Grow a Farmer Fund: Nearly $100,000 Raised for Low-interest Loans to Farmers

My grandparents were berry farmers in western Pennsylvania. Visiting their farm was a highlight of my childhood and part of the reason I do the work I do. I want a future for my kids (and their kids—and everyone’s kids) that includes shelling and eating peas, husking and roasting fresh corn, and picking plump berries. I want there to be family farms and farms that people can visit with their children. I love good, fresh food. I also love the cultural richness tied to food—like making fresh strawberry pies with my Aunt Ruth or stuffed zucchini with my Greek YiaYia.

In Minnesota, those of us working with farmers have seen the challenges and risks faced by those growing fruits and vegetables, raising grass-fed livestock, and producing honey, maple syrup, and other “specialty crops.” These farmers often have difficulty accessing traditional sources of capital. We know young farm families and new immigrant farm families are raring to grow healthy local food, but they need access to smart financing in order to grow their businesses.

It is these issues, and a desire to give good food citizens a way to invest in the kind of farms they want to see more of that led us to form the Slow Money Minnesota network and link up with the FEAST Local Foods Network to launch the Grow a Farmer Fund.

"To keep up with the demand for my farmstead goat cheese, I need to build a bigger aging cave. A low-interest Grow a Farmer Fund loan would be a huge help!" —Katie Wiste, Capra Nera Creamery

“To keep up with the demand for my farmstead goat cheese, I need to build a bigger aging cave. A low-interest Grow a Farmer Fund loan would be a huge help!” —Katie Wiste, Capra Nera Creamery

The Grow a Farmer Fund is a pilot project launched in May 2016 that involves raising $100,000 from community members, establishing policies and procedures for the fund, taking applications from small-scale sustainable farmers, and providing low-interest loans and technical assistance that will help farmers improve their operations and increase their bottom lines.

Initially, the plan seemed reasonable. But in reality, raising $100,000 was a challenge for a group of folks more experienced at writing grants than getting individuals to make donations. Nevertheless, we pooled our experience and put together a plan that has been successful!

Highlights to date include:

  • An initial contribution from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation of $25,000 to seed the fund.
  • Launching and introducing the fund at our second annual Slow Money Minnesota event, where we invited people to contribute to the fund at the $500 level. We raised over $6,000 from ten people!
  • The wonderful St. Paul food co-op, Mississippi Market, selected Grow a Farmer as their Positive Change recipient for the month of August. By asking customers to round up, they raised nearly $10,000 for the fund.

In September, we launched a Barnraiser campaign to raise the next $25,000. Barnraiser is very similar to Kickstarter, but supports projects that align with these values: …Food should be good for you. …Products should respect the environment …People make things special. …Every bite counts to change how we eat & live.

People told us that this sort of campaign was a lot of work—and it was. It took a team of us stepping outside of our comfort zones and asking our families, friends, colleagues, and networks to contribute to the fund. Before the campaign kicked off, we got some great news: An anonymous family foundation offered to match all donations during the first 10 days up to $10,000. Then, to draw much-needed attention to the campaign, a group of chefs, farmers, city officials, and nonprofit staff participated in a Mud Bucket Challenge.

The Mud Bucket Challenge

The Mud Bucket Challenge

We reached our goal a few hours before the deadline, which was crucial because this was an all or nothing campaign. Post-Barnraiser campaign, we were completely astounded to find out another family foundation stepped forward and doubled our Barnraiser achievement with a $25,000 donation through the Minneapolis Foundation Anonymous Grants Fund.

Then, in October, over 50 people came to a fundraising house party in Minneapolis and, in addition to meeting local farmers, eating delicious farm-fresh food, and sipping local craft brews and wines, they pitched in another $5,000 for the fund.

As of November 28, we have raised $96,900 and are working to secure the final $3,100 so we can open the fund to farmers by the end of this year.

We’re still working out some of the particulars, but we have settled on the following: The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), a well-respected community foundation that serves the twenty counties of southeast and south-central Minnesota, will manage the fund, with input from Slow Money Minnesota and the FEAST Local Foods Network. The first loans will be in SMIF’s region and will be up to $15,000. Interest rates will be low, repayment terms will be determined on a case-by-case basis, and the process will be straight-forward and transparent.

"Fruit and nut trees are a long-term investment in farm resilience. A low-interest loan from the Grow a Farmer Fund would make that investment possible." —Nick and Kathy Zeman, Simple Harvest Farm

“Fruit and nut trees are a long-term investment in farm resilience. A low-interest loan from the Grow a Farmer Fund would make that investment possible.” —Nick and Kathy Zeman, Simple Harvest Farm

The Grow a Farmer Fund will allow us to support small farmers right away, while also helping us better understand the needs and challenges both to farmers and in managing this type of fund. It will serve as a “proof of concept” for broader Slow Money Minnesota initiatives, and we believe this donation-based fund will create more pathways for good food citizens to support the kinds of farms and food businesses that we all want to see flourish.

A Photo Recap Of Our First Decelerator

Slow Money Friends,

It is our pleasure to share with you a few photos from our first Decelerator at Lone Hawk Farm. These photos capture a beautiful day of sharing and learning and vital public conversation about how we can all work together to slow our money down. Many thanks to everyone who invested their time and energy with us at this event.

—The Slow Money Team

Photo credits: Trav Williams, Broken Banjo Photography

Woody Tasch

Woody Tasch delivering opening remarks.

Elizabeth Candelario

Elizabeth Candelario, Managing Director of Demeter USA, speaking about biodynamics.

Carol Peppe Hewitt

Slow Money North Carolina Co-founder Carol Peppe Hewitt shares the peer-to-peer loans she has catalyzed.

Slow Money Kitchen Cabinet members

Slow Money Kitchen Cabinet members Tom Spier, Amy Divine and Tatiana Maxwell at Thursday evening’s Earthworm Angels meeting at which Wonder Press, Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe and Mad Agriculture made investor presentations.

Marco Vangelisti

Marco Vangelisti, Co-leader of Slow Money Northern California and former institutional equities manager, shares his investment philosophy.

