Deb Melanson and Annabelle Singleton, owners of The Port Grocer

A How-To Manual For Growing A Community

In the small township of Port Medway on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, Annabelle Singleton and Debra Melanson, their husbands, and their staff have made The Port Grocer into the heart of the community.

Port Medway was settled around 1760 by fishermen who helped develop this area into a thriving shipping community. Cargoes of salted and dried fish were shipped to the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. Lumber from the sawmills of Greenfield, Charleston, and Mill Village were loaded on ships and sailed to foreign ports.

Although it’s still a working port, as is the way of many villages, population decreased over time and elements essential to vibrant community expired.

But that sense of community has been revived in this beautiful seaside village. The 200 full-time and 100 summer residents support a writers’ festival, art shows, history exhibits, and restoration of the 1832 “meeting house” and a cemetery dating back to the late 1700s.

So there was fertile ground for Annabelle and Deb to envision turning the general store and post office—which had long been for sale—into a space for the whole community.

Port Grocer Cafe, Port Medway, Nova Scotia

Port Grocer Cafe, Port Medway, Nova Scotia

They have accomplished this by providing healthy, wholesome, mostly local food; providing a venue for art, music, and culture; being a fair and equitable employer of six to eight local residents; supporting other local, small businesses; creating an inviting outdoor space through edible and native landscaping; providing community space for continuing education and wellness; and, most importantly, being the most welcoming, friendly, kind people you could imagine!

Annabelle’s passions include rural community development, environmental protection, and healthy food. Her background as an environmental consultant has enhanced her appreciation for rural living and the value that an entrepreneurial spirit brings to healthy, economically sustainable communities. With more than 23 years of restaurant kitchen experience, Deb has turned her passion for cooking and baking into The Port Grocer’s great-quality food, all prepared from scratch.

But, it almost didn’t happen. With a little bit of their own capital, they met with every lender they could find and heard nothing but “no.” Then they were intrigued to discover that FarmWorks “Gentle Dragons” wanted to hear from farmers and food businesspeople.

FarmWorks Investment Co-operative Limited is a Community Economic Development Investment Fund that in four years has raised $1.4 million from 314 investors and made loans to 56 businesses across Nova Scotia to increase the availability of healthy food. As loans are repaid, the capital is available for new loans. Shareholders receive 35-, 20-, and 10-percent provincial tax credits for five, ten, and 15-year investments. The volunteer directors administer the investments and the loan portfolio, and provide mentoring and other support to clients.


Subscribe to the Slow Money Minute, a monthly roundup of news and updates.


Annabelle and Debra came and discovered that these “Dragons” were lending Nova Scotian shareholders’ money to support food-related community economic development across the province. Just one month later, after many conversations and visits, all FarmWorks due diligence was done and The Port Grocer received a check.

The next chapters are being written. Friday Night Port Jam sessions bring people from near and far to enjoy dinner together and listen to wonderful music—and the musicians include the owners! Brunches bring locals together with tourists who learn about the good things growing in this community—including things right behind The Port Grocer. A garden for everyone—not to mention the vineyard—is attracting people outside, then inside to enjoy food grown 50 feet from the kitchen.

The Port Grocer is meeting the need for acceptance and companionship in this community, and in Anabelle’s words, “Part of our job at The Port Grocer is not just to be there to take cash across the counter, but to pick up the phone and spend an extra couple of minutes talking to people who may be home alone.” Every day, volunteers come to ask what they need help with, including bartending on pub nights, cutting the grass, and now building a three-season deck onto the building to expand their seating.

The Port Grocer has to grow to accommodate the increasing numbers of people attracted to the warmth of the owners, the quality of the food, the music, and the art. The vision of “a healthy, sustainable community centered around food, music, art, and education” has become reality.

Across Nova Scotia, more than 100 jobs are directly or indirectly linked to FarmWorks loans, and research is underway to more clearly define outcomes to date. The successes of The Port Grocer and the other businesses supported by $5,000 to $25,000 FarmWorks loans demonstrate that small investments, done right, can be a very big deal.


Linda Best grew up on a farm in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, graduated from Acadia University, and has been involved with the Queen Elizabeth II hospital in Halifax as a medical microbiologist, gastroenterology researcher, author and presenter, and director of the Capital District Health Authority. She operated an apple orchard on weekends while working at the hospital and founded Frame Plus Art, which grew to three stores, a production facility, and ten employees. Awareness of food-related health issues led to research into potential solutions for the decreasing production of food in Nova Scotia. She helped establish Friends of Agriculture Nova Scotia and is a founding director of FarmWorks Investment Co-operative.

