Kenari: A farm, a drink, a Big Idea

Jonathan Hosseini oversees a 7-acre farm and a beverage company, but vegetables are not what he’s cultivating, and drinks are not what he’s ultimately selling.

Rather, Hosseini deals in ideas. He’s got a big one, and right now he is trying to get it to take root. So he’s leading by example.

The idea is complex, but with apologies to Hosseini, I’m going to attempt to boil it down:

Agriculture is the fundamental building block for wealth-creation in any economy. To ensure healthy local economies, communities and neighborhoods must create an agricultural base—a farm or farms, a community garden, private gardens, container gardening—and a reliable, but simple, local distribution system.

“As the food economy shifts, you’re already seeing huge amounts of experimentation,” Hosseini says, citing farmers markets, online local food networks, CSAs, community commercial kitchens and local farm delivery trucks as examples. “There’s a whole new sort of ecosystem that’s emerging. We’re experimenting with a particular set of patterns. But the patterns we’re playing with are the patterns of community and neighborhood.”

On a gray day this week, Hosseini walks me through his theory while he walks me around the Roswell property he is leasing and living on with his family. It’s an abandoned horse farm, with three flat training rings that are perfect for raised-bed community gardens; formerly lush paddocks now overgrown with kudzu; and a treasure-trove of composted horse manure just waiting to be worked back into the soil. We stroll up a muddy driveway while Hosseini drags pine boughs over the slippery tire tracks and tells me his story.

The child of a Californian mom and an Iranian dad, Hosseini was born in Colorado and raised in Iran and Botswana. He came to the States to study mechanical engineering, then returned to Botswana to found a solar energy company. He came back to the United States and got work helping industrial companies update their corporate cultures. After serving as a consultant for UNICEF and an executive at Southwire, he decided it was time to finally put his ideas about agriculture, education and health—and how those systems feed local economies—to the test. He founded his company, called Kenari, in 2009. The word has Sanskrit roots that mean “from the neighborhood,” he says.

He and his team are designing a food distribution system that can be replicated in community after community, and that holds its own against current mainstream networks.

“Wherever you go, farmers markets are competing for farmers,” he says. “There seems to be an insatiable demand for good local food—it’s really a supply problem. We’re going to crack the puzzle of, not how to [grow], but how to encourage as many people as possible to grow as much as possible.”

The company is working on an automated transaction system that would enable community members to report, price and track the food they’d grown or produced, and then sell it at a convenient location such as a corner market.

Here’s how it would work: Jill grows tomatoes. One day, she harvests a basketful. She walks to her neighborhood store, puts the tomatoes on a scale, enters her ID number, and prints out a little ticket that states the date, perhaps a little bio about Jill and her tomatoes, and the price. Her account is credited for the value of the tomatoes. She places the ticket in the basket with the tomatoes, perhaps buys some of her neighbors’ carrots or milk with part of her credit, and goes home.

But let’s say all her neighbors are also growing tomatoes, and the price has dropped. “She may look at the tomato prices at the next neighborhood over, or the price for canned tomatoes,” Hosseini says. “She may choose to go to her neighborhood shared commercial kitchen to make something with her tomatoes … so she can wait out the market.”

It’s a cool concept. But every great idea has to start somewhere.

That’s why Hosseini is hard at work setting up raised garden beds, growing herbs and getting ready for a new crop of visitors in the spring. The fledgling Kenari farm is already a neighborhood place where schoolchildren and curious adults can get their hands in the dirt and get back in touch with our collective agricultural heritage. Hosseini sees the Kenari Company Inc.’s first product, an herb-infused beverage called Kenari, as both a revenue-generator and a marketing tool.

“Our goal is to stir things up in this community around us, to get people to play in the dirt here or to have them say, ‘I can do that better.’ Maybe Jill down the road tries it, and she notches it up a bit.”

So next spring, if you see a Kenari stand at your farmers market, stop by and say hello. Or arrange for a visit to the farm. Jonathan Hosseini would love to talk to you about the food distribution systems in your community.