Nancy Thellman

Nancy Thellman, County Commissioner from Douglas County, KS, offers perspectives on Slow Money activities in eastern Kansas.

Tom Abood

Tom Abood, Founder of Local Matters Investments, the Slow Money investment club in Denver, describes the structure and function of for-profit investment clubs.

Eden Vardy

Eden Vardy, Manager of 2Forks Club of Carbondale, the first Slow Money investment club organized as a nonprofit.

Brook LeVan

Brook LeVan, Founding Member of Slow Money and Co-director of Sustainable Settings (Carbondale), a 244-acre biodynamic farm, CSA and learning center.

Afternoon small group discussions

Afternoon small group discussions, featuring small food enterprises in the Front Range.

Bob Helmuth

Bob Helmuth, Senior Vice President of Stakeholder Relations at Pax World, speaking with Brian Coppom, Executive Director of Boulder County Farmers’ Markets.

Slow Money Journal

Attendees received the new Winter 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Michael Brownlee

Michael Brownlee discusses his new book, The Local Food Revolution, with Susan Graf of New Resource Bank.

Woody Tasch

Woody Tasch introduces the new nonprofit investment club SOIL (Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally).

Quaker-style meeting

Prior to dinner, a Quaker-style meeting offered attendees moments of reflection and shared learning.

The day wrapped up with a celebratory farm-to-table dinner and music.

The day wrapped up with a celebratory farm-to-table dinner and music.

Farm-to-table dinner

A Conversation with RSF Social Finance CEO Don Shaffer

Don has served as President & CEO of RSF Social Finance since 2007. He has been a social entrepreneur for many years, growing an education business, a software company, and a sporting goods manufacturer, in addition to the nonprofit Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Don and the team at RSF are constantly asking the question, “How can we model financial transactions that are direct, transparent, personal, and based on long-term relationships?” Under Don’s leadership, RSF’s total assets have grown to over $160 million.

Woody Tasch: If I told you that I think of you as the least fiduciary fiduciary I know, would you consider this a compliment or an insult?

Shaffer: I like that designation. For one thing, at RSF we don’t have any institutional investors. All investors and donors are individuals or families. We know each of them quite well. That makes an extraordinary difference in terms of how we show up. We know their intentions, and so we can represent them well. We’re in actual relationship with them. We give agency to their desire to question assumptions, to put money to work as directly as possible. We try to be a thin layer of intermediation that helps people deeply align their money with their core values. We are not conventional investment advisors who have all sorts of institutional constraints and who are typically not interested in questioning the core assumptions of modern portfolio theory.

The core assumptions of modern portfolio theory?

Actually, I sometimes avoid the phrase “modern portfolio theory.” Financial jargon is part of the problem. People get buried in a blizzard of financial terms that obfuscates—makes opaque—what is going on, furthers the paradigm of, “We’ll just take care of you. Here are the reports—full of jargon and charts and analytics that are virtually meaningless to you.”

You’re making me think of a recent impact investing report from a major investment bank. It covers billions of dollars of impact investing, has all manner of survey data from institutional investors about their social and environmental concerns, about the allocation of capital and return objectives and metrics, but does not mention a single individual transaction. It is all about large, aggregated pools of capital, sliced and diced analytically in various ways. But you can’t tell where the money is going in terms of specific investments.

That’s why at RSF we do not think of trying to be a leader in the impact-investment industry. The impact-investing industry is mimicking the structure and presentation of institutional finance—the culture of Wall Street. So, what we do, to counter this, is to bring investors and social enterprises as close together as possible. When this is accomplished, investors and entrepreneurs can experience a visceral sense of how we are all connected. When you experience where your money is going and, as an entrepreneur, where your money is coming from, we find that, pretty much every time, it nurtures a spirit of generosity.

That reminds me of the words of a woman from Ashland, Oregon who said, a few years ago, after a half-day public Slow Money discussion, “The innate value of this kind of investing is so obvious to me that I don’t care how much money I make.” Innate value—a truly beautiful way of expressing it, since the word innate has connotations of the natural and the intuitive. This is a way of getting at the visceral sense of connection that you are talking about. It happens when people are in direct relationship to one another and to the places and the soil where they live. And, being the devotee of Wendell Berry that I know you to be, this is where we should throw in the word affection.

Yes, affection. There isn’t much of it when the workout team of a bank gets down to business, getting whatever financial value they can out of a troubled loan. RSF doesn’t have a workout team. We have a work-through team. We can be more patient, more flexible, and can work toward an effective resolution in situations where commercial banks just cannot. Is this generosity? Or affection? Is it simply a matter of working at a smaller, more-human scale? These are all great ways to think about what we are doing.

Common Market

A mission-driven distributor of local foods to the Mid-Atlantic region, Common Market has grown rapidly through integrated capital financing from RSF. Featured are cofounders Haile Johnston and Tatiana Garcia-Granados.

We’re finding the same to be true in the Slow Money investment club in Boulder. There is strong consensus among our few dozen members that, although we don’t use the words “affection” or “generosity,” we are using that spirit to evaluate our success. Success for this group is not a particular rate of financial return. It is the enhanced impact on the local food system of the small food enterprises to whom we have made loans. This is our primary concern. I’ve started using the term “return agnostic” to describe this mentality. As we become more grounded in terms of our shared mission, and as relationships strengthen, we become more agnostic about the arithmetic.

If you want to talk about arithmetic, let’s talk about LIBOR—the London Interbank Offered Rate. Trillions of dollars a day globally are pegged to LIBOR, a rate which has been shown many times to be rigged for the benefit of the big banks. At RSF, we don’t use LIBOR. LIBOR is part of the black box of the banking system. No one knows where the money in a big bank goes. It could go to hedge funds. It could go toward community investments. You don’t really know.