Don Lareau and Daphne Yannakakis, Zephyros Farm and Garden

How a Zero-Percent Loan is Helping This Colorado Farm

Zephyros Farm and Garden has always sought diversity and quality in its organic production. When Daphne and I started this farm 13 years ago, like many young couples starting out, we wanted it all; every vegetable under the sun, flowers, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, children, worms, compost, and a life for ourselves. After many years and struggles, we came to focus on a niche that made it possible to make a living and have a life with our kids. Years of practice brought us to the thing we do really well: growing flowers.

At Zephyros, we grow more than 1,000 different varieties of flowers. When you grow 99 different dahlias, it is easy to reach these numbers. Passion helps, too. We still grow a couple of acres of vegetables. We only have eight chickens though, just enough for eggs for ourselves. Oh, and we have a few goats.

Zephyros Farm and Garden

When we expanded our flower operation, we realized that we had outgrown the farmers’ markets appetite for the quantity of flowers we could grow. So we started doing weddings. Then we started to sell to florists. We became immersed in the movement of flower growers across the country. We became early participants in the Slow Flowers movement. When we first started out, people thought about what went in their bellies, but not much about what adorned their tables.

We have taken it a step further by being certified organic. Today, 80 percent of the flowers you see in a store, a florist shop, or a hotel are from another country and are not organic. We are part of a growing movement that has not only localized the production of flowers, but is also increasingly organic. This is important not because you eat the flowers, but because growing organically is good for the planet, for people who work in the fields and the greenhouses, and for florists. It’s also awfully nice to know that the bouquet on your table is not coated with pesticides.

We started getting more and more orders from our florists, not because our flowers are organic, but because they were local—that is, not “jet fresh” from Ecuador. We can grow a lot of flowers that a producer thousands of miles away cannot get to market alive.

Zephyros Farm and Garden

As we grew, we had a hard time delivering all the orders in our Honda Pilot. Our farmers’ market trailer could hold a lot, but it was hard to drive down tight alleyways and maneuver into the parking lots where the florists and our private clients have their businesses and homes. Also, the flowers would arrive quite hot, which they do not like. If we wore sweaters and hats, the Honda A/C did an okay job, but we needed something else.

After local banks scoffed at us and loans for a new truck seemed way too expensive, we heard about the 2Forks Club, a local Slow Money investment club. We sent a proposal to have them help us buy a used refrigerated truck. They gave us a $23,500 zero-percent loan, which we are paying back over a few-year period.


Subscribe to the Slow Money Minute, a monthly roundup of news and updates.


The part that amazes me to this day is the degree to which the members of 2Forks worked with us to customize the loan for our benefit. For example, they said, “You are not asking for enough to get a good truck,” so they gave us more than we were originally asking for. “This is not how a bank works!” we thought. If that wasn’t enough, they also looked at our cash flow and structured a bit more time to pay the loan back, with some discretion built in. They understood that we are not selling widgets, that we are dealing with Mother Nature and biology and many variables not in our control, such as late frosts, early heat, hot winds, and the like.

The 2Forks loan has allowed us to load our truck full of flowers that stay fresh, so now we throw on extra flowers and invite florists onto the truck. They usually cannot resist buying more. If we do not sell them all, they stay cold and we can sell them through our other market channels.

Zephyros refrigerated truck

The refrigerated truck in action!

It has been a fast season, with temperatures in the high 90s much earlier than other years, so flowers are blooming quickly. It has been a great peony season. This is why we are diverse: one flower does well, while another does not. We are well underway in our repayment to 2Forks, and they have been actively making other loans. Access to capital is the bane of the small farm, given all the risks and slim profit margins. So loans from 2Forks feel like a cool breeze in summer.

Thanks.

Bluebird Hill Farm

This Picturesque 13-Acre Organic Farm Could Be Yours

Norma Burns, an architect-turned-farmer, has owned and operated Bluebird Hill Farm for nearly 18 years, growing herbs, specialty vegetables, flowers, and native plants. Now, she’s ready to move back to Raleigh and wants to pass her beloved farm onto someone new. So, she’s holding an essay contest to determine who the farm’s next owner will be.

