Business Development in the Ohio Local Food Systems Collaborative

Steve Bosserman's picture

This is the first in a series of postings to the Ohio Local Food Systems Collaborative (OLFSC) about starting and sustaining a business in local food systems. These postings have several not so ordinary characteristics:

  • They are about real business opportunities in real neighborhoods
  • The process of developing these opportunities and the resulting content are shared openly on the OLFSC website
  • They invite OLFSC readers to comment, critique, and challenge assumptions and extrapolations posted in order to make the outcome better for all
  • They encourage OLFSC readers to generate ideas and develop plans for businesses they eventually setup in their local areas

Before heading into the business opportunities, clarification of business concepts and terminology is in order...

A Firm Foundation and Ongoing Adaptation

The purpose of any business is to deliver value to the customer. The primary objective of a business is to make profit. In terms of value, this means the amount the customer pays for value delivered (revenue) surpasses the amount invested by the business to provide that value (capital and operating expenses). The ultimate goal of a business is sustainability over the long-term. Again, from a value standpoint, a business is sustained when a sufficient percentage of the profit is reinvested to continue to develop and deliver what is deemed of value by customers so that they continue to pay for it.

What is of value to the customer (idea generation)? How does one deliver that value profitably and in a sustainable manner (business planning)? These are the primary questions addressed at the outset of an entrepreneurial effort. Idea generation and business planning combine vision of a preferred future with a framework for action that brings that vision into reality. These two, working in concert with one another, provide the firm foundation upon which all successful businesses are launched.

Delivery of demonstrated value to the customer requires taking action according to the business plan (business plan execution). Of course, changes in conditions and unforeseen circumstances during the delivery cycle warrant a certain degree of flexibility in executing the plan as it is put into play (adaptation). The capacity to sense and respond, learn and adapt is the hallmark of a business that survives start-up and embarks on sustainability.

The main points outlined above equate to key steps in establishing a successful business:

  • Generate ideas
  • Develop a business plan
  • Execute the plan
  • Adapt plan to "lessons learned" during execution

These four link vision with problem-solving to deliver demonstrated value to the customer. Because of the significance of the dialectic between vision and problem-solving in business success, future postings in this series will delve more deeply into the working relationship between the two. And in keeping with the commitment made in the opening statement of this posting, the focus of the upcoming OLFSC postings will be "real business opportunities in real neighborhoods".

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webadmin's picture



I really like this focus:


"Again, from a value standpoint, a business is sustained when a
sufficient percentage of the profit is reinvested to continue to
develop and deliver what is deemed of value by customers so that they
continue to pay for it."

I also like your proposal above that we can root these things in visions, and ideas. Then, explore them together in a collaborative way. We could really gain a lot of value from the diverse group of people that are involved on this site, when an idea is offered up for feedback and development.

I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of your series of posts. The potential of what you suggest above is exciting!

Focus on the principles

Casey Hoy's picture

I’d encourage each of you as you read Steve’s example to focus on the principles and 1.) interpret concepts like profits, value and business as broadly as your imagination will let you, and 2.) think of ways to use the same approach he’s developing at any scale, from neighborhood (the ultimate in local) to state levels. For example, a profitable business in my line of work is a research area that is important enough to people that I can find the resources to do it, and my customers are the citizens of Ohio. But I think I can use the style of open collaboration that he is developing here to go from idea to business plan to something positive happening in Ohio, and maybe even in my neighborhood.


Michael Jones's picture

I understand the principles that Steve is sharing and the idea of creatively applying this in a broader context than the "typical" business model.

 I have some concern with the use of the word "sustainable" as it's used in this context...much in the same way that I see it used in the parlance of agriculture at times. 

For example, there was some discussion of about a "Sustainable Food" license plate at one point and I think some were using the term "sustainable" to indicate an economic model as opposed to an ecological one...

Sustainability to me implies "meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

I think semantics is something that we will want to consider as we move the idea of expanding our local food system along. I already know that there is much confusion in the mind of the public regarding terminology as it relates to our food system and farming methods...

My committee at the LLF summit was charged with finding a way to engage the public in the process of expanding our local food system and I think starting to think about how we share our message with the public is important.

I'm currently looking at the "Buy Fresh/Buy Local" national program as one that Local Matters might adopt and share with the community and region as a way to build a "brand" with consumers regarding our local food system and the importance of buying from local sources.  It's not perfect but it has lots of flexibility and I'm not finding anything that offers a better solution.

 For what it's worth...

Clarification of Terminology

Steve Bosserman's picture

You bring up an excellent point, Michael. Meanings of terms like "sustain", "sustainable", and "sustainability" are contextual. The following definition for "sustain" from Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary was what I intended:

Sus*tain"\, v. t. [imp. & p. p. Sustained; p. pr. & vb. n. Sustaining.] [OE. sustenen, susteinen, OF. sustenir, sostenir, F. soutenir (the French prefix is properly fr. L. subtus below, fr. sub under), L. sustinere; pref. sus- (see Sub-) + tenere to hold. See Tenable, and cf. Sustenance.]

3. To maintain; to keep alive; to support; to subsist; to nourish; as, provisions to sustain an army.

My point is that while many businesses start, 50% fail within five years, and less than 30% make it to 10 years. Sustainability in this instance is more akin to keeping the doors open, listening to stakeholders, learning a lot, putting it into play, and making a real go of it.

As you note, when seen from the vantage point of "sustainable development", defined in the 1987 Bruntland Report as "...development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." what I said needs "disambiguation".

In subsequent postings, I'll be more diligent in my choice of words.

By the way, any details you can offer the OLFSC as Local Matters adopts the Food Routes Buy Fresh / Buy Local Programwould be much appreciated. This seems like an exciting way to build the brand and we would all benefit from your experiences! Keep up the good work!

Good point

webadmin's picture

Good point Micheal.


"Sustainability", to me, is really rooted in systems theory. So, I attach multliple dimensions to it. Because, there are many ways to make something "unsustainable". So, something must be sustainable "environmentally", "socially", "economically", etc

So, we can look at how much, and how effectively a program applies concepts like "waste equals food", fair wages, listening to customers/clients/consumers/users/employees, seeking to meet standards for these elements, sharing knowledge and information instead of hoarding it, giving co-governance over programs etc. A lot of this comes to me from places like, identifying certain shared resources as a "commons" (not just natural resources) and applying that.