Entrepreneurs brainstorm new plan for Seeds of Change
The Seeds of Change hydroponic farm that was at risk of shutting down two months ago is operating under a new business plan and has stopped losing about $30,000 per month.
The shift came after Anchorage’s entrepreneurial community brainstormed with Seeds of Change management in February. As a result, the non-profit whose purpose is to provide youth employment and pursue a high-volume growing operation is turning around.
“We’re in a much better place than we were before,” said Ryan Witten, Seeds’ community development manager. “We were told we have funding through the end of March, by the (Anchorage Community Mental Health Services) board. Unless we have a plan for the future, they would be forced to shut down. That is absolutely not what the board wants to do.”
That led to calling on Nigel Sharp, the University of Alaska Anchorage Global Entrepreneur in Residence, or GEIR.
Sharp, the university’s first GEIR and one of only a handful around the nation, has held startup weekends, technology sprints and other events to guide savvy startups since arriving in Alaska last June. But this was the first chance to put together a think tank of expertise moving from theory to a hands-on rescue of a distressed business.
He put together a weekend event that brought 32 pros together for a 10-hour brainstorming catalyzer Feb. 17. They came up with four areas for expansion that would bring in more revenue streams.
“We took ideas from the group and turned them into a plan to change our program,” said Jim Myers, the chief executive officer at Anchorage Community Mental Health Services Inc., which owns Seeds of Change. “Now we are going to switch our focus in youth employment development. We had thought selling our produce would provide the revenue, but that wasn’t what happened. Now we see produce as just one of our funding streams.”
New job horizons
Two entities that fund job training programs for young people — Myers doesn’t want to say their names because no contract is yet signed — are finalizing plans to pay Seeds to do a six- or 12-week employment training program for young people.
Up to 16 young people can be accommodated at a time for training at the hydroponic farm. The biggest difference is that Seeds of Change will be paid for each person it trains; that’s a lot different from footing that bill on their own and supplying each employee-in-training a paycheck.
Some are at-risk teens who were formerly homeless or displaced, or are emerging from mental health programs.
Any young person ages 16 to 24 can apply to work at Seeds of Change, said Siena Belle, the program manager. Applications are on their website.
“This is a program for youth in transition, which is what we call all young people transitioning to adulthood,” Belle said.
“They are young people who face all kinds of challenges and barriers. A little more than a job is their need. Maybe they are struggling to get to work on time or a huge skill set is missing and we can provide a sense of community and support while training them in how to communicate, how to take criticism, any number of skills they may need to learn.”
Each person received in-depth training on how to raise vegetables and other plants in a high tech, controlled environment. Commercial greenhouses operating in Anchorage are hiring Seeds of Change trainees.
Another partnership that emerged after the catalyst involves new tenants that will pay rent. One is Far North Fungi, which is set to move in in the fall. In the meantime, mushroom spores are suspended in bags amongst the towers of lettuce and herbs.
“We’re testing now how much C02 it gives off,” Myers said.
Another promising arrangement is in the works with Arctic Harvest Deliveries. The community supported agriculture, or CSA, program is currently a customer, purchasing greens and vegetables from Seeds of Change to add to their CSA boxes and for restaurant delivery.
“I currently have a spot in Palmer, but I need a space in Anchorage,” said Arctic Harvest owner Kyla Byers. “At the very least I’d like to have coolers at their location to hold products. Eventually we may have their kids help out with smaller tasks such as weighing out and bagging vegetables that go in the boxes.”
She delivers to restaurants year round and starts back collecting produce for the CSA boxes in July.
Catalyst members also encouraged Seeds of Change managers to think about the opportunities in philanthropy. Given Anchorage’s high crime rate and a drug epidemic, this isn’t a particularly easy city to transition into adulthood for many.
But the power of the job employment skills imparted to more than a dozen teens in the first year is something others in the community also want to support, entrepreneurship pros told Witten and Myers at the catalyst meeting.
“They suggested we develop a plan for approving donations and how to market events for fundraising – some that can be held here,” Myers said, referring to the attractively laid out greenhouse where veggies grow in towers.
Fire Island Bakery held a 5K run April 7 that brought out 200 participants and raised $2,000 in donations that went to the operation.
“Then we also sold $600 in produce to people at the event,” Myers said.
Another piece of the plan is “agricultural tourism.” Currently a potential partner is putting together a plan for tours. The greenhouse recycles water and uses energy efficient lighting. Its system for planting and vertical growth is monitored for pH levels. It takes expertise to grow year-round in a subarctic environment, which is a topic eco-tourists would likely find interesting, Myers said.
Manager Witten said teen employees are good fit for the operation.
“They have a different way of seeing a problem and a solution,” Witten said. “A lot of young people are marginalized but the problem is really that a lot of adults don’t know the right questions to ask them.”
One day Witten said he was struggling to think through a leaking problem on one of the towers when one of the teens arrived after school.
“There was a whole other way to look at the problem – I was just amazed,” he said. “We can give them baseline skills and then, with their own talents, they can really shine.”
Watch for Seeds of Change produce at the Sears Mall and at Fire Island Bakery in Airport Heights from 3-7 p.m. on Wednesdays and at the South Anchorage Farmers Market starting in late May.
Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].