Bluebird Hill Farm is a 13-acre USDA-Certified organic farm located in Bennett, NC, about three hours east of Asheville. The farm has an estimated value of $450,000, and the property is subject to an agricultural conservation easement. Aspiring farmers and others can learn more about the farm on OurState.

To me, there’s no better calling in life than raising organic food. I’m looking for a like-minded couple that has experience and training in organic farming and are willing and able to put in the long days and hard work that farming requires. The only thing they don’t have is an actual farm. I want to make it possible for these new farmers to get started.

Bluebird Hill Farm

Bluebird Hill Farm’s lavender field

The essay contest is called “A Gift of Good Land” in homage to American novelist, poet, and the patron saint of our movement Wendell Berry. Applicants must submit a 200-word essay laying out why you and your partner want to own the farm. Yes, you must have a partner because “experience has shown that Bluebird Hill Farm can’t be operated successfully by a single individual,” Burns notes. Aspirants must commit to keeping the farm organic, at least one of the partners must be between the ages of 25 and 50 (“to ensure that the winning couple has the life experience and physical stamina that active farming requires”), will pay the closing taxes and fees, and must chip in a $300 entry fee.

The deadline to enter is June 1st, and a website has been established for the contest—it explains the full contest details, which should be thoroughly read.

Good luck to all you aspiring organic farmers!


Subscribe to the Slow Money Minute, a monthly roundup of news and updates.


Fred Kirschenmann on his family's 1,800-acre certified organic farm in south central North Dakota.

From Soil to Sustainability

Frederick L. Kirschenmann shares an appointment as Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and as president of Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture.


Defining Sustainability.

As most everyone interested in sustainability knows by now, the concept has been appropriated by numerous entities and used in various ways, often to achieve different objectives. In his introductory chapter to the excellent 2013 edition of the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World report, Robert Engelman coined the term “sustainababble” to reflect this “cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything from environmentally better to cool.” Increasingly the term is used as a marketing tool, often it is used as an environmental metric, and, of course it is used extensively to describe an “improved” food and agriculture enterprise. While many of these uses may be grounded in good intentions, the result, as Engelman points out, has “a high cost.”

Frequent and inappropriate use lulls us into dreamy belief that all of us—and everything we do, everything we buy, everything we use—are now able to go on forever, world without end, amen.

Such a “dreamy belief” has certainly been prevalent in most of the visions of contemporary “sustainable agriculture.” Whether one belongs to the school of sustainable agriculture that is fixated on the notion that sustainability can only be achieved by intensifying the technology of our dominant industrial agriculture, or to the school of “greening” the system by inserting more environmentally friendly practices, or to the school that insists everyone must transition to organic, all are grounded in the belief that the fundamental principles of modern agriculture, which emerged in the early 20th century, can continue. According to this standard we simply need to tinker with the current system, in various ways, to make it “sustainable.” Although such “tinkering” can sometimes produce positive, short-term results, it fails to address the new challenges that will emerge in the near future. Occasionally pundits now refer to this “dreamy belief” of sustainability (appropriately, I think) as “Band-Aid sustainability.”

Historical Context.

In his engaging book Culture and Agriculture: An Ecological Introduction to Traditional and Modern Farming Systems, anthropologist Ernest Schusky provides us with a summary of how the human species fed itself since evolving on Planet Earth some 200,000 years ago. I think such a historical context can help us to better frame the concept of sustainability. Schusky reminds us that for most of our time on the planet we fed ourselves as hunter-gatherers. Like many other species, we tended to live in small tribes, gather and hunt the food available in a particular place until the food sources became depleted, and then move on to another place. Apparently various methods were also used to limit population growth to keep population density within “carrying capacity.”

It wasn’t until the Neolithic Revolution, approximately 12,000 years ago, that we began to transition from “food collectors” to food producers by domesticating plants and animals. We began to live in settled societies and attempted to produce enough food in place to feed a local, settled population.

As Schusky points out, this new way of feeding ourselves was “land intensive.” It tended to mine the natural fertility of the soil. Consequently, much of this early agriculture was based on “swidden cultivation,” also known as “slash-and-burn” agriculture. In other words, a common practice was to burn off perennial plants—trees or grasses—and then cultivate the soil and plant seeds (usually cereals). The natural soil fertility plus the fertility from the ash initially produced good yields the first year. However yields would decline quickly, as natural soil fertility diminished, so the general practice was to slash-and-burn a new plot of ground every year or two, and allow the first to lay fallow for 15 or 20 years before returning to cultivate it again, after soil fertility was restored.