So, we use Community Pricing Meetings as part of an entirely different approach. We bring together the investors in our $100-million loan fund, the entrepreneurs who are our borrowers, and RSF staff, and we talk about each others’ needs. Some investors focus on reducing risk. Some want only a little bit of financial return. Some care only about the depth and potency of social and environmental impact and want to support the modeling being done by social enterprises. You’d think the entrepreneurs would care about nothing more than paying as little as possible. Yet at every meeting, some of the investors are inspired to say to some of the entrepreneurs, “I’d be willing to take less, if it will help you be more successful.” Then some of the entrepreneurs say, “We’d be willing to pay a little more if it will enable you to help other entrepreneurs.” This experience of interdependence changes the arithmetic.

Perla Ni, who used to be editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, named that tune in three words: “Numbers suppress empathy.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. If you are so busy doing the numbers, you don’t have time for empathy. I’m constantly surprised by how often I get asked, “Am I allowed to have a portion of my assets invested in deep social and environmental assets and either just get my money back or have a small financial return?” It’s fascinating that so many people ask if this is “allowed.” And the frequency of this question, whether from folks of significant means or not, is increasing dramatically—it’s ten times what it was five years ago.

We’re all trying to get permission from the “Big Fiduciary in the Sky.”

This is why I like your mantra about “bringing our money back down to earth.” It’s about giving ourselves permission. Investing in food and farming brings a lot of this to the forefront.

Can you share an example of one of your recent investments in food?

A recent example is a multipronged loan/investment/grant to Veritable Vegetable, the oldest local organic distributor in northern California. They ran out of warehouse space and needed a new building, but San Francisco real estate is extremely challenging. We split the mortgage loan on the new building with New Resource Bank—a $3.2 million loan, split 50/50. Then we financed leaseholder improvements for them with $800,000 of subordinated debt, half of which came from a philanthropic fund at RSF and half from five RSF investors who participated alongside the fund.

On top of that, they got a grant from the USDA, but needed a lead gift to catalyze this. RSF put in $30,000; then USDA came in with an $100,000 grant. So, that’s an example of what we are doing in the food sector. We’re taking an integrated capital approach, working to break down the compartmentalization of transactions.

The Veritable Vegetable team

The Veritable Vegetable team

Say more about what you mean by “integrated capital.”

Integrated capital is the coordinated use of different kinds of financial capital and nonfinancial resources to support an enterprise that’s working to solve complex social and environmental problems. We’re talking about direct investments, loans, grants, etc. What we find constantly is that this is very nuanced work—to figure out how to provide the right combination of funding at the right time. Often the entrepreneurs need quite a bit of counsel. It’s a deep listening process.
So we’re launching an Integrated Capital Academy in the fall of 2017 to train the next generation of integrated capital specialists. Basically, there is a big need right now for hundreds of finance professionals who have what I call “the whole enchilada”: technical knowledge of direct investing/lending/giving, a fundamental disposition for listening, a spirit of service, and the impulse to go beyond “impact” transactions to relationships.

Kate Danaher, who is our lead manager for integrated-capital deployment in food and agriculture, has it. Esther Park, who led our lending team for years, has it. Esther is CEO of Cienega Capital now, one of the most innovative family offices in our field. We want to create a peer-learning experience for about 20 people initially. I can’t wait to see how it goes!

It’s interesting that you are introducing a new curriculum and calling it integrated capital, because Slow Money is introducing something new as well. We’re calling ours a Decelerator. You know: venture capital has accelerators and pitch fests; nurture capital needs decelerators and harvest fests. We’ve done all kinds of meetings around the country and the Decelerator is a next iteration. We’re hosting our first one in October in Colorado. The challenge in all of this is balancing the need to develop a new kind of financial intermediation—I did say you were the least fiduciary fiduciary I know, didn’t I?—that gets more money flowing from the wealthy and also empowers and engages small investors. I love the prospect of many more Esther’s working with many more Cienega Capitals. And I love the idea of hundreds of thousands of small investors and crowd- funders connecting to do lots of small investments through a network of CSA-like local investment initiatives.

Sounds like a plan.

Changing the Culture and Changing Ourselves

Narendra Varma

Born and raised in India, Narendra Varma came to the United States in 1986 to attend Brown University. In 2010, after quitting his day job at Microsoft, Narendra and his wife Machelle purchased a 58-acre farm just outside Portland, Oregon to launch Our Table Cooperative.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

In the late 1990s, after eight years working at Microsoft, my wife and I found ourselves on the receiving end of a financial windfall that freed us of the burden of nine-to-five jobs. Over time, our interests coalesced around the twin themes of food and community. We came to the realization that our contemporary food system has failed us at almost every level and that we need to work together with our community to imagine a new culture
 of food that is both abundant and resilient. Inspired by the burgeoning Slow Money movement, we decided to dedicate our time, knowledge, and financial resources to this effort.

We started with values: the health and well-being of people and the land, interdependent relationships, strong communities, and a worldview that sees humans as an integral and important part of the natural world. We wanted all the people involved in growing, raising, processing, distributing, cooking, and eating food to have an equal voice and ownership of their food: a model community-owned food system in which the farm feeds the community and the community feeds the farm. Since economic and ecological sustainability were both critical, a for-profit structure was important.

Our answer is Our Table—a cooperative business with three distinct but interdependent membership groups or classes—workers, regional producers, and consumers. Workers, from farmers to the delivery drivers, operate the cooperative’s farm and manage the organization. Producers are independent farmers and food artisans who grow and produce all the things that we want to eat but do not grow on our own farm. Consumers are the people who eat the food, which includes all of us in the community. The cooperative brings this diverse group of stakeholders together to the proverbial table to solve a common problem, and collectively, its members own and control the business and share the profits.

Our Table's Grocery Store

Our Table’s on-farm full-service grocery store

Since 2013, we have been raising a diverse array of vegetables, fruit, and animal products on our 58-acre farm located just 15 miles from downtown Portland. Combined with products from our regional producer members, this allows us to offer a full diet of Oregon-sourced and organic foods. Our on-farm commercial kitchen produces everything from jams and jellies to soups and lasagnas. All of this is available via a CSA program as well as in our on-farm full-service grocery store. The store is our primary retail outlet and the only farm-direct healthy food source for our middle-class suburban community.

