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Local crowd-funding enterprise boosts area farmers

MIDDLEBURY — For Middlebury resident Kevin Lehman, it wasn’t enough to put in a few dollars at a farmers’ market in support of local food and farming projects. Two years ago, he decided there needed to be a way for local entrepreneurs to raise more toward their goals.
“I wanted to do what I could to build a more sustainable, robust food system,” he said.
So Lehman and business partner Chris Lindgren built Three Revolutions, a crowdfunding website that launched last week. There, people can donate money for a harvester for a farmer working on local rice production, a delivery van decked out with taps to serve up kombucha, a fermented tea beverage, and other ideas. But there is a catch: it only works if enough people pledge to donate money to the project as well. At press time, the first four projects on the site — all Vermont-based — had collected $3,105 in pledges.
The site’s tagline is, “Put your money where your mouth is,” and the name comes from what Lehman sees as the convergence of three revolutions that are happening right now: technology, food and money.
“(These revolutions) are bringing new models for investing, but also how we produce and distribute food,” said Lehman.
It’s a style of fundraising modeled after sites like Kickstarter, which gather financial support for different types of projects and startups online. Three Revolutions collects pledges toward a project’s funding goal, also setting a campaign time limit. If the funding goal is not met by the time limit, the campaign is considered unfunded and no one is charged for their pledges.
But Lehman said there’s a difference between Three Revolutions and other crowdfunding sites. For one thing, the site allows people passionate about food and farming to filter between categories: startups, expansions, and one-off projects that could involve anything from art to technology. It’s a niche site, and Lehman said he hopes this will allow the site to build a dedicated following.
He said the site’s current focus on Vermont could allow project owners to hold meet-ups and face-to-face events, and that it also may allow the company to build partnerships with marketing, technology and business planning companies in the future so that project owners can access resources other than funding through the site. Higher Mind Media Works in Waitsfield has already started offering deals for Three Revolutions project owners who want to create videos for their project pages.
Further down the road, said Lehman, he hopes to introduce opportunities for small-scale donors to make investments in food and farming enterprises. This opportunity comes with the JOBS Act that passed into law earlier this spring, overruling existing laws forbidding companies to solicit investments from the general public. Current crowdfunding websites must ensure that the money is raised in the form of a donation to a specific project in order to follow Securities and Exchange Commission regulations.
Once the new rules are written and take effect on the federal level, small investors will be able to buy shares in small businesses through approved websites.
That route raises the level of risk for investors no longer making a one-off donation, but Lehman said it will also open the door for people to pledge their support for startups and small businesses in more significant, lasting ways.
LOCAL ENTREPRENEURS
Three Addison County projects are up on the site right now with several more in the pipeline.
• Ferrisburgh farmers Erik and Erica Andrus, of Boundbrook Farm and Good Companion Bakery, are raising $6,000 toward importing a walk-behind rice harvester to increase harvest capacity on their rice-growing project, which is in its third season.
• Cornwall beekeeper Ross Conrad is also raising money to do a study on one of the possible causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, which has led to major decreases in North American bee populations since 2006. Conrad hopes to compare the effects of raising bees in large and small honeycombs. He reports that some studies have indicated that honeycombs that have been increased in size could be allowing a type of mite dangerous to bee populations to flourish.
Conrad said though he’s asking for $852 for the project, he’ll be putting up more of his own money to fund it. The topic is a controversial one, he said, and he’s hoping to come to an answer for himself and other beekeepers who don’t use chemicals or drugs to bolster their bees.
“I’d like to try to get a definitive answer,” said Conrad. “All the pollinators are having a tough enough time, but the better information we have, the better choices we can make to benefit them.”
Conrad heard about Three Revolutions from Lehman and decided to make the leap. The crowdfunding option seemed simpler than trying to find grants to fund his study, he said.
“This seemed more accessible,” he said, “and I do like the idea of people being able to raise money for projects without going through the traditional bank, loan, debt cycle.”
• Jeff Weaber, owner of Salisbury kombucha company Aqua Vitea, said he was drawn to the local focus of Three Revolutions with its dedication to bolstering Vermont’s food systems. He said national platforms like Kickstarter seemed too large for the company, which distributes regionally.
But he wanted to deck out the company’s delivery van with decorations and install taps along the side so that employees could easily serve up samples at special events and during deliveries.
Allocating money to the project from the company’s operating budget wasn’t something he wanted to do, especially since the company is working on a major expansion.
“It’s one of those extracurricular sort of things that it’s hard to throw money at from a day-to-day operations standpoint,” he said.
A crowdfunding campaign seemed like a good fit for the more creative, visually appealing project.
A LITTLE ELBOW GREASE
Lehman cautioned that just putting a project on Three Revolutions doesn’t mean that it will get funding — the site provides the fundraising platform, but Lehman said the most successful campaigns on crowdfunding sites are the ones where the people behind the projects drum up support among their fan base or customers using social media and e-mail.
“It’s not magic,” Lehman said. “There’s work involved, but we’re giving them the venue.”
Lehman said locally, Eric Rozendaal of Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro and Cheryl and Marc Cesario of Meeting Place Pastures in Cornwall are nearing the end of the application process and will soon have projects up on the site.
Lehman started working on business plans for the site two and a half years ago during his Masters in Business Administration studies at Marlboro College, where he worked with Janice St. Onge of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund to develop the idea.
It was also there that Lehman met Lindgren, who agreed to come on as a business partner. The two have financed the project so far with their own time and money, Lehman working on it in his spare time in addition to a full-time job as a planner at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.
The enterprise is a low-profit limited liability company that Lehman said bridges the gap between a for-profit and a nonprofit company. But the profits will only come in once projects get funded, since Three Revolutions takes 4.5 percent of the take from successful fundraising campaigns.
“We don’t get anything unless the project is successful,” said Lehman. “There’s no risk for an entrepreneur.”
Part of the fee goes to pay for the web service that runs the site, called Launcht. The Boston-based crowdfunding platform was started by two Middlebury College graduates, and it takes its payment in a percentage of the funds that the site brings in.
Lehman said he’ll need time to determine whether the site can support itself, and the Vermont launch will provide a chance to test it out. If all goes well, he hopes to solicit projects regionally, then nationally, but for now he’s focused on a small scale.
“There’s a lot of innovation, creativity and commitment to the food system here,” he said.
Lehman said seeing that innovation has been the best part of working on the project.
“It’s fun to be on the front lines of the movement,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andrea@addisonindependent.com.
 

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