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.

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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.

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!

 

Seed & Starts Campaign

Well, it’s about the time to plan for next season for some. Personally, I’ve not ended in planning. Illiana Ag Alliance is a constant evolve-and-adapt, dependent on Mother Nature, time resources, and reaching the correct people. Add in tying that together into a business plan and/or a plan of action…and it keeps evolving.

One step, the purpose of this particular blog, is to inform producers–gardeners and commercial small farms alike–that Illiana Ag Alliance will be selling seed and starts this upcoming (2014) growing season. First, however, we need to know what is desired. There are a growing number of local would-be producers that wish to generate income from early-season plant starts, yet they need to know what demand exists beyond their own friends and family.

Why buy from Illiana Ag Alliance and/or the growers of the starts?

  1. Price – To date, I have researched myriad commercial seed vendors, spending upward of two-hundred hours in the past year I would guess. As a result, I believe that I have narrowed down the best bulk prices vs. quality available for 103 of the most-desired/historically-grown food crops locally. Seed will be priced in retail/wholesale packaging, ranging from small packets to multiple pounds, at comparable prices than are available in mainstream, traditional markets.
  2. Quality –  Each and every potential seed supplier passes stringent quality tests set forth by the proper governing agencies. All seed is harvested from 2013 crops and passes or exceeds the germination minimums. The vast majority of the seed that will be sold are heirloom varieties well-noted for their vigor, high-quality and/or heavy yields, and natural disease resistance.
  3. Purpose – The profits from the sale of seed and seed-starting supplies will be used to raise capital for Illiana Ag Alliance, not as pocket cash for myself. I’ve considered (and tried for a short while) the crowd-funding option. In fact, crowd-funding is still available, yet I am loathe to use the funds until/unless it becomes necessary. I’ve researched many grant and loan opportunities–they are out there in abundance, yet what is “sustainable” about free money? Yes, it would enable a self-sustaining system, and I have flirted with (and not finished) applications. I have been offered all sorts of fund-raising campaigns, yet none of them meet the multi-faceted purpose of the Seed and Starts Campaign. This does not mean that any of the aforementioned venues are ruled out, only that I like this choice better.
  4. Utility – I have created a database to track suppliers by purchase–at least those local buyers who opt to become suppliers for Illiana Ag Alliance, Rantoul’s Food Hub, Wabash Valley Food Hub, or other local aggregators. There is even a section within the database to track growers that wish to donate their crop, or a portion of their crop, to local Food Banks. From these records, one can determine potential yields and match the crop suppliers with buyers, should purchasers wish to have this done. One could consider this to be a preliminary step to a Virtual Food Hub, as is desired.
  5. Support – Each purchaser will receive links to information that is zone-specific for their particular crops, including pest identification and management, University and supplier recommendations, and projected yields.  Prior to planting season, a category will be added to this blog that includes generic information for crops and links to more specific information–primarily sourced from local Universities.

I have not yet created a price list. This is one of the things that can be expected in the near future, yet I want to get the word out that this is a service/fundraiser that Illiana Ag Alliance will be offering for the upcoming season.

Requests and inquiries may be sent to illianaagalliance@gmail.com. Please include the word “Seed” in the Subject portion of all correspondence related to this post, as I have created multiple filters for incoming messages. I’d hate to miss your message of support for the “Seed and Start Campaign” hosted by Illiana Ag Alliance!