Slow Money: An ingredient for a more sustainable food system?

Slow Money: An ingredient for a more sustainable food system?

It could take a rethinking of food financing to improve the sustainability of modern agriculture.

Recent years have ushered in greater recognition of a link between “too-big-to-fail” investment practices and the growing list of casualties resulting from the industrial takeover of our food systems.

One response: Think smaller. The restoration of healthy, local food systems — which can be achieved through greater emphasis on nutrient- and carbon-rich soil and small-scale, ethical, sustainable farming enterprises — offer an alternative to Big Food.

Woody Tasch’s paradigm-shifting book, "Slow Money" — a rejection of hyper-complex financial systems that argues to "bring money back down to earth" — has  become a beacon for people who recognize the big money-agriculture linkage and hope to reform our food system. That is especially true amid controversy over new types of genetically engineered food products, increased anxiety about lagging food supply for a growing population and massive amounts of food waste.

Since 2009, Tasch and his team have strategically seeded annual gathering in U.S. communities where solutions to local food crises are well underway. In late 2014, they rolled into Louisville, Ky. — a city that is no stranger to economic and social divides, nor the loss of surrounding farmland. During the unseasonable Arctic freeze that swept across America in November, the Slow Money Alliance convened their largest U.S. gathering to date where a groundswell of relationship-hungry investors, local food activists and a new breed of farmers gathered to advance their common cause.

Although the professions of speakers varied, they all tied the food system to much wider economic and social challenges.

“As a mayor, I see a food system as a metaphor for what we see on a larger basis happening in our country," said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, comparing the industrialization of the food system to broader macroeconomic trends, namely income inequality, as today's predominant agricultural models tend ultimately to enrich large suppliers at the expense of smaller operations.

In Louisville, where 67 percent of children benefit from free and reduced cost lunch programs, local officials and schools have tried to tackle related health concerns with a new generation. The city started a "compassionate education program" from kindergarten up to model coping skills, mindfulness and healthy eating.

While Fischer spoke about the health, economic and tourism benefits of scaling up the local food economy, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), once an organic farmer herself, spoke candidly about the corporate power of “Big Ag” as a barrier for local action.

She cited advances within the Local Farms, Food and Jobs Act. Known previously as food stamps, 85 percent of the reformed Farm Bill’s resources go to SNAP program benefits, which earn double their value when redeemed at farmers’ markets and should make it easier for low-income families to buy healthier food.

Outside the realm of politics, nolvelist and environmental activist Wendell Barry — who is also a farmer — didn't mince word when he linked industrialized agriculture to "the destruction of rural communities."

"Big machines, continuous tillage and continuous application and larger amounts of toxic chemicals have replaced the people who used to be there,” Barry said. 

Aside from the human toll, the Slow Money event also provided environmental and small business imperatives for reforming the food system.

“Within the next two decades, more than half of all of America’s farm and ranch land will be transferred," said Gary Nahban, a MacArthur Fellow and Slow Money board member. "400 million acres of food producing lands are at risk of going out of food production — much of that near our cities, where an incredible array of micro-businesses, food artisans and healthy food suppliers need that food in order to deliver their products.”

Blending food, culture and emissions-reduction

Patrick Holden, founding director of the London-based Sustainable Food Trust, favors a redesign of the food system from the ground up.

Implementing “true cost accounting” would help level the playing field for small farmers by factoring in government food subsidies, healthcare ramifications, industrial agriculture impacts to land and water and the taxation of nitrogen soil damage, Holden said.

That logic conveys how a new breed of sustainable farming leaders are pointing to a somewhat different set of skills than 20th century farmers might have imagined. Hard work, hand-shake integrity and a passion for the land still run deep, but now we hear about farming models which are far less capital-intensive and far more biodiverse.

Joel Salatin, a third generation farmer, author and speaker, shared his benchmarks for success: essential farm equity is demonstrated as applied knowledge; small-scale mobile innovation, resource fluidity, child-friendliness, animal honoring and customer relations are all priorities. Long term success is measured as much in carbon-building soil and growth of the commons as it is in yields and job creation.

“The average farm in America has $4 of infrastructure to generate $1 in sales," Salatin said. "On our farm we have 50 cents of infrastructure to generate $1. … That’s an 800 percent difference.”

His family farm services 3,000 families, 50 restaurants, 10 retail outlets, metro buying clubs and hosts online sales and on-site tours.