With 16 employees and over 200 members, our gross revenues have grown to over $550,000 in 2015. However, this ambitious undertaking is not profitable yet and to date, financing from Slow Money–inspired investors has provided crucial operating capital in the form of preferred stock. We hope to achieve profitability in two years with $1.2 million in revenues and 800 members. We are currently trying to raise an additional $350,000 as we work towards this goal of financial self-sufficiency by 2017.

Chickens at Our Table

Over a few short years, we have overcome numerous challenges but continue to grapple with many more. Organic farming is a particularly risky business and the proverbial vagaries of nature are always rearing their ugly heads. However, the actual growing of food in a sustainable way is a complex but ultimately manageable problem. The more intractable issue is, at some level, far simpler—us: people; culture. On a day-to-day basis, what inspires me most is people, the individuals who work here and the members of our community who engage with us in myriad ways. On the flip side, the biggest single barrier to achieving our vision of a resilient and interdependent local food culture is the prevailing culture!

Our society does not place a great deal of value on the people involved in producing our food. The supreme irony of our business is that most of our workers cannot afford to purchase the food we produce! This is not because our food is overpriced. On the contrary, over 70 percent of our costs go towards payroll—at wage levels that are too low for comfort. The real reason most of us cannot afford our own food is because in our society, food is grossly underpriced. The true cost of production is not reflected in the majority of what we eat today because a large percentage of this cost is offset in space and/or time. We import much of our food from faraway places where labor is cheap and at home, we rely on migrant labor often working in near slavery conditions. At the same time, our farming practices destroy the soil, pollute our water, sicken our farmers, and decimate rural communities.

As much as each of us may, at an individual level, abhor these practices and their effects, we all bear a collective responsibility for them; it is our cultural values that create the system that results in these behaviors. In contrast, at Our Table, we make every attempt to price our food at what it truly costs to produce right here in our community, in a sustainable and closed-loop way. The result is that too many people in our community, including our own workers, find it difficult to purchase this appropriately priced food. The solution to this is not to make food cheaper by hiding costs but to change the value systems at the foundation of modern society. Obviously, none of us can undertake this herculean task alone. Certainly, none of us have all the answers. However, our society is a human invention—a figment of our collective imagination and if we act collectively, there is nothing to stop us from imagining and creating something different.

Aerial shot of Our Table

An aerial photo of Our Table Cooperative

Our real task is to change the culture and the only way to do that is to change ourselves. As someone once said to me rather ominously, “It is time to unwind the hypocrisy of our lives!” Farmers intuitively understand that when stewarded with love and care, nature produces a bounty and abundance that epitomizes the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. We are a part of a larger whole, and coming together to collectively address common problems is a defining feature of what it means to be human. Pope Francis recently wrote:

We human beings are part of the environment. We live in communion with it.”

It is in this spirit of communion, love, and collective effort that we come together at 
Our Table. Workers, producers, consumers, and investors—the entire community—to take ownership of our food and change our culture.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

I Trust Cows More Than I Trust Chemists: A Conversation With Joan Gussow

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Joan Dye Gussow, Mary Swartz Rose Professor Emerita
 and former chair of the Program in Nutrition at Columbia
 University Teachers College, Nutrition Education Program, 
lives, writes, and grows organic vegetables on the west bank 
of the Hudson River. Long retired, she is still co-teaching her
 course in nutritional ecology at TC every fall. She is author,
 co-author or editor of five books including The Feeding Web: 
Issues in Nutritional Ecology, This Organic Life and Growing, Older: A Chronicle of Death, Life, and Vegetables.

Q. Michael Pollan has referred to you as his guru. You were talking about “nutritional ecology” way back in the 1970s. How did you originally develop this concept?

A. Yes, the term first went public in the subtitle of my book: The Feeding Web: Issues In Nutritional Ecology, which was published in 1978. This for me was an attempt to address the whole ball of wax. I might not have picked the right term for it. But I didn’t know how else to describe what I was after.

Some time earlier, I had seen an exchange in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Someone had written the editor asking why the journal had no coverage of the world hunger crisis, and the editor wrote back and said the world food crisis was the field of agricultural economists, demographers, and agronomists, but that it was not part of the field of clinical nutrition. Too often, the field of nutrition was this narrow.

Another example: I once asked a classroom of nutrition students to pick from a selection of journals about food, nutrition, and medicine one journal they thought their fellow students should read. I myself was fascinated by the food journals where you saw ads for what was coming next. Once I saw an ad for ”powdered cloud #9” that “gives your juice drinks eye-appealing opacity.” But not a single student in that class picked a “food” journal. 
One of them actually said to me later, “I don’t think that being interested
 in nutrition means you have to be interested in food.” So, on the one hand you had a nutrition editor who didn’t think his field had to do with hunger and on the other hand you had a nutrition student who didn’t see why she needed to be interested in food. Clearly, a broader view of things was needed. ‘Nutritional Ecology’ was my attempt at such a broader framework.

Q. This is the problem of professional silos.

A. Our job as nutritionists was to pay attention to the food after the swallow. Nothing before the swallow mattered. That meant that we were incredibly narrowly focused. The idea that nature had anything at all in mind regarding food was lost. Food technologists got busy trying to figure out things like the perfect balance of carbohydrates and protein in wheat, as if we could ever know what the perfect balance is. Food processors 
were only concerned with what they could do to the food to make it more marketable, not with valuing the essential character and quality of the food as it comes from nature.

Q. You’ve summed it up in the past by saying, “I prefer butter 
to margarine, because I trust cows more than I trust chemists.” Has your skepticism about technology gotten you into trouble?

A. How is it in this country we are so willing to look at technology and say that it will solve all of our problems? We always rush right in, let “progress” take over, and never imagine that it may have a negative effect on the overall society. I’m not sure why, but I felt this even in the very early days of the internet, when the excitement was so high. I was thinking, “People aren’t paying attention now to the environment. If everyone is busy watching frogs on their computers, they won’t notice when the actual frogs disappear.” That was decades ago and it is so much worse today.

