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John Ortbal
John Ortbal PDF Print E-mail

John Ortbal is a freelance writer and marketing consultant for clients in the software technology industry. He is co-author of “The Ecology of Design: Handbook of environmental responsibility in graphic design,” published by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and author of Your Practical Guide to the Environmentally Responsible Office. His latest project is founding a new website called LiveYourLifeLocal.org.

The Farmers’ Market as Community Builder PDF Print E-mail

At an informal gathering of investors in Working Farms Capital in the Chicago area, I met a fellow investor who is one of the founders of a local farmer’s market in the city. The Glenwood Sunday Market located in the Rogers Park neighborhood, in the northern part of Chicago, launched in June of 2010 and is apparently thriving in the midst of our recession. According to its full time market director, Sheree Moratto, this weekly market generated the two highest revenue days in 2010 for one farmer vendor compared to any other farmer’s market he participates in during the year. Running weekly from June through October during its regular season and monthly from November through May, the Glenwood Sunday Market has also spawned two local food storefront or restaurant businesses.

Nearly self-supporting from the get go, the Glenwood Market is officially a program of the Rogers Park Business Alliance which acted as the market’s fiscal agent (legal non-profit parent) initially to help get it organized and has now formally adopted the market as a separate program. Today, the ad hoc committee that founded the market has evolved into a formal 14-member leadership council with a long term commitment to its success and development.

A long-time resident of the area, Moratto attributes the initial success of this farmer’s market to its mission and openness or flexibility in terms of what the market offers local residents. The mission here is similar to many other markets in terms of bringing fresh food to the tables of local residents. While some community members argued that all food at the market should be certified organic, the Glenwood Market is guided by local and sustainable and organic whenever possible as its major criterion for producers.

One the more interesting aspects of this market was the way the organizing group used its volunteer program to help foster community involvement. Early on, according to Moratto, the founding group wanted to have local residents volunteer to help vendors unload, set up and tear down at the market as well as providing key support in education, marketing, finance and fundraising.They spread the word and called a meeting to sign up volunteers expecting about 20 people.About 75 showed up.

With that much potential in the room, the group decided a “speed dating” approach to matching potential volunteer interest with participation was in order.

They put their various committee heads each at a table with a number. Then they had the volunteers count off and rotated groups from table to table with each potential volunteer spending 3-minutes with a committee head representing finance, marketing, logistics, fundraising etc. The result was “fun” according to Moratto since residents gained face to face exposure and instant involvement. More than 45 of the original 75 are still volunteers today.

This is just one example of how a farmer’s market promotes community cohesion and involvement and I hope to illustrate more in upcoming columns. Stay tuned.

Sourcing Local Foods on the Web PDF Print E-mail

One of the supposed advantages of the Internet/Web is the instant access it can potentially provide to help identify local food sources. There are a few web sites that I checked out recently intending to evaluate their usefulness.

A newer web site called Real Time Farms (realtimefarms.com/) describes itself as “a crowd-sourced online food guide.” That means much of the content is submitted by locals in several categories that include: farms with sustainable and/or organic crops, artisans who produce things like cheese, spirits and breads, where to buy healthy foods such as farmers markets and where to eat, including restaurants featuring local/organic foods on the their menus.

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Investing in an Organic Farmer PDF Print E-mail

By John Ortbal

In my last column I mentioned attending a www.FamilyFarmed.org expo in Chicago with the purpose of finding a way to invest in my local sustainable food chain. One of the outcomes from the expo was reconnecting with David Miller who heads up Illinois-based Working Farms Capital. They facilitate private equity and debt alternative investments on certified or transitional organic farms leased to legacy farmers.

As of this month, I’m officially an investor in Iroquois Valley Farms, a company that owns farmland devoted to sustainable agriculture. Most recently, a 225 acre farm was acquired so that it can be converted to organic farming and to also develop wind energy alternatives. The combination of renewable energy and sustainable agriculture represents a major step for Working Farms Capital in expanding its operations in the Midwest.

Unlike most conventional and annually renewing farm leases, Working Farms Capital structures long term leases designed to retain existing farm tenants and their intimate knowledge working the land.

By getting lease terms over multiple crop years, farmer tenants are in a better position to plan their business—especially organic farmers who need longer time horizons to grow their products.

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Hooked on the Local Food Chain PDF Print E-mail

I got a glimpse of the local food movement recently during three days of attending the FamilyFarmed.org expo held in Chicago in March 2011. While there, I had a chance to meet several people who ran (or wanted to run) organic farms, as well as processors, distributors, retailers and restaurateurs dedicated to locally grown and responsibly produced food. In its sixth year, the event attracted over 4,500 attendees, 155 exhibitors, and featured 170 speakers. One day was filled with a food policy conference; another with a consumer food festival, and an entire day was devoted to farm and food business financing.

I attended several presentations about local farm and food financing hoping, as an individual living in the Chicago area, to find a way to invest in the local food industry. Several months before, I had attended a “Farm to Fork” conference at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, and met a man who was seeking investors in a local organic farm. Such an investment was too big a commitment for me then, but I remained curious as to how I might become part of this movement even though I was not directly involved in a food producing business.

The FamilyFarmed.org financing sessions demonstrated a wide variety of options for local food producers to get financing such as angel investors, venture capital groups, bankers and state/federal government agencies with loan and grant programs. But towards the end of the day it struck me that many local food entrepreneurs, whether they are running farms, local processing, distribution and kitchen operations, or even restaurants, do not want to give up ownership in order to get financing. In conversations with them, it appears that conventional banks are not especially understanding of local food business requirements, nor do local food businesses have much time to negotiate the intricacies of state government bureaucracies to get loans or grants.

During a conference break, it occurred to me that a non—profit, local credit union could serve as a place for me as an individual to put my earned income and savings for checking/savings/loan/credit card financial services and get a much better return on my money compared to conventional bank offerings. I had actually switched all my individual and business banking to a local credit union last year from a global consumer bank — and it’s all federally insured up to $250,000 just like any regular bank.

Assuming the credit union’s mission was to promote and help finance local food systems, a local food oriented credit union could, in turn, act as a source of funds for local food businesses. As a local consumer, I would know that my money in the credit union was not only earning me a good return, my money would also be put to work locally to build a sustainable food infrastructure for my family, and my neighbors. It’s the Slow Money concept with the credit union as a primary financial service and investment vehicle. And, as far as I can tell, no such credit union exists in the Midwest.

So began my quest. I’m only into it a month or so, and already the obstacles seem daunting. But I’m pushing ahead to see if the credit union concept might be a way to link the local food chain producers to their customers in a community of commitment that extends beyond the farmer’s market stand or the local organic grocery produce section. So far, lots of people like the idea. How many would actually put their money into a local food credit union is a huge question that I hope to answer over the next several months.

The more I research this credit union idea, and speak with individuals involved in “the movement,” the more I realize how food connects us in a wide variety of ways, and represents our simplest yet deepest pleasures in the company of our families and neighbors. The local food movement is a conduit to conversation, not a marketing campaign. It’s a means to get connected again with the literal roots of our communities.

Food author Michael Pollan wrote, “…food offers us one of the shortest, most appealing paths out of the corporate labyrinth, and into the sheer diversity of local flavors, varieties and characters on offer at the farmers’ market.” That’s the image I keep in my mind as I forge ahead, hooked on the local food chain and trying to strengthen it as best I can.

John Ortbal is a freelance writer and marketing consultant for clients in the software technology industry. You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


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