A “Berry” Good Approach to Supporting Charitable Causes
–By Karen Davis
If you have ever attended a recruitment training program facilitated by Paul Siker, you know that he has more than just a passing interest in blueberries. Much of Siker’s recruiting career was dedicated to executive search assignments in the high technology market sector. Over the more recent past, however, he has completed searches for an assortment of key fund-raising and leadership roles in the non-profit arena. Exposure to numerous philanthropic organizations provided Siker with a keen sense for, “the capacity for one dollar to do good things in the world.”
“I’ve long believed that it’s incumbent upon businesses to be good corporate citizens; as such, Advanced Recruiting Trends has regularly donated money to charitable entities, especially organizations focused on health research and disease prevention,” said Siker, “What I didn’t realize was that my interest in farming would enable me to contribute to charitable initiatives.”
In 2003, Siker elected to begin cultivating blueberries. “I had toyed around with the idea of growing grapes, but they require far more time and maintenance than I could accommodate. My initial exposure to blueberries occurred when I planted several bushes that were gifts to my sons from their grandparents, and I discovered that my property offered really good growing conditions for blueberries. Just as significantly, this was the point when nutritionists were highlighting blueberries as a “super-food,” rich in antioxidants. That’s when I started thinking more seriously about growing blueberries – a lot of them.”
Siker then stumbled upon a presentation that addressed the increasing demand for value-added and specialty foods. “I went to my community’s local July 4th celebration, which is a total throwback to what you might have seen or experienced in small-town America back in the 1950’s and 1960’s; kids riding on bikes, wagons, skates, horses, and houses decorated with flags and bunting, and the whole thing culminating in a community cookout. Each year, the organizers host a guest presenter. One year, the speaker was a local chili pepper farmer and salsa maker who discussed his perception that people would increasingly be willing to pay a premium for high-quality, artisan food products, and I stowed that information away.”
Once he had committed to an initial planting of 180 bushes, Siker began to face questions about his farming aspirations. “My wife thought I was losing my mind. She asked: ‘What are you going to do with all those berries? Who’s going to pick them? What’s your plan?’ All I could say in response was that somehow it would all come together. As odd as it sounds, I just felt like this was something I was supposed to do.”
A bigger plan began to present itself on the day that Siker began to actually plant the bushes. “A good friend of mine is a local farmer and while we were punching rows of holes in the ground with his tractor, my sons, his sons, and some neighborhood boys appeared and voluntarily started doing all the planting. They were having a great time – I guess nothing goes better together than boys and dirt – but they really seemed to enjoy the work they had done, and clearly had a sense of accomplishment. That’s when it hit me: What if I started a youth philanthropy project that provided kids with an opportunity to learn a little about agriculture, a little about making a value-add food product (blueberry jam), and a little about giving to a worthy cause? I thought that it was a pretty good concept, so that’s what we set out to do.”
Today, Siker grows and maintains several hundred blueberry bushes on his property. Each year, harvested berries are processed into high-quality, small batch, blueberry jam and sold locally. The proceeds have primarily been donated to Nothing But Nets (www.nothingbutnets.net), an organization that works in conjunction with the United Nations to provide insecticide-coated sleeping nets to families in Africa and other locations where mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria account for over 1600 deaths daily. The majority of those afflicted are children.
Siker maintains that it’s been a very worthwhile endeavor. “When the berries start to come in, I know that I’m in for about 6 weeks of craziness, but it’s worth it. Our berries are essentially organic, and if the repeat orders and unsolicited feedback that we get about the quality and taste of the blueberry jam is to be believed, then we are doing something right, which is really gratifying. We get to make something that people buy and enjoy, and in exchange, we get to save the lives of some children. Not a bad trade, I’d say.” It would be hard to disagree; not a bad trade by anyone’s measure.
Paul Siker is the CEO of Advanced Recruiting Trends, a recruitment and talent acquisition strategy, training, and consulting firm. He is also principal of The Artisan Group, an executive search firm. For more information, please contact us.