As Lenoir-Rhyne University wrapped up its third annual Taste of Bioneers conference on Friday night, Nov. 21, the panel presentation “Scaling Solutions for Social Change” took center stage. Three local business leaders fueled discussions about the opportunities and the challenges Asheville-area businesses face as they seek to expand their organizations and contribute to community sustainability as well.
An attentive crowd of around 50 people braved the gnarl of a November night to hear what Lee Warren, executive director of the Organic Growers School; Robin Cape, project accelerator for The Collider; and Josh Dorfman, director of entrepreneurship development for Venture Asheville had to say.
First up was Warren, who talked about the Organic Growers School’s mission — “to increase the number of viable organic farmers and growers in Western North Carolina.” She proceeded to explain why that mission was so important. Two hundred and fifty years ago, she said, 95 percent of people farmed. “Today, less than 2 percent of people farm,” Warren lamented. “This is the wisdom we have lost.”
She attributed the loss of people’s ability to produce their own food in large part to the rise of industrial monoculture farming. Warren rattled off a list of ills that result from this brand of commercial agriculture, including air, water and soil pollution; fish die-offs; topsoil degradation; less-nutritious food; compromised health and hunger increases. Moreover, Warren asserted, “Small farms are key to reversing climate change.”
As she encouraged a return to diverse, small-scale farming, Warren repeatedly referred to the “Victory Garden” project that took place during World War II. This initiative resulted in 20 million Americans producing their own food, Warren said.
As a remedy for the industrial-farming conundrum, she advocated public awareness campaigns and cooking, consulting and mentoring programs. “Backyards are the new farms,” Warren said. She encouraged people to “take back your community with food sovereignty laws.”
Following Warren’s determined commentary, Cape discussed The Collider — a private/public partnership located on a renovated top floor of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Asheville. The Collider, according to Cape, aspires to balance social, cultural and economic values and will serve as a place for organizations in Asheville to develop a sustainability plan. “We’re coming together to say, ‘How do we get together in the same room?’ more and more,” Cape said.
Much of her presentation focused on how climate change will affect economics everywhere. “We’re beyond wondering if it’s happening. We’re saying ‘What are we going to do?’” Cape noted.
Cape then talked about the unique position that the National Climatic Data Center afforded Asheville, where it’s based. “There’s a whole gold mine of information that says we’re used to a world that’s been like this — but how do we make adaptations?” Cape asked.
She talked about transitioning from data to decisions and helping businesses and communities adapt to climate change. According to Cape, a turbulent planet will require new infrastructure, new systems and an “adaptation economy.” In other words, people will look at the climate changes taking place and realize that they need to make changes in their own lives. The goal of The Collider — drawing on information from databases such as the National Climatic Data Center — is to realize those changes.
Next, Dorfman took the floor to discuss the creation of an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in Asheville. “I spent the last 10 to 15 years thinking about sustainability and consumer culture in America,” Dorfman said. At Venture Asheville, he explained, “My job is to create high-level strategies to help any company with high-growth potential scale up [sustainably],” Dorfman continued.
Dorfman went on to talk about the process by which Venture Asheville enticed startup businesses to come to this city. First off, he listed entrepreneurs, talent and investors as key to the formation of an “entrepreneurial ecosystem.” “If you don’t have these three, you don’t have the ecosystem,” Dorfman said.
He then discussed the importance of colliding (getting the right people together in one room) and transparency (so that people can see where everyone is). As Dorfman put it, “High-growth startups create confidence in economic development.”
He concluded, “We have a lot of momentum, and this is a very exciting time to help companies in Asheville.”
The Taste of Bioneers conference is an annual event. Click here for more information on the Bioneers program, or visit the Lenoir-Rhyne Center of Graduate Studies for Asheville website to learn about upcoming events.