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In Edible-Alpha® podcast #98, we flip the script, with Food Finance Institute interim director Sarah Larson interviewing FFI founder and outgoing director Tera Johnson. After building up FFI and the Edible-Alpha® brand over the last eight years, Tera is moving on to her next entrepreneurial venture as CEO of Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT.
To start, Tera explains how she first identified the need for FFI and got it off the ground. Through building teraswhey from scratch and then selling the company, she’d acquired a unique knowledge base and skill set around financing food and agriculture enterprises—expertise that was badly needed. So, Tera pitched her idea to the University of Wisconsin System, the system agreed with the need, and FFI was launched within the Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship.
At first, FFI was just Tera doing one-on-one consulting with clients. With way too much work for one person, she applied for and received a USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant to hire a program director. From there, they began developing curricula for boot camps and webinars, started training consultants nationally and launched the Edible-Alpha® podcast. Before long, FFI was working with food and farm enterprises across the U.S., and the podcast was carrying impact far and wide (46,000 downloads to date!).
Tera intentionally combined the food and farm sectors into FFI’s focus, knowing that many of the same tenets (such as money follows business model) and needs (such as understanding numbers before courting financing) apply to both. The COVID-19 pandemic has blurred the lines even further, with farms pivoting to direct-to-consumer, food hubs pivoting to hunger relief, food brands pivoting from retail distribution to e-commerce, etc. This has made FFI’s financial education and technical assistance all the more pertinent.
Next, Tera and Sarah talk through the biggest financing gaps today. Tera says most food brands need working capital, which remains the toughest to get. Many farms now need working capital too since they’re selling direct-to-consumer, although, unlike brands, farms have access to value-added producer grants. Food hubs and other food system-related entities are finding more help from foundations, economic development funds and government grants.
When asked how she has built both teraswhey and FFI to last, Tera says it’s just like she tells businesses in boot camps: do something defensively unique that people actually want, develop a business model around it and figure out how to finance, staff and market it. Embedded in that is creating a culture and hiring an excellent team – FFI now is 5+ strong – that can carry out the work even without the founder. “What I love about the Edible-Alpha® learning platform, combined with the consultant network, is it doesn’t need one person anymore,” Tera says. “It has grown way beyond me.”
Although FFI is sad to see Tera go, she has left a sound business model behind and a strong staff of experts to carry the torch forward. Though, as Tera says “she is on the same merryground just riding a different horse”- as the founder having presence on our FFI Vision Board and with so many intersections between Iroquois and FFI, she won’t be far away.