Q. Are people similarly distracted when it comes to real food?

A. Yes, but they’re beginning to wake up. Today the food industry fortifies breakfast cereals with B12, which is only found in animals in nature. There’s a new film out about Michael Pollan’s In Defense Of Food and it features a tribe in Africa—one week they are eating antelope, one week they are eating honey, another week berries from trees, all along with various plant roots. This is, it seems to me, the polar opposite of breakfast cereals fortified with B12. We’ve arrived at the idea that to be nutritionally complete, we need every day one food from column A and two from column B, 
that we need to manipulate and measure and supplement ingredients, this much fat with this much vegetable protein and no gluten, counting each element. And we are trained to tell people to eat so many helpings of fresh fruit, winter and summer, forgetting that god doesn’t make fruit in winter.

Q. God does make organic Twinkies 12 months a year, doesn’t she?

A. That is not god. That is merely a god-like object called a factory, making a food-like object called a Twinkie. The point is that the professional field that should have been guarding the henhouse—attending to the integrity of food as it moves from seed to table, with attention to organic, biotech, hydroponics, energy, pollution, all the issues—this “field” has never really quite existed.

Q. Maybe this is also why there is no field in finance called slow money.

A. We share many of the same concerns about the long-term costs of reductionism.

Q. Isn’t this where the idea of local comes in? Global financial markets are reduced to a bunch of abstractions, a bunch of numbers. The place where you live and the life in the soil—these are the opposite of abstract. How did you get from nutritional reductionism to the local food movement?

A. The idea of relocalization as a possible solution was suggested at the end of The Feeding Web. I was thinking, “People don’t know we’re importing pork from Haiti, the poorest country in the world. How can we make people aware of the madness and the destructiveness of this food system?” I thought the only way people could begin to learn how agriculture worked would be for them to get to know a farmer and the only way to do this would be to have a farmer in their vicinity and the only way there would be a farmer in the vicinity was if local people were willing to buy, in season, what the farmer grew.

Around 1990, when the national Organic Foods Production Act was passed, I was on a panel and asked to take a stand on local versus organic, and I came down on the side of local, saying that as long as we had local farmers, we could work with them to go organic, but once we lost the local farmers, the game was up.

Local developed in response to the corruption of organic by large industrial producers. There was a feeling that local couldn’t be stolen from us. Which of course turned out not to be true.

Q. Who has stolen local?

A. Walmart is trying to position itself as a local player. But this poses all kinds of problems for small producers who get hooked into a large supply chain and become hostage to a system that over time drives prices down and hurts them and other local producers.

Q. Is community-supported agriculture a meaningful alternative?

A. CSAs and farmers’ markets are part of the solution. Food hubs are
 a significant new thing. Central locations that bring produce together and then distribute it. These take up where CSAs leave off. I’m worried that CSAs are facing competition today that is just too tough from home delivery and online ordering.

Q. It all comes back to the internet, doesn’t it?

A. My friend Pam Cook has a wonderful story about the days of bulk purchasing through co-ops and buying clubs. Her buying club members used to get together to plan orders, and then again to divide the stuff up. But once you could order online, it ended the whole social structure. 
No one had to bother coming together. No one had to sit around and laugh. No one had to say, “If we’re going to fill out the order, someone has to buy another pound of beans.” It all died. The internet did it. The earth is down there breathing and we are not hearing her. The internet removes us from Mother Earth, makes us forget our dependence on her and on each other.

This interview appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

Soil4Climate: New Organization Fights Global Warming From The Ground Up

Eric Becker is chief investment officer at Clean Yield Asset Management. He has been engaged in social and environmental investing since 1993. Eric co-founded Slow Money Boston and Slow Money Vermont, as well as the Vermont Food Investors Network. He is a founding board member of Soil4Climate. Eric serves as a Trustee of Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. He was also a founding board member of The Carrot Project.

In my day job, I’m a money guy. I manage socially and environmentally screened investment portfolios for people who want to align their money with their values. I got involved with Slow Money because of a personal interest in organic agriculture, but also because I had clients who wanted to channel some of their assets into sustainable food systems. But soil? I didn’t know anything about soil.

That was about to change. Through my involvement with Slow Money, my appreciation for and understanding of soil has continually grown and deepened. I remember first learning from a Woody Tasch talk that there were upwards of a billion microorganisms in a teaspoon of fertile soil. I learned from farmers and others at Slow Money gatherings about the myriad benefits of healthy soils, from nutritious food to water quality. Meanwhile, wearing my climate activist hat, I met biologists who explained that one of the most powerful tools we have to mitigate climate change is to put the excess carbon in the atmosphere back in the soil through restorative grazing and agriculture.

Increasingly I found myself in the company of soil advocates who view restorative agriculture as a key component of any scenario in which humanity effectively addresses the climate crisis. Now a few of these folks have formed a Vermont-based non-profit organization called Soil4Climate to advance the soil carbon narrative within the larger climate movement. I’m honored to be one of the founding board members of the organization, and further pleased that Woody Tasch has joined our advisory board.

Soil4Climate

Soil4Climate at Vía Orgánica in Guadalupe, Mexico.

Soil4Climate is inspired by innovative farmers, ranchers and other land managers who are increasing soil carbon while providing environmental and health benefits. As it turns out, nature is our most powerful ally in the fight against global warming. The ability for soil to capture atmospheric carbon is awe evoking. When we work to enhance this natural process, we get nourishing food and biodiverse spaces while also helping to assure a livable future.

Soil4Climate evolved out of an understanding that the climate crisis has reached a point where even eliminating the use of fossil fuels would not prevent an oncoming calamity. Research from NOAA showed that climate change from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was largely irreversible for at least a thousand years, even if our campaign to end fossil use was 100% successful. The planet doesn’t care. It will continue to warm from the carbon we’ve already pumped into the air.

Soil4Climate

Jesse and Callie McDougall of Studio Hill Farm, and Sally Dodge from Vermont Lamb Company.

