Why a business and not a non-profit?

March 20th, 2010 by caitlyn

This is an important question for us right now, as we’re solidifying our goals and plans for this project. How can we, as anti-capitalists, be so excited about the potential of a for-profit business?* And what is it’s potential, other than to serve a wealthy slice of San Francisco? How can this business be a contribution to social justice and food security? These are such important questions! We continue to discuss and think critically each day about our process and the best approaches.  Here are some thoughts:

  • The work of urban agriculture non-profits and educational programs is invaluable and much needed.  But we have a lot of work to do in our urban food systems, and its reshaping must be approached from as many angles as possible. As a creative, transparent, experimental business, we hope to add to the growing dialogue about urban agriculture by highlighting the economic reality of small-scale farming. Through our action and conversation we will pose the questions: How much labor does it take to grow food in the city? What is a financially viable economy of scale for urban farming? What causes food to be cheap or expensive? How is it assigned value? What are the true costs of food production? For what price must a small-scale farmer sell her produce to earn a living wage?  As a business we believe we will be able to engage with these questions more tangibly than we could as a non-profit.
  • We want to do this work without dependence on foundation grants so that we can direct our actions in a way that is guided by our own process. We want to be held directly accountable to our community and its needs. Educational programming will still be a significant part of our business plan, as will workshares, tours and community events. We are also excited by the potential for creative collaborations and joint marketing with other small business from many different communities.
  • We want to be a part of a grassroots economy – one that places value on collaboration, participation, and creativity and pays careful attention to the needs of its community. The more we contribute to healthy local economic networks, the less power we hand over to destructive corporations who place little value on the livelihood of our communities.
  • We are teaching our young people about the importance of growing food in the city, yet options don’t exist for them to make a living doing so. We certainly support non-profit efforts to empower youth with food-growing skills and food-systems awareness, and we hope that by making visible the idea of urban farming as a small business (and its benefits and challenges), we can begin to open a path for them to eventually follow suit.

*Profit, in this case, means enough money made to sustain the business and to pay the two of us a very modest wage (somewhere around $10/hour).

4 responses to “Why a business and not a non-profit?”

  1. melissa cohen says:

    i think that your decision is the right one. i don’t think that starting a business, rather than a non-profit, should ever feel like a questioning of anyone’s “anti-capitalist” notions. what i do think is that by becoming an example of a successfully sustained resource-driven (education, outreach, etc) business, you will open doors for more people to follow suit. in a movement where “business” is often looked at as the “anti-“, we (as workers of true models of what a locally owned resource driven business can represent for a community) are paving the road for more young people to follow suit and really transform the traditional context of what “business” can mean in this country. it seems that you really took that idea of a mission/vision statement and ran with it 😉 i’m proud of you guys!!!

  2. Your thinking on the 501c3 vs. business structure is very very similar to ours here at LocalHarvest. We are a business for the same reasons you are. If we are going to transform our food economy, the new structures need to be self-sustaining and not depend on grant money. (or VC money for that matter)

    Best of luck on your project.

  3. Chandler says:

    It is clear how much thought & care you are both putting into this endeavor—I applaud & cheer you on. Profit, since it upholds our economic sustainability as farmers, is a very positive thing! No profit would mean the end of our businesses & therefore our activism. A grassroots campaign to fund projects is a great idea & I am delighted it worked for you. Best of luck in creating a living wage for yourself. I also believe it is important to recognize the benefits of farming aside form the money you make. So even if you’re not making $10/hr, what other things are you experiencing, gaining & learning other than money?

    The part I struggle with, as a business owner & farmer selling mostly to a relatively wealthy class of folks, is how to be inclusive of the social & food justice movement that I believe to be so important. How can I help improve accessibility to food without compromising my own profit, or in my case, the need to survive? As I hopefully improve my skills as a farmer, I want to focus more energy towards those goals, using education, outreach & work trade.

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