What Should I Do?

Slow Money: Raising Investment Capital For Local Enterprise

Wednesday, September 21, 2011, 1:07 PM

I sometimes wonder whether the “numb” in numbers was just waiting for the 21st Century. As in what my friend Lee said to me over breakfast the other day, after a cursory discussion about the week’s stock market turbulence: “I try to keep up, but it’s pretty mind-numbing.”

Within a few minutes of that remark, the following sentence came from the radio: “Investors are struggling to make sense of this week’s volatility.”

Wild gyrations in the Dow. Joblessness claims. The national debt. The price of gold. The price of oil. Retail sales. The body count from Afghanistan. Yen to the dollar. The number of cities each day in August that had their hottest day on record. $24 billion (McDonalds’ 2010 revenue). 1,100 (McDonalds locations in China). One every 18 hours (number of Yum! Brands restaurants--KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, A&W--opening in China). One-fifth (per capita water consumption in China compared to that in the U.S.). 19,000 (average earthworm population per acre in Boone County, Iowa). 1.9 million (average earthworm population per acre on Thompson Farm, an organic farm in Boone County, Iowa). 5.79 billion (record number of NYSE shares traded on August 16, 2011). Three trillion (annual Ogallala Aquifer overdraft, in gallons). 2.7 (average annual rate of depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, in feet per year). 200 (average thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer, in feet). Number of years until the Ogallala Aquifer is completely depleted (do the math).

So, how’s that morning coffee going down?

These are certainly mind-numbing numbers. They are the numbers that shout the Big Story of the 21st Century: mankind heading towards a global population of 10 billion, and the global economy growing from $60 trillion per year to who-knows-what, and everywhere we look, stresses and strains on political, economic, cultural, and ecological systems.

Behind the Big Story of these shouting numbers, however, is a Small Story that is sneaking onto the corner of our computer screens. Or, should we say, sneaking into a corner of the hearts and minds of thousands of folks.

This is the story of Slow Money.

The idea behind Slow Money is wildly fundamental. We need to take some of our money -- a tiny fraction of it to begin with, of course -- out of the accelerating, increasingly volatile, abstract, and complex global financial marketplace, where we can never fully know what it is doing or who it is doing it to. Then we must put it to work at things that we understand, closer to home, starting with small food enterprises. It is a sobering commentary on the modern circumstance that something so common-sense as “building the soil of a restorative economy” would be called a movement, or even a revolution.

We are still small, but sprouting. 15,000 people have signed the Slow Money Principles. 2,000 have joined the Slow Money Alliance, a national network and emerging group of eleven local chapters that are facilitating the flow of millions of dollars into scores of small food enterprises around the country. Six hundred people attended our second national gathering last year in Vermont, and $4 million was invested in twelve of the small food enterprises that presented there. A local, organic food home delivery service. An organic creamery. An organic beverage start-up. An inner city farming project. And many more. Since then, $5 million has flowed into dozens of small food enterprises through eleven emerging Slow Money chapters around the country. 

This year's national gathering in San Francisco promises to be another step towards our ultimate destination: one million Americans investing 1% in local food systems within a decade.

Below are examples of Slow Money investments that are occurring around the country.

Each one a small step towards fixing our economy from the ground up, a small step in the rewarding, hopeful and mind-UNnumbing process of bringing money back down to earth.

Aaron Naparstek reports from New York:

We have a great Slow Money success story developing in New York City. Fleisher's Grass-Fed & Organic Meats, the renowned butcher shop in Kingston, New York run by Josh and Jessica Applestone, is going to be opening up a new shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn this fall. The new shop is a direct result of the Slow Money National Gathering at Shelburne Farms last year. Here's how the project came together.



As many of the New Yorkers naturally gravitated toward each other at last summer's Gathering, Jessica and I met. She was at the event because she had won a free pass, as winner of the Nominate Your Favorite Slow Money Business competition. After Shelburne, we stayed in touch and I began exploring project ideas with Jessica and Josh. They have long wanted to open up a shop in Brooklyn, where the original Fleisher's Meats was founded by Josh's grandfather, Wolf Fleisher. My wife and I were interested in making a Slow Money investment in Park Slope, our neighborhood. That's exactly where Josh and Jessica wanted to be.