The one silver lining in all this, however, is soil. In conjunction with essential emissions reductions, soil restoration may provide the extra ingredient needed to avert the worst climate disruptions that are otherwise already locked into the system. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has stated, it will take “a large net removal of CO2 from the atmosphere over a sustained period” to do so.

Where does this “large net removal” come from? For decades scientists have recognized that soil provides an important sink for atmospheric carbon. Esteemed Ohio State soil scientist Rattan Lal is considered by many to be the leading authority on the carbon drawdown potential of soils. In a paper from 2010, he estimated that the implementation of soil restoration practices may capture upwards of 3.8 gigatons of atmospheric carbon per year – fully a third of all global carbon emissions. However, a new paper by Richard Teague of Texas A&M, with Lal and others as co-authors, suggests the total drawdown in soil may be much higher when including the restorative potential of livestock managed for grass and soil health on prairie. Teague showed that Adaptive Multipaddock (AMP) grazing, a new type of grazing management that focuses on ecological goals, if employed on all available rangeland in North America, could, on its own, drawdown 730 million tons of carbon per year. When combined with “conservation cropping,” North American agricultural and grazing lands could pull down approximately one eighth of all global emissions. If the drawdown potential noted in Teague’s paper were realized on all cropping and grazing lands worldwide, the total yearly carbon capture would nearly offset the entire output from fossil fuel emissions.

Soil4Climate

Clearly, soil restoration through proper cropping and grazing practices is a valuable goal for us to work toward. We may never know with clarity what the yearly or total cumulative potentials for carbon capture in soil are, but we are certain that the quantities are large, and that movement forward in this direction is an essential course of action with multiple benefits. Combined with emissions reductions, soil restoration provides optimism for a livable future.

Soil4Climate

Soil4Climate at COP21 in Paris.

Soil4Climate supports all modes of engagement with citizens, scientists, policy makers, and practitioners to enhance soil carbon while meeting environmental and human needs. We are attempting to build a movement in the model of 350.org, while also supporting practical measures to help land managers employ regenerative practices. Our activities include writing white papers, organizing forums, encouraging policy, highlighting stories of success, encouraging sustainable investments, hosting online discussion groups, and even writing music and poetry. We stand with the emissions reductions communities that are doing essential work to phase out fossil fuels, and we employ an “all-of-the-above” strategy to engage stakeholders of any age or interest.

Please join us online in our Facebook and Google groups.

Planting Justice Creates Access to Living-wage Careers and Affordable Food

With the help of Slow Money Northern California, Planting Justice has purchased Rolling River Nursery, and expanded the operation in Sobrante Park, which has the highest unemployment and crime rate in Oakland. The nursery is set to be transformed into an urban farm and training center that will greatly expand access to fresh produce, food-producing trees and living wage jobs. In addition to the investment of $600,000 by 5 members of Slow Money Northern California, the project is just finishing a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $100,000.

New jobs in nursery management, edible and medicinal plant propagation, and aquaponics production

With this project, Planting Justice aims to bring the largest and most biodiverse collection of certified organic tree crops in North America (1,100 varieties!) from Rolling River Nursery in Humboldt County to deep east Oakland.

Planting Justice

The relocated nursery works with a recirculating aquaponics operations that serves as a replicable, drought-resilient model for growing 100,000 pounds of organic produce per year on empty lots with paved or polluted soil.

The project creates at least 10 new, living-wage jobs for people coming home from prison. The new jobs are in nursery management, edible and medicinal plan propagation, aquaponics production, marketing, and distribution.

Planting Justice

Aligned with Planting Justice’s mission, the project supports a shift in how prisoner re-entry is handled in California and across the country. In six years, not a single one of the 20 formerly incarcerated staff at Planting Justice have returned to prison! The non-profit incubates a worker-owned urban farming cooperative to support people in re-entry by replicating these technologies on other empty lots, as collective owners of the enterprise.

One of the Slow Money Northern California investors, Theo Ferguson, raves:

“It was a joy working with Gavin Raders, Executive Director of Planting Justice.  He is an entrepreneur in service to and totally aware of the fundamental change Planting Justice is making on environmental, social, financial, and governance Community Benefit Returns on Investment.”

Funding Through Self-Directed IRA and Foundation Grants

Several of the Slow Money individuals involved directed their low-interest investment through a Self-Directed IRA. They were joined by several foundations, one of whom had an existing relationship with Planting Justice. Six percent of the funding for this project came in the form of grants.

My Agricultural Grandparents

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Eliot Coleman has over 50 years of experience as an organic farmer. He is the author of The New Organic Grower (Chelsea Green, rev. 1995), Four Season Harvest (Chelsea Green, rev. 1999), and The Winter Harvest Handbook (Chelsea Green, 2009). Eliot presently owns and operates Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine.

It is not uncommon for farmers to talk about the influence their grandparents had on their farming education and their eventual success in agriculture. I am no different. But my story comes with a unique twist. My paternal grandfather, Leander Walter Townsend Coleman, was born in 1868 but was not a farmer. Unfortunately for my farming career, the Coleman family association with farming on the family land had ended three generations before Leander’s birth. So the grandparents I am about to acknowledge are not related to me by blood. And, although they are long deceased like Leander, they still reside on my farm and I consult them on a daily basis. My grandparents in farming are old books and the people who wrote them. They live on the shelves in my library and I am as indebted to them as I would be to a blood relative. I call them grandparents because all these books were published during Leander’s lifetime. The farming techniques they convey were understood when he was born, were practiced during the early years of his life, and were as successful then as they are now.

I became acquainted with my agricultural grandparents shortly after starting my farming career. I have a passion for learning where ideas originate and how they develop, so I spent long evenings in the dusty agricultural stacks of many libraries. Dogged research into old periodicals and old books slowly gave me access to more and more of these delightful predecessors and their writings. These literary grandparents introduced me to the age-old truths of agriculture. They gave me insight into how successfully and how rationally food was produced before modern agricultural science started to tell us that it couldn’t be done that way. These grandparents prepared me both practically and philosophically for the world of farming I was about to enter.

