FullSizeRenderBy Tina Dirmann

BCBS Foundation Staff Writer

What a home run for our Dare to be Healthy partners in Calcasieu Parish! A few weeks ago, they hosted a Growing for Profit workshop, a two day event teaching backyard gardeners and novice farmers how to turn their outdoor hobby into cold cash. Up for discussion? Topics like — how to break into the farmers market scene, how to cold call restaurant owners, how to write a business plan, how to determine the most sellable produce…

“Basically, we’ve identified an important issue in our community,” said Janice Ackley, Dare to be Healthy’s program coordinator. “We don’t have a lot of locally grown foods in the area. But the demand is there. It’s increasing. So, to encourage more local growth, we needed to have some kind of training to teach  beginning gardeners how to do more.”

The workshop, held with the support of the Chamber of Southwest Louisiana, aimed at hosting 50 gardeners, at best.

“We accommodated 60,” Ackley said. “But we easily could’ve taken 80.  We actually ran out of binders for the class! I had to call our news stations and ask them to stop promoting it!”

Now that’s a community on fire for change. And we love it!

Ebony Williams, who describes herself as an “urban agricultural technical assistant,” led the workshop. We asked her to talk about the class and what she thinks the future holds for local food production in SWLA.

Q: So who showed up for this workshop? IMG_0237

A: The amazing thing is, we had such a vast range of every cultural type and age. We had retired people, business people, young people. This is clearly a business that does not discriminate. We even had a group of Mennonite ladies attend. It turns out, the ladies already have their own business selling breads and jellies. But their kids want to get into farming. So they just started growing a few things. One lady said she’s getting $12.99 a pound for her okra. Now, that’s money! Real money! They’ve started their own little produce market.

Q: That is quite a success story. Is that what you are hoping to see more of in the area?

A: Absolutely. A lot of them are already trying to find ways to sell it. One man told me, “I can grow as much as I need and more. But I don’t know what market to tap into.” He’s just been selling to his neighbors! I told him he’s sitting on a market that’s ready to explode.

Q: The parish, again through the Dare to be Healthy wellness program, has started a healthy restaurant initiative. And one issue for participating chefs has been getting enough local produce on a regular basis. Will this help?

A: Yes, it will. When we talk to the chefs and restaurant owners, they say, “We can’t find products!” So, again, there’s plenty of demand. We just need to get them the supply.

Q: So what lessons did you teach at the workshop? FullSizeRender

A: Our main goal was to empower them with information. I gave them resource materials and guidebooks, business plan guides, farmers market qualifications, USDA rule books. And we talked about common sense approaches to selling. Like knowing what will sell. Lavender, for example, is grown in California. But because of the drought in that state, we really have an advantage here. Our climate is also perfect for lavender growing and they can monopolize the market in their own backyard.

Q: Same lesson for edible crops, right?

A: Yes. I focused them on alternative crops. I say, tomatoes are great. But you might have 50 other people selling tomatoes. And you can only use so much tomato sauce, then what do you do? So I reminded them to find out what their local restaurants are having a problem finding, and then told them to be that problem solver. If I’m a chef and I need mint for my dishes or drinks, then they can be my mint supplier. Or maybe someone really needs fresh basil right now. Who knows if you don’t ask. But there’s a place for everyone in this market, if you’re smart about it.

Q: What about having the courage to cold call small stores or restaurants or other identified buyers? Did anyone seem skittish?

A: No. When I tell you no, I mean it, no! They had no problem at all with the idea of calling around. They loved it. And they had a lot of questions about how to do even more. Hydroponic gardens, for example. We had a lot of questions on how to do it. That kind of gardening is the way of the future and I told everyone so.

Q: Why was the chamber of commerce involved with this event?

A: Well, think about it… Local growing and selling keeps that dollar in your area six times over. How? Look at the chain. It’s the farmer buying the seeds, buying the planting supplies, the produce the restaurant buys from the grower, then paid for again by the restaurant’s patrons… Every bit of that money stays in your local area!

Q: So what’s next? It sounds like there’s really room to do even more with these workshops.

A: I’m putting together a plan now to see if it’s something the city would be interested in supporting. There are so many ways we can work this. It’s just about showing the city the need and showing them the economic viability of it all.

Best of luck, folks! Sounds like a plan for sustainability is already in the works.

And of course, Dare to be Healthy is a Challenge for a Healthier Louisiana grant supported program.