Rachel Blair: Be Carrot What You Wish For

Rachel Blair of Kalamazoo Valley Community College Valley Hub


So, I was asked to share a story about failure and I kind of love this. I would say that failure is just more information, but I also want to recognize that orientation to failure comes as a by-product of a competence that it is easier to carry when you are cushioned by layers of privilege. So just noting that’s where I’m at.

I'm really happy to be here and talk to you all about how we are screwing up on a daily basis at the Food Innovation Center. We’re making things up as we go as we go, riding a bicycle while we build it, and hopefully getting somewhere in the process. We actually have a rule in the office that we only complain on Tuesdays. This is important because when we're doing something as innovative and challenging as we're doing every day, you need to give it an outlet, but you can't let it take over everything. When we're really in it, or when we're really in a tough time, we let Monday be Tuesday Eve and Wednesday is Tuesday Boxing Day. Today is Tuesday Boxing Day, so I'm allowed to tell you everything I'm going to tell you right now.

The story that we put together, and this is also the work of our food hub manager Randall Davis and our food hub marketing outreach coordinator Rosy Florian, (who if you don't know both of them, they're so fantastic and I hope you get to know them too), ‘Be Carrot What You Wish For’. The subtitle could be ‘I told you so, but that doesn't matter.’

I'm from Valley Hub Kalamazoo. I work for Kalamazoo Valley Community College. About five years ago, we built a new campus, close to downtown Kalamazoo, to house our existing health care programs and a new culinary and food systems program. Part of that campus is what's called the Food Innovation Center. It is a facility that has lab, classroom and office space for credit bearing programs and community facing programs. We are also the home to the social enterprise ValleyHub. ValleyHub a food hub that encompasses an urban farm, a demonstration MDARD-licensed food processing facility, where we focus on fresh cut fruits and vegetables and some frozen, and we do distribution logistics aiming to link local farmers in greater Southwest Michigan to customers, institution as well as retail and restaurant customers, primarily within Kalamazoo County, but starting to reach out into greater southwest Michigan as well.

This is a weird thing for a community college to do. We are fully a program of the college, so we are embedded within their systems for human resources,  strategic planning, etc. We’re also kind of floating on their general fund, so it's a compromise. In the end, I think it's a really positive thing. Someone in the room told me it was genius, and there were crickets chirping in the back of my head as I was trying to figure how to respond to that, because it's complicated, but I think it's really cool.

The success of our food hub, which we launched in 2017, has really been built on the partnership that we have with a local institution partner (who I was told not to name, though I'm certain it’s going to be pretty obvious to anyone who knows of Kalamazoo who I’m talking about, so just pretend). So, this partner has been instrumental in helping us build that fresh cut business as well as the distribution business. They gave us their relationships with local farms, which they already had been cultivating, in the interests of having ValleyHub take over those relationships to facilitate them, essentially, not having to hold them and all of the work that goes along with working with about 40 individual producers in southwest Michigan. That connection was profound, it was what catapulted us. They've also been with us holding our hand all the way through the process of developing our fresh cut product. So, we have a well-oiled machine for diced redskin potatoes thanks to them, and we work with them to figure out what other products to offer, and it doesn't always work. So, this is where the “Be Carrot What You Wish For” comes from.

Here are our carrots, these are our typical carrots that we offer them. We do shreds for their salad bar, we do chips that they package in little cups with hummus, we do a couple of other forms of these carrots, diced, we put them in our Mirepoix mix. And, you'll notice they're orange. They are very ordinary carrots, they're delicious, but they're just carrots. Then one day, they came to us and said, “You know, we'd really like to offer rainbow carrots. We think people in our cafeteria are going to go crazy for rainbow carrots,” and we said, “All right, let's work on that.” So, we went to all of our farms, we found a supplier of rainbow carrots. We figured out what the cost was going to be. We let our producers set their prices, so we suggest to them what might work, but we let them set their prices. So, we figured out what their price was going to be, we figured out what our labor was going to be and our packaging and all of our materials. We put that margin on top and we went back to our partner and said, “This is what the cost is going to be for a pound and a case of rainbow carrots in the form that you want,” and they said, “Awesome, bring it on, let's do it!” And so, we did it and we delivered the carrots, and they cooked them, and they ate them.

We gave them their invoice, and they said, “Oh, this is not going to work,” and backed out. And there we were, and that’s it. You may have thought that we learned something from this, but that’s it. We did a whole bunch of work, trying to fulfil their needs, they went along with it and then they were like, “oh, actually no.” Then the flip side, a little while later, we had a great relationship with a milk producer, they have a super high-quality chocolate milk product. We knew our partner was already selling Prairie Farm’s chocolate milk and we said, “You know, this other chocolate milk product is really what your customers want, we know it, we’re sure.” They said, “No, we already have this chocolate milk, just going to keep the one we have.” We said, “OK, just try it,” and we gave them a case of the chocolate milk and they put it in, it flew off the shelves, they’re now ordering six cases a week of the chocolate milk that we suggested. This is great, that's exciting, that's a success, that's where that ‘I told you so, but it doesn't matter’ comes in.

We're here as a food hub to serve our partners and we are going to do what they ask us to do. We're going to do it as best we can and sometimes, we're going to surprise them with chocolate milk that they didn't know they needed (and they definitely needed it, it was a very good chocolate milk), and sometimes it's just going to fall apart and that's just how it's going to be. So, on Tuesdays, we can punch the wall and vent about it and the rest of the week, we're just going to keep doing our profit margin calculations and moving the ship forward. That's my story about failure, I have lots of other stories about failure but that's the one we decided to tell today, so thank you.

Carrots (Photo provided by Rachel Bair)