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The Business of Growing, Making and Eating

By Thea Klein-Mayer

In our gardens we are saving seeds, putting beds to sleep, harvesting hardy greens, and, though it’s hard to believe, finishing up another growing season.

Group of first graders cheer after laying a nice thick layer of straw mulch on beds in the perennial garden to protect the soil until the spring.  Photo: School Garden Project

With the season coming to a close and just two more months of our senior fellowship many of us have been looking towards January with that mix of excitement and anxiety that colors most any transition, that and the unavoidable question, what next?

To get the ideas flowing we headed to the Staunton Makerspace for a workshop with the space’s co-founder, Jim Rutt. Makerspaces are shared workshops where members have access to tools they can use to build almost anything they can imagine.

The Staunton space is home to range of tools for woodworking, electronics, and digital fabrication (computer controlled machines like a CNC router, 3D printer, and laser cutter) that support the creativity of the members and students who use the space.

A bank of woodworking tools donated to the Makerspace. Photo: Staunton Makerspace Facebook

A shiny Ultimaker 3D printer. The printer uses layers of plastic (see the spools on left) to create three-dimensional forms rendered in a computer. Photo: Staunton Makerspace Facebook

After showing us around, we sat down with Jim to discuss how we might turn our passions, some based in learning from our time in AMI, into businesses. Jim offered tips from his wealth of experience as both an entrepreneur himself and as a mentor to others thinking of entering the startup world.

Here are a few take-aways from the discussion:

  1. Have passion and a plan. Interest in the subject of your work will keep you going when things get hard, as they surely will, especially if the startup fails to sustain itself financially. Enter the plan--Jim emphasized the importance of projecting the business idea’s financials, what he called “the plumbing” given the flow of assets and expenses, and gave us a crash course of initial start-up accounting.
  2. Be creative (especially in your research and fundraising). When considering potential markets, Jim introduced the idea of looking to other regions that might have been similar to Virginia (or the location of choice) in the past. With such information one might better predict the kinds and magnitude of growth in the local market. He also referenced case studies where entrepreneurs boot-strapped or crowd-sourced to reduce the cost of starting.
  3. Factor in your time. Jim reminded us not to overlook or undervalue the amount of time we invest in a start-up. Although it’s easier said than done, paying yourself a fair rate for your time ultimately helps you sustain the good work you set out to do.

Our placements for our senior fellowships (Jan-Dec of this year) have exposed us to the inner-workings of nonprofits with a focus on food based programs. This workshop helped us envision how we might build businesses to address our goals for building community through food in the coming year or down the line.

We are not the only one’s envisioning what’s next, AMI is transitioning too. The organization will be bringing on new staff, building new infrastructure, and taking a year to reimagine its programs. While it means there won’t be fellows on the mountain next year, it’s encouraging to see the intention behind the organization’s actions to improve and grow. In the end, as Jim put it (quoting Eisenhower), “Plans are useless but planning is indispensable.”

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