We all know that the infrastructure of local food systems has been decimated over the past few generations. A few thousand of us, coming together under the banner of Slow Money, have begun working together to generate new sources of capital for the repair and restoration of some of what has been lost.
It’s going to take billions of dollars. Venture capital isn’t enough because the vast majority of small food enterprises don’t have the kind of proprietary technologies or scalability that venture capitalists require. Philanthropy isn’t enough because we are talking about farms and processing plants and distribution businesses and restaurants and seed companies and niche organic brands—all of which need investment capital, not grants. Government programs aren’t enough, because if we are going to build durable solutions to the shortcomings of industrial agriculture, they are going to be built one company and one investor at a time, at the local level, succeeding on the strength of real relationships between people in the places where they live.
How is Slow Money going about it?
We are building national and regional networks of investors, entrepreneurs and farmers. We are developing new financial products and services that will connect investors to their local food systems, enabling small and large investors alike, to support small food enterprises in their regions.
And we are stirring up a new national conversation about the relationship between money and the soil. Money and the soil? Yes. It turns out that more folks than you’d think are ready for this conversation. “The innate value of this kind of investing is so obvious to me,” stated a woman in Ashland, OR during a Slow Money discussion, “that I don’t care how much money I make.” What she went on to explain is that the benefits to her and to her community—more organic farms, more organic food available locally, a more robust local economy—were so obvious to her that she didn’t need to wait for a group of experts to come around and put it into numbers.
This is simple stuff. And it is radical stuff. Radical in the truest sense of the word. In the root sense.
At Slow Money’s second national gathering in Shelburne Farms, VT last June, 600 people from more than 30 states and several foreign countries came together to hear presentations from 26 small food enterprises and thought leaders including Bill McKibben, Joel Salatin, Eliot Coleman and Gary Hirshberg. A number of processing companies participated, including Vermont Smoke & Cure, Green Mountain Creamery, Snowville Creamery and Modular Food Systems. Overall, more than $1 million had been committed to seven of the presenting companies by mid-September, with more expected. This is just one indicator of the momentum that is building. Another is that in Austin, Seattle, Boston, Madison, Pittsboro, Boulder, Maine and elsewhere, local Slow Money initiatives are emerging.
It’s quite a sausage we’re in the process of making. Part inspiration, part activism, part new-kind-of-financial-prudence. After all, in a world of 1,000-point drops in the Dow in 20 minutes (remember that?) and ultra-fast trading and sovereign nation defaults, a world of GMOs and derivatives and GPS-driven tractors, and farmers who haven’t seen an earthworm on their land in decades, a world in which melamine and salmonella and E. coli are ready to hitchhike into our food from just about anywhere on the planet; what is more prudent than the idea of a million people investing 1% of their money in local food systems within a decade?
This is what we’re up to at Slow Money.
If Thursday at the gathering was a day for inspiration, Friday was a day for perspiration, putting theory into practice. Some of the small food enterprises from around the country were fairly large and had very polished presentations, as expected at investment showcases like this. But many of them were farmers: self-confessed dairy nerds and beef braggarts, feed fanatics and orchard owners, looking not to take over the world or promise lucrative exit strategies, but only to preserve the land and spread the message. One trend was seen in several businesses that aim to bring organic food production to the food deserts of cities. City Fresh Foods, for example, is a Boston-based company that works with underserved communities, bringing organic food to schools, elder facilities and daycare centers in inner-city neighborhoods. Even more inspiring, they are buying up inner-city vacant land, bringing in topsoil, and turning it into farmland.
Jerry Cunningham, a farmer from Austin, Texas, was typical of many presenters in being an atypical entrepreneur. “I’m a farmer growing pasture-raised chicken eggs and grassfed beef,” he says, “and my passion is healthy soil.” He started his business when the CEO of Whole Foods—a personal friend—asked him to produce pastured organic eggs for the stores. “So I started making my plans,” he said, “and I saw that I was going to have to get my feed from Pennsylvania or Virginia or someplace like that, and I decided to make a little feed mill to feed my own chickens. I didn’t have any employees; I just ran it by myself. It’s like the Field of Dreams: build it and they will come. People started to ask me to grind feed for them, and then more and more and more. We’ve grown exponentially over the past few years. It’s just beautiful: people come and say, ‘Thank you for being here.’”
