Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Uncertain Future of Left Foot Organics

Above: The Hocker family attended a Left Foot Organics community meeting held at Mercato's Ristorante on Tuesday night to discuss the farm's future.

The Uncertain Future of Left Foot Organics

By Janine Unsoeld

“I had to leave because I was completely worn out and couldn't keep up the pace anymore. It was a move to preserve myself and my sanity,” said Ann Vandeman in an interview with Little Hollywood today at her home in west Olympia.

Vandeman, the former executive director of Thurston County’s popular Left Foot Organics farm, recently resigned from the organization. Vandeman founded the nonprofit in 2001 and now, its future appears to be in question.

In a brief statement released earlier this month, the Left Foot Organics board says it is “committed to maintaining the high standards of operations through the end of the growing season, October 31, 2012.”

Vandeman, who has a Ph.D. in Agricultural Economics from the University of California, Berkeley, and worked for the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C., was inspired to develop the model farm program worked by people with developmental disabilities by her daughter Geraldine, now 15, who was born with Down’s Syndrome.

Left Foot Organics is now successfully well-integrated into the community, providing local restaurants, food co-ops, grocery stores and local farmer’s markets from Tumwater to Tacoma with fresh produce. It also provides about 100 South Sound customers with regular Community Sustainable Agriculture (CSA) boxes of seasonal produce.

Vandeman explained her resignation, from her perspective:

“I’m burnt out, worn out. I took a leave of absence, essentially a medical leave, ok’ed by the board, in mid-April. About three weeks later, in the beginning of May, the board asked me to meet with them, and they reached the conclusion that they had to shut down the farm. That didn’t make sense to me. The farm has no debt and has money in the bank. We went from ‘we’ve got it handled, to oh my gosh, we have to shut down the farm’. It put me in a weird situation. It became clear to me that I was going to be expected to come back to rescue the situation. Other options were not considered, that I could see. I was not going to be part of shutting down the farm. So I had to resign. I couldn’t go back and be a healthy person the way I was doing it,” Vandeman said.

“I knew I’d have to leave sometime. Founders have to move on to let the organization morph and grow,” she added.

Vandeman explained that a thorough organizational assessment and strategic plan is needed. The five acres of land off of Case Road that Left Foot Organics rents is on a year to year lease, and is not available to purchase.

“A big capital campaign is needed. The whole organization needs to be taken to the next step….It would have been good if we could have had a better transition process, but here we are,” Vandeman concluded.

Asked what her plans are now, Vandeman says she doesn’t know. “I could maybe go camping. I am recovering from being an organization instead of a person,” she smiles softly. In good spirits, Vandeman starts tending to her basil and tomato plants in her front yard.

Left Foot Board Meets With Community Members

At a community meeting held at Mercato’s Ristorante on Tuesday night, Left Foot board members, former board members, staff, growers, business partners, customers and families met to discuss the organization’s future.

Three board members in attendance listened while community members expressed what Left Foot means to them. Over 25 people expressed that Left Foot values people with developmental disabilities, providing them with ample opportunities for inclusion, friendships, meaningful employment, and training in life skills.

“Left Foot’s connection between food and people is very inspiring,” said Phil Owen, co-host of Olympia’s Bread & Roses Hospitality House for homeless women.

Suggestions on how to proceed with the organization without Vandeman were discussed. On the table are several options: seek funding from different sources, change the business model while maintaining Left Foot’s founding spirit, seek partners for a possible merger, alliance or acquisition, or close down the organization.

After some initial confusion about why the organization’s status is in jeopardy, it was noted that although the organization is currently financially stable, it may not be in the near future.

To clarify the situation, Jane Jones, acting executive director said, “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Founders of nonprofits have passion, and tend to do most of the work. That is not sustainable. The board and the community has to learn new skills. Writing a check is not going to fix everything…the organization has been run on an ethic of scarcity, not abundance.”

Jones said the organization’s annual operating budget is $227,000. The sale of vegetables brings in about $75,000. The annual Fall auction brings in about $35,000-$40,000. Grants make up another third.

At issue is the fact that Vandeman’s position is worth at least $40,000 – $50,000 in annual salary and benefits. While all staff are underpaid, Vandeman has been receiving less than $10,000.

“Ann donated her salary back to the organization. To replace her, the organization is not prepared to pay for two people,” said Jones. Adding to the organization’s future financial crisis, planning for the fall auction has not begun, and it was questionable if it would even occur without Vandeman.

Different business models were discussed that could provide Left Foot with alternative income streams, such as offering compost or commercially produced food products.

“There’s a reason people buy Paul Newman’s products,” said Gary Altman, a former board member.

“Left Foot equals healthy food – that’s the core ingredient. Let’s stay with that mission, but there’s only so far you can get with the current model of fundraising.”

When the subject of grants came up, Altman said, “We had a grant writer, but it is difficult and time consuming. Some grants provide for specific items, like tractors, that help the organization grow, but not operate.”

A pitch for community and new board involvement was made to the group.

After the meeting, Altman asked this reporter, “Maybe you could add that even if you can’t be on the board, motivate someone who can be – someone with special skill sets, people who can see possibilities….The farm makes a difference in the community. It radically changes people – each person there develops their own goals and plans. It changes people’s lives.”

Joe Hocker, 25, is one life that has been changed since he joined Left Foot three years ago. He attended the meeting with his parents, Frank and Lonna Hocker. Asked what he likes best about the farm, Hocker says he likes to feed the chickens, water them, and gather their eggs.

“All of us have jobs. I like to meet people. We’re like family. Without the farm, we’d be nothing. I just want the farm to continue. People there have become my good friends,” said Hocker.

Hocker’s crew leader, Lindsey Baris, agrees. “Joe’s an amazing worker. He’s an extremely enthusiastic worker. He loves being there, and he loves the farm. He’s changed to strive to be a better person. Everyone does, myself included.”

Left Foot Organics promotes self-sufficiency, inclusion and independence for people with disabilities and rural youth through meaningful, paid employment and training in the business of growing and selling quality organic food and farm products. The 2012 CSA season began June 6. Sign up for your share now!

For more information, contact Left Foot Organics, PO Box 12772, Olympia, Washington 98508, (360) 754-1849 or

To reach Jane Jones, Acting Executive Director, email her at