Meanwhile, a growing number of cities also have recognized the economic value of promoting local food and flavors unique to their region.

Gastronomy specialties at area restaurants, markets and farm tours can showcase local businesses. Restoring nutrient-rich farmland and pollinator corridors, while valuing the cultural heritage stories of family farms, increasingly are seen as natural assets to place-authentic tourism.

Louisville, for example, has launched Bourbonism, or a new brand for visiting Kentucky to enjoy local food and the region’s notable bourbons.

Food investing – first state of the sector report

Still, it isn't only farmers and agriculturally-inclined politicians getting involved.

Over half of attendees at the most recent Slow Money gathering registered as investors, with 100-plus indicating their affiliation as professional advisors, angels or foundation managers. About 350 identified as emerging investors who wanted to align their values with their money.

Anecdotally, some in attendance indicated that they’d recently pulled their savings out of conventional “Wall Street” investments. Many shared that it was their first Slow Money conference, where they came to learn more about how to invest in sustainable farming and healthy food enterprises.

Against that backdrop, Slow Money issued its first State of the Sector Report, which captured early trends from 2009 to 2013. $31 million flowed through their networks to more than 350 small food enterprises, primarily in the U.S. Survey respondents included 32 investment funds, family offices and foundations.

Report findings combined with Slow Money’s investment database tracked $293 million invested in more than 968 transactions during the same time period. Of note, 36 percent of investments went to farm or ranchland projects; 34 percent to organic brands; 9 percent to both farm operations and aggregation/distribution channels; and 8 percent to food processing. About 60 percent of investors surveyed prioritized local food production, job creation, rural economic vitality and increased access to healthy foods for all Americans.

At the individual level, the event in Louisville was meant to keep that momentum growing.

Lisa Dettlinger, founder of C-SAW Collaborative in Louisville, previously worked with neighborhoods across the city on issues of civic engagement, environmental and economic rights. She’s launching her nonprofit with the vision of bringing people together around food, especially those from the refugee and immigrant neighborhoods. Along with an urban farm, her organization is re-opening the landmark Hay Market that closed years back.

Katherine Kelly, executive director of CULTIVATE Kansas City (Kan.), is a veteran of the local-grown food movement with almost 20 years of experience as a farmer and educator. Her organization is one of the oldest urban food NGOs in the country. The organization developed a systems model with two working farms, a CSA, farmer training programs in organics, management and for the city’s refugee communities. It now runs a low-income, matching-incentives food buying program.

“The Slow Money model of financing that is more relationship-based will be much easier for farmers to engage in than going to banks or dealing with big governmental departments," she said.

Crowdfunding sustainable agriculture

Slow Money also in late 2014 launched BEETCOIN, its first crowdfunding campaign, with the goal of awarding $75,032 from 373 donors to top entrepreneurs. Slow Money topped off the effort to achieve an even $100,000.

After receiving over 100 applications from local food, farm and land conserving operations vying for the opportunity to present to investors at the event, 21 applicants were selected from across the country who represented four supply chain sectors.

Four of those applicants have established urban farming programs targeting food desert crises in their home cities, including Boston, Cincinnati and Chicago. The Root Cellar in Columbia, Mo., addressed the lesser-known plight of rural food deserts, where mono and industrial scale agriculture has all but wiped out local sources of fresh, seasonal food in many small communities.

Louisville’s New Roots, the second place BEETCOIN finalist, was awarded $20,000 for its impact connecting 35 minority farmers with income-challenged, food-desert neighborhoods. Over 650 families have gained access to affordable, healthy food. Their shareholder commitment enables the farmers to plan seed purchases and growing-season expenses.

Sustainable Iowa Land Trust tied for second and also was awarded $20,000. Its non-profit has a comprehensive plan to purchase and receive prime endowment farmland to lease in perpetuity to emerging farmers. Advocates cite the lack of ability to purchase land as a key obstacle for young people who want to farm.

“When young people can’t get in to an economic sector, the old people can’t get out,” Salatin said of the problematic dynamic.

The first place award of $60,000 went to Bauman Cedar Valley Farms of Garnett, Kan. — a four-generation family farm that raises pastured poultry, meat and dairy cows and grows GMO-free grains. Funding will enable them to build a grainery to serve area small farmers so they once again can purchase non-GMO grains in their own back yard.

This story was originally published by GreenMoney Journal.