Cunningham says that he had investment offers from four very large investors, “but the one that was most eye opening for me was this one middle-aged woman from Vermont who was obviously a farmer and didn’t have a lot of money of her own. She said, ‘what’s your minimum investment? I’d just like to invest something in your feed mills.’ That’s the kind of people who were there: unselfish, caring people who want to change the way we feed America. It was the event of a lifetime! Amazing energy. I am still buzzing from it.”
One of the most impressive aspects of the gathering was the extraordinary range of people who attended, from extremely wealthy investors to farmers to students and every imaginable social stop in between. Barry Hollister, a lifestyle entrepreneur from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, said, “There was a brilliance to it, a brilliance of connectivity and collaboration and shared commitment to this powerful economic and cultural vision.”
Brian Byrnes, president of the Santa Fe Community Foundation, expressed the same idea: “There was a moment when I looked around the tent to see the wonderful old codgers who have been farming in Vermont for generations, sitting with young environmentalists and food entrepreneurs and New York investment types, all nodding in agreement with Bill McKibben, who said, ‘The only way to heal our increasingly broken world and communities is to come back together, to play together, think together, plan and act together.’ Wow. Talk about being the change we seek. It was a profoundly hopeful moment.”
Attendees also included experienced venture capitalists and investment advisors. Scott Collier, a venture capitalist from Austin, Texas observed: “This is a new way to start thinking about risk, return, and social impact. It is motivating people in powerful ways. A bunch of us are meeting every Friday to explore ways to do slow money investing in our region. Slow Money has already proven catalytic here and we are only at the beginning.”
Mary Carol Rose, an independent professional training and coaching expert from Maryland, said that she first heard about Slow Money when she heard Woody Tasch talking it about it on NPR. “I listen to National Public Radio all the time,” she says, “and there are lots of things that catch my attention, but he caught my attention so much that I pulled over to listen. So I got his book and I read it, and went to the site and called them up and asked if there was anything I could do to raise money and help them do what they’re doing. I just missed the gathering last year, so this year I went.”
Rose says that she started as an investment broker, and first became aware of socially responsible investing when her clients asked her to look into it for them. “The more things progressed,” she says, “the more I progressed, my business developed into something entirely different, where I talk to people about how they’re using money for exchange. The dialogue has an entirely different flavor. It brings people to a consciousness that makes them look at things differently, and I found without exception that people immediately start to pay more attention to the environment and how they spend their money and how they invest their money.”
“What I love with Slow Money and RSF Social Finance,” she says, “is that they are putting together investors and borrowers and creating community. It’s taking the best of what we had many years ago in terms of how we did business, and evolving it to an even better place, especially for smaller investors: people who have $1,000 to invest instead of $5 million.”
Those smaller investors were well represented during the final part of the event, which was devoted to hearing from members and reflecting on the lessons learned. It was a highly emotional outpouring. It seems everyone was touched by what they had heard and moved by being with so many like-minded folks. One woman stood up and explained that the people in her community had pooled their money to send her to the event, including paying her for the days of work she missed. And she was not alone in representing regular folks making sacrifices. Slow Money founder Woody Tasch ended the event by presenting a check he had been handed. Earlier in the gathering there had been a presentation by the CEO of 1% for the Planet, and Woody had suggested that Slow Money establish a Soil Trust on the same model, asking corporations and members to give 1 percent of their revenue to the organization. Now, at this final session, he held up a check for $250 from a woman who had written “1%” on the face of the check. Woody said the woman told him, “You can see how little I make: this is 1 percent of my income, and I’m giving it to the organization.”
In order to enhance food security, food safety and food access; improve nutrition and health; promote cultural, ecological and economic diversity; and accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration, we do hereby affirm the following Principles:
I. We must bring money back down to earth.
II. There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex. Therefore, we must slow our money down — not all of it, of course, but enough to matter.
To sign the Slow Money Principles, visit http://bit.ly/SlowPrinciples
Woody Tasch is Founder and Chairman of Slow Money, a 501(c)3 non-profit formed in 2008 to catalyze the flow of investment capital to small food enterprises and to promote new principles of fiduciary responsibility to support sustainable agriculture and the emergence of a restorative economy. Tasch is Chairman Emeritus of Investors’ Circle, a nonprofit network of investors that has facilitated the flow of $130 million to 200 sustainability minded, early stage companies and venture funds. His new book “Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money” is available directly from the publisher Chelsea Green.