Seed company wins regional business award
February 6, 2020
Foundroot, a local seed company and farm, is the fourth Haines business to win Spruce Root's annual Path to Prosperity Award and $25,000 in consulting and technical assistance.
Foundroot sells open-pollinated seeds adapted to Alaska's climate and has sent upward of 16,000 seed packets to more than 65 Alaskan communities and throughout the Lower 48, its owners say. Their 2020 catalog, found at http://www.foundroot.com, includes nine varieties of seeds grown on their farm in Haines. In the past two years they have begun selling local produce, herbs, and flowers in Haines and to the broader Southeast Alaska community.
Spruce Root is a community development financial institution (CDFI) that works to increase economic, social, and environmental resilience in Southeast Alaska. It provides loan capital, business coaching, workshops, and runs the annual Path to Prosperity business plan competition which is made possible through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy and the Sustainable Southeast Partnership.
This year, the two Southeast Alaska businesses to win the $25,000 award were Foundroot and Village Coffee Company, a drive-thru espresso shop in Yakutat run by Justyne Wheeler. The two winning businesses were chosen from 13 finalists that were selected to participate in Path to Prosperity's Business Boot Camp. During Boot Camp, finalists are trained in the "triple bottom line" approach to building a business by learning to measure profitability alongside environmental and social impacts of their business.
Nick Schlosstein and Leah Wagner, owners of Foundroot, moved their lives and business from Palmer to Haines five years ago because they believed it was the best climate and location for the venture. "The challenges we faced and the sacrifices we have made have kept us committed to this cause," Schlosstein said.
Foundroot was founded in 2012 as a seed company with the express purpose of bringing better seeds to Alaskan gardens, its owners said. They began by sourcing open-pollinated seeds proven for Alaskan growing conditions. Upon moving to Haines, they began the grueling work of clearing land and getting it ready to farm. Two years ago, they succeeded in getting their farm operational and began growing seeds at a commercial scale in Haines. In their 2020 catalog, Foundroot has nine varieties grown on their farm.
"Ninety-three percent of the diversity of (America's) seed supply was lost during the twentieth century." Wagner said. "What that means is that many of the varieties that thrive in places like Alaska literally no longer exist. We want to make sure the varieties that work well for Alaska survive and thrive." Wagner said.
Foundroot focuses on food sovereignty, a concept that works in conjunction with food security. "A closed loop system of growing from seed, producing food, and then saving seeds holds the potential for communities to be completely self-reliant," Wagner said. "Food sovereignty is taking food security to the next level."
"When you take it to the seed you are empowering people to grow their own food no matter what scale they are producing it. When we send seeds out to rural communities, there is a huge potential for decreasing their imports and creating a more accessible and affordable food system within their community," Wagner said.
Wagner and Schlosstein said they plan on using the $25,000 award for marketing and branding to reach more Alaskans. "We are not trying to be a large seed company. We are solely focused on the Alaskan market and northern communities," Wagner said. "Our intention has always been to reach more Alaskans and help them feel more secure in their food supply. The more people we reach, the more we understand the challenges that they are contending with and the better we can serve them."
Similarly, Foundroot's owners understand the necessity of ensuring that Alaskans understand the challenges of running a business in Haines. After recent record-breaking snow fall and visibility that inhibited mail, Foundroot struggled with the task of shipping orders out to customers.
Ashley Snookes, programs manager of Spruce Root, said the Path to Prosperity program provides support to businesses seeking to be profitable while also being mindful of the people and the resource-rich place where we live. "It gives business owners the opportunity to act on their values when making decisions." Snookes said. This then allows customers to make purchases which support environmental and economic resiliency. "It gives all of us more opportunity to act in an environmentally and community-driven way."
Margaret Friedenauer, director of Haines Economic Development Corporation, said the fact that Foundroot is the fourth business to win the Path to Prosperity business plan competition "shows that we have a strong entrepreneurial spirit in Haines."
"It doesn't mean there aren't challenges to doing business in Haines," Friedenauer said, recounting Foundroot's Instagram posts communicating the challenge of getting seed orders out during the last storm cycle. "(Foundroot) has been really honest with the challenges of Southeast Alaska. Hopefully illustrating the challenges shows customers that they are dealing with real people".
Despite the challenges, Friedenauer said it appears there is a younger generation that wants to live in Haines and figure out how to make it work.
"Self-employment increased 10 percent in Haines between 2012 and 2016," Friedenauer said, adding that number shows momentum and an optimism among residents regarding the economy.
"I don't know what you guys are putting in the water but clearly entrepreneurs are able to thrive in the soil in Haines." Snookes said. "I think part of it is that you have a tight-knit community that supports one another. That is one of the things that can help entrepreneurs succeed."