Food and Tourism Entrepreneurs in North Carolina
A Program of the Center for Sustainable Tourism and the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, East Carolina University
Entrepreneur Profile: Sandi Kronick
Entrepreneur Organization: Eastern Carolina Organics
Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) was founded in 2004, as a special project of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA), which is a nonprofit, umbrella organization that focuses on sustainable agriculture. ECO started with a $48,000 grant from the NC Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. The original intention of the grant was to support the small community of organic tobacco farmers in the state, who had to have a crop rotation program in order to achieve a successful organic farm plan, but were not necessarily using their fallow years for a profitable crop. The mission of the organization is to improve the local organic food system by creating a viable alternative for consumers to source local organic farm products through a professional program. ECO is an aggregation and distribution company that provides a convenient outlet for customers who strive to buy local organic products, but may not have the time to seek out individual farmers and producers.
Sandi’s Entrepreneurial Traits
During her senior year at Oberlin College in Ohio, Sandi worked as the local food coordinator, managing a moving service that worked with predominately Amish farmers. Working with farmers who do not use phones or Internet provided Sandi with a unique learning experience and opportunity to develop her skills for coordinating logistics. Organizing this grass-roots type system for a local food cooperative, by looking at inputs and outputs, helped hone her communication skills and effectively prepared her for tasks that she would face with ECO. After graduation Sandi moved to Cleveland and began consulting with restaurants on how to set up sustainable food programs. Like many entrepreneurs, Sandi realized her niche and quickly began creating a career based on her strengths. She is equipped with organizational skills and a strong personal conviction. Her direct style of communication has also served her well in her interactions with farmers. Her business marketing philosophy is to “use your truth, use your mission to be your marketing. Don't let your mission be something that's in a cabinet somewhere that you never look at. It should be something that you always are coming back to.”
Questions of volume and product variability were some of the main issues that ECO initially faced, but over time quality and quantity issues have stabilized as farmers continue to learn through participation with the group. Through trial and error, and close connections between Sandi and the participating farmers, the group has worked on solutions for cost and production issues. This helps Sandi act as a farm advocate, working with farmers to determine a fair price for their products. Also, the perishable nature of the products introduces another challenge, since unlike other markets, ECO cannot store food while market prices stabilize. One difficulty facing ECO and its stakeholders is the slow and sometimes ineffective development of policy. Sandi believes that the farming community may benefit from the implementation of new policies, saying that she is “excited to see what the next few years brings, but a lot of the acts that we've all heard about in the last five years haven't even been implemented yet. And a lot of them are really not scaled at all to the farmers that we work with.” Another challenge has been presented in the administrative and bureaucratic aspects of food safety issues.
What Inspires Sandi
Sandi finds inspiration in the opportunities that ECO has created for business partnerships with farmers. She feels that it keeps her ambitious, yet grounded at the same time. One heart-warming experience that has come from ECO has been involvement with the communication and community that has formed amongst the eco owners. Another source of satisfaction for Sandi is the validation that comes from selling pallets of NC family farmed, organic produce, and seeing that the system actually works. Sandi says the food “ ships well, it looks good on the shelves of grocery stores, it's priced well and it's keeping our farmers busy.” At the end of the day, her job at ECO allows her to enjoy the most rewarding part of the job: “signing checks to farmers.”
Positive Aspects of the Entrepreneurial Climate:
ECO has recently moved to Durham, NC where they found a building suitable for their current operations as well as their future growth. Sandi cites the move as both a financial and social gain for ECO, and the group looks forward to working in close proximity with other businesses in the Durham area. She has already felt a positive reception in Durham for ECO, as she has met with the mayor and the chief of police, among other city officials. Sandi feels that Durham provides a beneficial climate because the city has policies and programs in place to support small businesses. Also, many of the company’s customers are located in Durham, so ECO will enjoy an aspect of convenience through proximity to their customer base. The urban environment will also be supportive as ECO looks into becoming more involved in food justice related issues in the future.
ECO’s main customer base consists of independent and chain food retailers, larger wholesale distributors, and restaurants. Recently, a new market has emerged through small home-based distributors, which can best be described as a new CSA business model. Sandi describes these distributors as very similar to CSA’s because each distributor puts together a mixed box of items for customers and typically delivers the box directly to the home. These systems can be called hybrids, as they may be similar to a traditional CSA in that consumers receive what happens to be in stock that week, or they may be given the option to place more custom orders. This new business model is proving to be an exciting and powerful new market for ECO.
ECO fosters a close relationship with CFSA, which is a strong source for advocacy and environmental education. ECO was also supported through partnerships with Santa Fe Tobacco Company in Oxford. Santa Fe was instrumental in providing meeting spaces and support for their farmers wishing to diversify their crop base. One of the unique aspects about ECO is the collaborative principle that is the core of the organization. From the start, the group established the concept that customers were considered to be partners. Partnerships were forged with a variety of stakeholders, from individual chefs and independent natural food stores, to chain retailers. Sandi also cites collaborations with farmers as one of the best of relationships, saying, “Our farms have been great leaders in making business decisions. ECO legally partners with 15 farms right now throughout the state, which is a really amazing relationship.” ECO also successfully works with North Carolina State University and the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS). Sandi also relies on a base network of friends in organic produce distribution companies around the country, along with fellow members of the National Organic Wholesalers Produce Coalition, for advice and inspiration. ECO looks forward to forging new partnerships emerging from their recent move to Durham.
Sustainability Factors of ECOPart of the mission of ECO is to educate customers about the importance of buying local, organic produce. They offer assistance in the transition to organic farming, and have been recognized by CFSA as the business of the year due to their “commitment to helping sustainable family farms thrive in the Carolinas.” ECO also focuses on sustainable relationships with farmers, and is dedicated to advocating for their members. Sandi believes that, “a key of sustainability is figuring out how to really help the farmer work less, because we need them to be able to work longer. We need them to want to get their kids back on the farm.” By working to guarantee steady markets and fair prices, ECO gets back to the basics. “Going back to the true meaning of sustainability, we really want farmers to be able to plant something and not feel insecure about what they're going to get from that," says Sandi.
for the Future
Sandi hopes that in the future, ECO will grow more in sales and markets. This growth will ensure an increased demand for their farmers! Sandi would also like to focus on ways to support other regions, with the goal of developing similar entities for their organic family farmers.