Christina Dedora, the founder of Blue Skys Farm, leases land from Urban Edge Farm in Cranston along with a group of other farmers. After years of growing food and flowers, Christina started drying herbs as a value-added product to sell in the winter. In 2016 she saw an opportunity both to sell more herbs and to support the work of other farmers at Urban Edge. Together with her friend and former colleague from Southside Community Land Trust, Eliza Sutton, she formed a social venture called Sanctuary Herbs of Providence. “Our social mission was and still is to buy directly from Rhode Island farmers with a focus on supporting refugee and immigrant farmers,” says Christina.
“Over the years I’ve always worked with refugee and immigrant farmers, particularly Hmong people, who are amazing farmers,” Christina adds. “So we wanted to build a business based on the fact that we could support them.” In 2017, staked by an angel investor and a LASA (Local Agriculture and Seafood Act) grant, Christina and Eliza began to buy herbs grown by refugee and immigrant farmers and to develop their product line, a mix of culinary herb blends and herbal teas. It wasn’t long before they realized they needed advice.
“SEG allowed us to develop our pitch, to figure out who our marketing sources could be, and to figure out if we needed more money. It also gave us confidence seeing other people who were trying to create businesses.”
“We both needed business skills,” says Christina. “I have business skills from being a farmer, and that is kind of a different realm than a normal business. And Eliza had never taken on a venture like this. So we decided that it would be really good, not only for networking but also to learn about accounting and balance sheets and marketing, to apply to SEG’s Food Accelerator.”
The SEG Network Effect
As participants in the 2018 SEG Food Accelerator, Christina and Eliza immersed themselves in learning as much about financial planning and marketing as they could. They wanted to take Sanctuary Herbs of Providence to the next level.
“We needed to figure out what the cash flow looked like, what the balance sheet looked like, what the profit and loss looked like,” says Christina. “What we learned about marketing was important because we really didn’t have a script, and we didn’t have a plan as to who we were going to sell to. We knew the farmer’s markets were not going to sustain us, so how could we break into other markets? SEG allowed us to develop our pitch, to figure out who our marketing sources could be, and to figure out if we needed more money. It also gave us confidence seeing other people who were trying to create businesses,” she adds. “Seeing where other people were at showed us where we were at, and it was good to work with peers who were learning just as much as we were learning.”
As Sanctuary Herbs contracted with more local growers, their inventory volume grew. To avoid having to process the herbs in a cold winter barn, they rented commercial space in Pawtucket and opened a certified drying room. Cafes, bakeries, and grocery stores were new markets to explore. By the end of 2018, Sanctuary Herbs had doubled their sales.
Christina remembers a moment during the Accelerator when she understood how all the pieces fit together for her an as entrepreneur. “I realized that I am a risk taker,” she says. “I’m the kind of person that once I start something I can’t end it until it’s successful. I have to keep going. I think maybe that’s what makes me a good farmer, because every year in farming is a completely different scenario because of the weather and the pests and the crop failures. With my background in farming I’m definitely a risk taker. You have to be of that mindset or you can’t really run your own business.”
Sanctuary Herbs now has 45 wholesale accounts. They have an online store. They’ve grown their product line from 7 herbal blends to 19, including tea bestsellers such as Glitter (lemon verbena, lemongrass, ginger and peppermint) and Cloud9 (spearmint, tulsi and lavender). With a second grant from LASA, they’ve now purchased a teabagging machine. “We once filled an order for seven thousand teabags,” Christina says, “which took us thirty-two hours by hand.”
“I will continue to increase our social mission, as far as working with refugees and immigrants, because I really feel they are an important part of our world.”
Christina continues to build relationships with her farmers, reminding them of what she needs them to grow for her. There’s her Hmong farmers Choua and Kia, Charlotte from Rwanda, Manny from the Azores, plus several more. “We run into each other all the time where I farm,” she says, “especially in early spring when everybody’s in the greenhouse trying to grow their seedlings. I tell them I need you to grow spearmint, I need you to grow peppermint, I need you to grow nettle. It’s inspiring to know that I will eventually pick up four to five hundred pounds of herbs at their gardens, and load it in the van, and in a few weeks they’re going to get a check for it.”
Eliza has stepped back from the business, so Christina is now managing the venture. She plans to hire two staff members next year and to keep growing income. “I’d like to say we’ll get to a half-million-dollar company in the next couple of years,” she says, “and ideally I’d like to buy my own building and have my own processing plant.”
She’ll also expand her social impact. “I will continue to increase our social mission, as far as working with refugees and immigrants, because I really feel they are an important part of our world,” she says. “And the global footprint – I think we have to tell people more about how important it is that they buy local. Most herbs are grown in China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. Those farmers probably get paid far less than what we are paying our farmers. And there is the fact of the air transportation from those countries, which adds to global warming and climate change. I’d like to increase people’s awareness that if they buy local tea they will cut down on that.”
Not to mention the delicious factor. “We have a really good product,” Christina says. “I think our teas are far superior to any other herbal tea on the shelf – in taste and medicinal value and goodness. And they all come from Rhode Island!”