Ag Alliance and the Burson Family are alive, well, and poised to fulfill our duty. Stumbling is again giving way to opportunity, insight, and refreshed vigor!

Live well…and until next time!

 

Progress: Land, Growers, and Buyers…With a Shift to Sustainability Added In!

Although the up-to-date content of this blog leaves much to be desired, this does not mean that I have allowed the movement to stagnate, folks. In the past few days alone, a vertical, hydroponic, organic, heirloom, Pick-Your-Own strawberry production near Champaign, IL has been planned for next season’s growth. I’ll leave the surprise hanging concerning just what these heirloom strawberries consist of…but it will be a pleasant surprise! This operation is not for personal profit, in and of itself, yet it is not without a more localized gain. The owner-to-be of this mini-business plan is a lifelong friend from High School. In addition, he and his family own a large amount of farmland in Clark County–which they wish to begin converting to food production. It is a win-win situation, and if the end result of my efforts are as I hope, it will be a boon to the Rantoul, IL Food Hub Collaboration, as well. (Disclaimer/Apology:  I do not know if this is the correct name for the collaboration–I’m out of date in this regard)

Other large, noteworthy progressions are that of Janice and Ray Crane, Owners of Crane’s Chicken Ranch in Martinsville, IL. They have been raising chickens with antibiotic-free, non-GMO feed…and truly free-range in their style…for some time now. This year, demand greatly exceeded supply, and they are increasing their flocks. My father wishes to convert his small free-range flock to antibiotic-free, non-GMO, as well–and put his acreage to use by increasing his flock drastically. I have high hopes that Crane’s Chicken Ranch, my father, and (through the Virtual Hub) Terre Foods Cooperative can be connected in a manner that is beneficial to all involved. Supply, demand, and means all exist…it’s now a vast game of “Connect The Dots.” Given the recent occurrences within the Federal and State Governments, one could add “…in time” to that statement. In the long run, the capacity locally could overwhelm Terre Foods…but it’s a profitable, local start in this arena.

It should also be noted that my father, a disabled Vietnam-era Veteran, is almost convinced to apply for a FSA Microloan (although he really does not want to borrow from any government agency–and I do not know if the Microloan is/will be funded definitively) in order to build a greenhouse or greenhouses for Farm-to-School/School Garden use. The idea is, theoretically, that the local FFA, 4-H, and/or school Ag Programs can grow organic, hydroponic leafy greens for school use, and harvest the excess for him to have bagged and sell for his personal livelihood. His property is only about three miles from the High School in Marshall, IL, and even closer to the University of Illinois Extension. None of the above have been contacted yet…the landowner is the first to be convinced. What he (my father) lacks is money, and with a failing government he is facing a dwindling disability check. Ever since he invested his life-savings in land, he has been stripped from nearly every program that would have been accessible to him had he squandered his money on a gambling venture, etc. Some necessities and/or mistakes in legislation have terrible consequences on those that should be cared for the most…. Away from politics…not my passion….

So, where does this leave Illiana Ag Alliance, and the Brian Burson family, standing today? Well, the newest Microloan Fact Sheet includes a new clause (or one I missed last season). “…satisfactory history of repayment of debt.” Ouch. One year ago, that was not a problem for me. I had one minor bad debt, and that was an error on behalf of another. However, I did not find land or apply for the Microloan until the funding was exhausted. I self-funded, blundered, and sacrificed as an insane man would. I shot out preliminary business plans to complete strangers, quite short of what would have been considered professional and complete. I no longer show what I consider a “satisfactory history” recently. Many of those close to me thought I was insane…until the First of October and our government began teetering precariously.

When SNAP was inaccessible in early October, during the lack of a governing body, the local atmosphere took a 180-degree turn. Even my wife (my harshest opponent during the sacrifice of my family’s fortune for that of our neighbors’) agreed that I had been completely right. “It all comes down to food.”

Well, I have found the perfect, quaint little farmhouse and land to lease, opening up the Microloan…under the terms of last season. I have established connections with enough individuals that a large-scale, regional yet localized, Virtual Hub can be created. I have located the individuals within a proven company that can create this. I have thousands of bookmarks and tens of thousands of emails that can tie this together before the start of next season…if I can make the time to do all of it. None of the above were done without assistance, and all of the possibilities cannot be created without the same.  For the longest time, it has seemed like a proverbial “Catch 22,” yet maybe not. One of my bookmarks–and a chapter in one of my College textbooks–is devoted to 501(c)3 Non-Profits. I had dismissed the idea twice in the past year, yet a conversation with a highly-respected woman from Chicago has ideas rattling around in my skull again.

I will post more as this idea develops (or dies), but the preliminary idea is to form a Non-Profit for the Virtual Hub while maintaining a personal farm of my own. I want to farm, yet a Food Hub must be in place to fulfill my duty. As opposed to trying to do this all myself, I think that a member of Terre Foods (I have a founding member in mind…but I will not deign to make it my decision), a local sustainable farmer that possesses common and uncommonly good sense, a designee from Rantoul’s collaboration, a financier, and myself could serve on a Board of Directors??? Once again, not a single entity beyond myself has been approached with this idea. Much research and contact remains, yet I cannot find the flaw in the theory as of yet. I even have a handful of financiers that may just like the idea enough to run with it, once the information is disseminated clearly.

Why post the idea, if it has not been discussed? Well, my son is due to be born in two months and I need a local source of reliable revenue–therefore I perform labor for pay. I also am a full-time student. Until/unless the Virtual Hub and/or a personal farm becomes an income source, or something else comes through that opens my availability to use my brain while pursuing my passion–I’m doing what a father must.

Until next time! Pass this on, share it…whatever one does with WordPress!!!