One of the first I got to know was Stephen Alfred Forbes, once head of the Illinois State Lab of Natural History. In 1880, he published a pamphlet entitled On Some Interactions of Organisms. Forbes provided me with philosophical assurance that the solution to agricultural problems is not difficult. It simply involves learning how natural systems work so that we will know how to cooperate with natural forces rather than attempting to ignore them or control them with chemicals. Forbes wrote:

From the consequent human interferences with the established nature of things, numerous disturbances arise … We must study the methods by which nature reduces these disturbances, and learn how to second her efforts to our own best advantage … By far the most important general conclusion we have reached is a conviction of the general beneficence of Nature, a profound respect for the natural order, and a belief that the part of wisdom is essentially that of practical conservatism in dealing with the system of things by which we are surrounded.

An extensive school of what I might call ecological agriculture existed in the 19th century along the lines expressed by Forbes. Its principal interests were, first, understanding the functioning of the biological world, second, getting to the cause of the problems arising from “human interferences with the established nature of things,” and, third, learning to modify agricultural practices in order to work within natural laws. Farming was not conceived of as a war but rather as a diplomacy of biological cooperation, a nurturing rather than a roughshod trampling.

Not all my grandparents wrote in English. There is also a French grandfather, Vincent Gressent, on the shelf. He was fully involved in the practical aspects of vegetable production. During the 19th century, some of the most successful market gardening ever known was taking place within the city limits of Paris, powered by composted horse manure from the city stables. When I came across Gressent’s book, Le Potager Moderne, first published in 1864, it supplemented Stephen Forbes’ philosophical reassurances with the hard, practical experience of a fellow grower. As Gressent wrote at that time:

“For vegetable growing, chemical fertilizers don’t do all that one wants: They stimulate the plant and produce quantity, but to the detriment of quality … Insect pests only attack weak, sickly plant specimens lacking proper nutrition … In proof of this, I offer the market gardens of Paris where vegetable growing has reached perfection … One does not see pest problems in Parisian market gardens wherever copious compost use and rational crop rotations are practiced by the growers.”

By the end of the 19th century, the increasing urbanization of Paris had forced the Parisian market gardeners to move to less valuable land outside the city and a classic horticultural model was displaced. Around that same moment in time (1898), an English grandfather, Robert Elliot, wrote Agricultural Changes. Elliot had successfully demonstrated on his farm how perpetual soil fertility could be maintained by alternating four years of rotationally grazed grass and legume pastures with a couple of years of annual crops such as grains, beans, and vegetables. The extensive organic matter from the roots of the tilled-under pasture plants provides ideal growing conditions for the annual crops plus soil structure to protect against erosion.

Elliot’s biographer wrote that Elliot had (and I find this phrase delightfully English) a “robust aversion to purchasing anything he might be able to produce more cheaply for himself.” (But then that’s a valuable policy for any farmer.) “Elliot therefore set out to devise a system which would be as farm generated as possible in respect to fertility.” At our farm we share Elliot’s robust aversion. We use the very same system he advocated because it is unbelievably productive, efficient, and thrifty.

Operating in that same spirit is a second American grandfather, Cyril Hopkins, professor of agronomy at the University of Illinois and director of the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station. In his 1910 book, Soil Fertility and Permanent Agriculture, Hopkins emphasized that soil fertility was not something the farmer had to purchase but rather was a by-product of intelligent farming techniques. It is hard to imagine an extension pamphlet today that would state as Hopkins did, “The real question is, shall the farmer pay ten times as much as he ought to pay for food to enrich his soil? Shall he buy nitrogen at 45 to 50 cents a pound when the air above every acre contains 70 million pounds of free nitrogen?” Hopkins wrote numerous experiment station bulletins like that encouraging farmers to realize that no salesman was going to tell them about green manures, cover crops, crop rotation, legumes, incorporating livestock, and so forth because they were management practices that did not have to be purchased.

Cyril Hopkins (right) taking a soil sample from the Morrow Plots.

Cyril Hopkins (right) taking a soil sample from the Morrow Plots.

The efforts of Cyril Hopkins serve as a metaphor for independent truths up against advertising and a sales blitz that tries to pretend the truths don’t exist. The result of a century of fertilizer salesmanship is that no one today remembers Cyril Hopkins. The soil fertility truths that he championed, although they were understood for generations, have been forgotten so long that they are regarded by agricultural science today as some sort of revolutionary heresy.

A grandmother needs to be mentioned here. Maye Emily Bruce wrote a little volume in the early days of the organic movement in England entitled From Vegetable Waste To Fertile Soil (1940) that has long had an honored place on my bookshelf. Maye Bruce wrote some of the movement’s earliest volumes on compost making and conducted experiments and devised herbal stimulants to make composting a faster and more dependable process.

And then there is Selman Waksman, a professor at Rutgers and a leading authority on soil microbiology. His 1931 book, The Soil and the Microbe, helped explain why Maye Bruce’s compost was so important to soil fertility. Waksman wrote, “By reason of the fact that microorganisms do not occur in the same abundance in all soils and that they are generally favored by conditions that lead to best plant growth, there exists a close relationship between the biological activity of soils and soil fertility.” The microbes that run the soil and the inhabitants of the human microbiome are gaining in respect every day and are coming to be seen as the new frontier of health.

Selman Waksman

Selman Waksman testing Streptomycin, a bacterial antibiotic produced by the soil actinomycete.

Another grandmother is Lady Eve Balfour, born in 1898. Lady Eve was a major force behind the development and popularization of organic farming in England. Her 1943 book, The Living Soil, was one of the earliest expositions of the organic philosophy and the thinking behind organic farming. She was also influential in expanding the early organic movement in the U.S., thanks to a number of promotional tours she engaged in during the 1950s. Back in the late 1970s, I organized a number of tours in the other direction to show American farmers the high level of expertise among organic farmers in Europe. Most of the early hippie farmers on those tours were pretty left wing and certainly non-fancy. One night in England, we were all sitting around a pub drinking Guinness. Lady Eve joined our table and right away I could tell the group was impressed that she could knock back the Guinness as fast as we could while simultaneously demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of organic farming. After she moved on to another table, one of the old leftist hippies turned to me and said, “Damn, if that’s the aristocracy, I think there should be more of them.”