The project required too much funding for my wife and I to handle on our own. So, to help out, I introduced Josh to a neighborhood friend of mine, a community-oriented, Wall Street guy who recently launched an 800-acre biodynamic farm in Madison County, New York. He is looking to be out of the fast-money Wall Street business and running his farm full-time in the next two years. The Fleisher's deal fit his business plan perfectly and he was excited to be involved.



The three of us began fleshing out the deal and bringing aboard some other strategic local investors, including the founder of a local brewery and an owner of an outstanding locavore restaurant in Manhattan's East Village. Josh found a perfect storefront location at 192 Fifth Avenue, right in the middle of a burgeoning, pedestrian-friendly commercial strip (and, best of all, just around the corner from our house).



Thanks to Slow Money, Brooklyn will have a new, locally-sourced, grass-fed and organic butcher shop up and running by autumn. For more on Fleisher's, check out their brand new book, The Butcher's Guide to Well-Raised Meat.

Jodi Ohlsen Read reports from Minnesota:

When we were struggling to finance rebuilding after a fire, we soon realized that we needed an unconventional approach. Traditional financing just didn't fit – our fledgling sheep dairy was not considered a good risk for banks, we were 'too small' for venture capitalists, and other sorts wanted to know how soon we could franchise, how big we could get how fast, and if they would get 75% or 80% of our farm business. It was all about the money – without any understanding of the underlying mission of a farm or the cyclical and risky nature of a business based on earth and animals.



We believed that there were people out there who had the interest and had the ability to invest in real life tangible sustainable farms that they could see, visit, know. So we set up Farm Haven, an LLC that would be a tool to gather together people and funds to help support the real estate and operations of Shepherd's Way Farms. It would be challenging to introduce these new ideas in an unsteady financial climate, but there had to be a way.

 

Then we heard Woody Tasch on a Wisconsin Public Radio program – he was speaking our language, talking about investing in food and farms, in a way that made sense. We got his book and were encouraged and inspired, he helped give us language and context to better share our message and help others understand what we were trying to do.

 

And it worked. Together we have raised more than $650,000 through Farm Haven members – Shepherd's Way Farms real estate has been secured and rebuilding has begun. With our members we put the Slow Money Principles to work and our farm and sheep cheese business are doing well once again.

Kelly Childs from St. Louis writes:

At a Slow Money gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, YellowTree Farm presented plans to expand their urban farming operation onto more rural pastures. YellowTree Farm grows chemical free, pesticide free, non-GMO foods, forages for wild mushrooms and fruits, and raises antibiotic, hormone-free, pastured livestock. As an innovative farming enterprise, they have a reputation for cultivating uncommon varieties and continuously improving their growing techniques, which has made them a favorite source among many local chefs.



After the Slow Money gathering, two individuals came together to make a $6,000, 2% interest loan to YellowTree Farm. This funding has enabled them to expand onto an additional two acres of land, start a CSA, increase their thriving restaurant business and rent a booth at a farmer’s market. Their CSA sold out in twenty-four hours and they are already signing up members for 2012.

Alexis Koefoed reports from California:

Some Slow Money members were on the fence before they came to the farm, but by the end of the visit, we had our investment in sight. I didn’t know how to approach the whole financing question, and it never would have happened without the kind of connecting and translating that the Slow Money members made possible.



We’re a little chicken farm. Our off-farm income was down. We just didn’t have the capital to continue what we were doing again in 2011. I’d been looking for a loan for a long time. But it wasn’t until the Slow Money members were sitting here in my kitchen that I met people who are genuinely interested in putting money into small farms like mine. There was a lot of magic going on around the table in this kitchen. Not only did we get the loan that we needed, but today, many of those Slow Money members are in touch with other farms in the region.