Lady Eve Balfour

Lady Eve Balfour

Another important grandfather is Leonard Wickenden, a past president of the American Chemical Society, who became enthusiastically involved in organic growing after he retired from his career as a chemist. He used his scientific background to defend and refine the organic concepts that worked so well for him in his garden. In his 1954 book, Gardening With Nature, he explained the most basic rule for success:

“Let your aim be to feed your soil—not your plants. The modern method of using the soil as an inert medium for conveying plant food to the crop is grossly unscientific. Feed the soil and it will convey well-balanced food to the crops in a steady stream throughout the growing season. There will be no brief stimulation of the plant with … nitrate of soda, followed by a famine when the soluble salt is exhausted or washed away, but a process of day by day nourishment which will produce sturdy vigor in the crop.”

The important fact from my experience, after 50 years of practicing what my grandparents have taught me, is that this production system simply works and it works far better than most people can imagine. These concepts have successfully fed mankind for 4,000 years, a fact that the last grandfather on my list, Franklin Hiram King, expressed so eloquently in his 1911 book, Farmers of Forty Centuries. King pointed out that the obvious answer to maintaining agricultural production in perpetuity is written on the soil of farms all around the world where the importance of feeding the soil is recognized.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.

Investing in Soil Health, One Piece of Land at a Time

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal.

Leslie Christian is a financial advisor who has been a leader in social and environmental investing for decades. She is a senior advisor at RSF Social Finance and NorthStar Asset Management and past board member and treasurer of the Business Alliance For Local Living Economies (BALLE). She was previously president and CEO of Portfolio 21 Investments.


Three years ago, in collaboration with a group of farmers and investors, my spouse and I formed an LLC called Living Lands. Together we wrote our purpose and articles of incorporation to place the highest priority on soil health. Under the astute guidance and leadership of Jim Baird, a longtime farmer in eastern Washington and a founding member of Slow Money, we purchased a 100-acre piece of farmland in the Columbia River Basin. Jim manages the land in conjunction with his other activities, including Cloudview EcoFarms, an educational and experimental farm project with operations in Royal City and Ephrata.

Our conversations have been wide-ranging and spirited. We have talked about soil and carbon and the best way to figure out whether we are improving the health of the soil. We are all concerned about water, and it has been enlightening to hear from Jim and Sam (another investor and also a farmer based near Ellensburg) about the history of our state’s water districts, irrigation programs, and farmer involvement. We are currently in the process of transitioning the land we purchased to certified-organic status, an important element in our pursuit of soil health, although by no means the “silver bullet.” Last year we leased the farmland to a young couple Jim has been mentoring. By leasing our land and raising commercial crops (currently alfalfa), they are able to make a living as farmers while continuing their explorations of farming practices.

We are not going to “scale” Living Lands. We may form Living Lands II and buy another piece of farmland. When we do, we’ll need to pay as much attention to it as we have to LLI. We found out that the property we bought has more rocks than we expected. It may not be suited to growing onions, but maybe potatoes. It’s complicated, but that’s what makes it meaningful. It’s personal and place-based and unique. We are forming relationships that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. We are placing the highest value on the land and the people who know the land.

Recently, I attended a breakfast meeting in Seattle. The sponsor was The Nature Conservancy’s NatureVest, a relatively new division that is bringing private and public capital to conservation through various kinds of investment. If I thought 100 acres of farmland in eastern Washington was complicated, then the work of NatureVest is off the charts. Our state’s land commissioner spoke about the scope of the need for conservation and at the same time the intimate, personal nature of every transaction. I cannot imagine NatureVest “scaling” its work. Rather, I see it experimenting, trying out ideas, sharing what works and doesn’t, spending a lot of time and energy in design and detail, and putting together fascinating, compelling conservation investments that address what’s really needed for life on this planet to sustain.

With Living Lands, it’s one piece of land at a time. And the same is true of NatureVest.

The vocal financial mainstream is dismissive of “one-offs” and seems to prefer algorithms to human ingenuity and common sense. In fact, even an employee of The Nature Conservancy had the audacity to say that he really hoped we wouldn’t need TNC and NatureVest someday—that the goal is to “figure all this stuff out” so the real money can come in and get all of this “to scale.” But, really, these are the kinds of investments that should take over the world—not by scaling so that Wall Street can swoop in and do its “magic,” but by inspiring the participants, engaging the public and working at an essential level—real dirt, real trees, real plants, and real people.

Jim Baird

Scaling means making a product, service, or solution more uniform and repeatable. This may have made sense back in the industrialization and manufacturing eras of the 19th century and maybe the 20th century, but we have gotten carried away. For people who are so proud of our innovations and creativity, we are really quite old-fashioned to believe the same principles that brought us through the industrial age are going to see us through this next era. We seem to think it’s appropriate to scale everything—farms, education, healthcare, and even relationships. Yet, people and places are so much more diverse, nuanced and interdependent than assembly-line products or software code. When we scale enterprises that directly serve people and places in all of their uniqueness and weirdness, we must inevitably standardize our understanding of those people and places. In the process, we surely fail to engage them or ourselves fully. We sacrifice quality for quantity.

There’s another aspect to this insistence upon scaling. It feels top-down and controlled. It may be rationalized as a way to reach more people, but the underlying motivation is inevitably connected to increasing pro t margins. We should ask, “Scale for whom?” When we talk about “getting to scale,” it usually means getting to a scale that makes investors happy. Unfortunately, happy investors are often inclined to ignore or minimize employees, nature, communities, and families.

Like many of my friends and colleagues in Slow Money circles, I know it is time to move in a fundamentally new direction.

This article appears in the Spring 2016 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more or to subscribe to the Journal.