We had help from SCORE putting together our financial projects, and lots of help from the Slow Money members in walking through the structuring of the deal.



This may be the only way to save a lot of small farms. Banks are out of the question. The non-profit organizations that are supporting sustainable agriculture are great resources, and doing really important policy works, but when small farmers need cash, they need to go to private investors who are ready to lend them money.



An incomplete inventory of the assets of Soul Food Farm includes: 54 acres, 2,800 laying hens, 9,000 pastured meat chickens, two crazy farmers, who knows how many earthworms, and two baby steers purchased from Strauss Family Farm.



Observes Slow Money founding member Arno Hesse, “Just received my first loan payment: the principal in cash, the interest in superb eggs. Our loan in late Winter helped Soul Food Farm with upgrades and working capital, e.g. layer hens and feed. The chicks have grown and are producing now. We’re eating the payoff – literally.”

Slow Money Founding Member Jeff Rosen reports from Massachusetts:

The PVGrows loan fund, a pilot fund administered by the Western Mass. Enterprise Fund, targets mezzanine investments in infrastructure businesses that will enhance the viability of the 3-county Pioneer Valley food system of Western Mass. The collaboration includes foundations, experienced lenders, NGO’s and the MA Department of Ag resources.

 

PVGrows' first investment was made in Organic Renaissance, a new food system distribution model, designed to efficiently link producers with institutional purchasers. Organic Renaissance is in the process of building out a facility in Athol, MA, which will serve as a distribution hub, directly linking farmers to the institutions that seek to satisfy the demand for local food, such as school systems, universities, hospitals and restaurants. In the first stage of development, the company has demonstrated the concept and the need for this distribution infrastructure in Eastern Mass.

 

By way of example, they recently provided efficient distribution services for MOO Milk, a Maine-based independent, local milk processing facility that presented at Slow Money’s second national gathering and whose producers should see great benefit and higher on-farm margin from this arrangement. While PVGrows has taken a highly local approach to the placement of capital, all of its participants recognize the importance of regional scale food systems, as we work together to rebuild the many missing components of a diverse, healthy local food system. We were thrilled to hear about Organic Renaissance’s work with MOO Milk, as we support that effort on its own merits. Encouraged by the initial impacts from this investment, we are patiently looking forward to seeing that scale of efficient distribution providing higher margins to our Pioneer Valley stakeholder producers, and nutritious, locally grown and processed foods to our local and regional consumer stakeholders.

From Portland, OR, Slow Money Founding Member Narendra Varma reports:

What do you get when you combine several small organic farming businesses with excellent permaculture design and land stewardship tenets? What if you threw in a residential community and an education center as well? And what if the returns on investment were thriving small farm enterprises, soil health, and skills? Community by Design, LLC is embarking on a unique experiment to create a small-farm incubator integrating all of the above with the expectation that a group of independently owned and inter-dependent businesses can realize significant efficiencies by sharing resources such as barns, equipment, greenhouses, commercial kitchen, sales & marketing, and more. An overarching permaculture design will aim for a tight integration of all systems and businesses on the site and ensure a healthy diversity of plant and animal communities. We are currently under contract to acquire 60 acres of land 15 miles from downtown Portland, Oregon, and hope to take possession of the site in Fall 2011. Please visit www.communitybydesignllc.org for further information.

Woody Tasch is Founder and Chairman of Slow Money and author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. Slow Money’s third national gathering takes place at Ft. Mason, San Francisco, October 12-14.

Chris will be speaking at this gathereing - the event details are b:

Friday, October 14 @ 9am-12:30m PST (San Francisco, CA)

  • location: Fort Mason Center,  Marina Blvd/Buchanan St, San Francisco, CA 
  • Chris' appearances: keynote speech (9:05-9:25am), breakout session (11:30am-12:45pm)
  • fee: $595 (for attenting the entire 3-day Slow Money conference)
  • event info: http://www.slowmoney.org/national-gathering/

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