In the mid-20th century we introduced a new form of agriculture, which Schusky calls the “Neocaloric Revolution,” because it is entirely dependent on “old calories”—fossil fuels, fertilizers, fossil water, etc. The discovery of fossil fuels was the principle innovation that ushered in the Industrial Revolution, but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that industrial methods were applied to agriculture on a large scale.


Subscribe to the Slow Money Minute, a monthly roundup of news and updates.


While Justus von Liebig came up with the idea of substituting synthetic fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) for the “laborious” practice of maintaining soil health—and Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch devised the means of making ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen in 1909, enabling the conversion to an intensive “input” agriculture—the adoption of that agriculture did not take root as the dominant form of agriculture until after World War II.

There were numerous agricultural visionaries, soil scientists and ecologists who issued strong warnings that this “N-P-K mentality” (as Sir Albert Howard called it) was the wrong direction for agriculture since it was contrary to the workings of nature and was, in fact, a “form of banditry” since it would steal the availability of healthy soil from future generations. (Howard, 1943) F.H. King, Liberty Hyde Bailey, Aldo Leopold, William Albrecht, Hans Jenny, Wes Jackson, and many others had similar concerns. They saw that maintaining the health of soil was crucial to any kind of truly sustainable agriculture and were all aware that modern industrial agriculture was still extremely “land intensive” and therefore damaging to the health of the land. We simply substituted “old calorie” inputs in place of healthy soil.

Of course, the immediate short-term benefits of industrial agriculture—the maximum, efficient production for short-term economic return—were too compelling to seriously consider the warnings of such visionaries.

However, Schusky reminds us that our “neo-caloric era” will of necessity be a very short period of time in the time-line of human history. We sometimes forget that this “modern” agriculture depends on a collection of “old” (nonrenewable) calories, which we are rapidly depleting. We also seem to forget that the first producing oil well in the US became operational in Titusville, Pennsylvania, in 1859, (approximately 150 years ago), and it was fossil fuels (especially petroleum) that provided the cheap energy that sustained the entire neo-caloric economy. But all of these old calories are stored, concentrated energy— fossil fuels, rock phosphate, potash, fossil water, etc.—and these old calories had accumulated in the planet over many millennia. But once they are gone, the neo-caloric era, according to Schusky, must end, and we will need to redesign a new agriculture that can be “sustainable” in the post-neo-caloric era.

The point to remember in all this is that unless someone finally finds a way to invent a perpetual-motion machine, current, diffuse energy (sunlight) will never be as efficient (energy return on energy invested ) as stored concentrated energy. Consequently, any alternative energy we may invent in the future will never be as “cheap” as fossil fuels have been.

In addition, we need to acknowledge the ecological damage that the excessive use of the old calories has caused—damage that will further affect the “sustainability” of agriculture—more severe weather events due to climate change, eroded and degraded soils, depleted biodiversity and depleting freshwater resources. These are the “sustainability” challenges that will confront us in the decades ahead.

Of course, as the old calories get used up they will become increasingly expensive, so the neo-caloric era will certainly end due to prohibitive costs long before all the calories are used up.

So, a good way to frame the question of sustainability with respect to our future food and agriculture system is to ask ourselves if the current, industrial system (and any “Band-Aids” we might apply) can still be “sustained” when crude oil is $350 a barrel, fertilizer costs are five times what they are today, we only have half the amount of fresh water currently available, we have twice the number of severe weather events, and our soils are even more degraded than they are today.

Anticipating the Future.

Given the changes coming at us, a crucial challenge to sustaining a future food system will be to anticipate the changes and get a head start preparing for them. Perhaps we can learn a critical lesson from the research conducted by Jared Diamond. Based on his intensive studies of past civilizations, he concluded that those civilizations that anticipated the changes coming at them, recognized the value of their ecological reserves, and got a head start preparing for the changes were the civilizations that tended to survive for the long term (they were “sustainable”), while those that failed in that exercise were the ones that tended to collapse. In this regard, Schusky makes another important and sobering observation from his studies of human culture—namely, that “humans manipulate their cultures to achieve many practical, short-range goals; what they do not foresee are many more long-term undesirable consequences. Innovations that solve immediate problems often have built-in effects that eventually will cause major problems.” Perhaps these observations, from Diamond and Schusky, are among the most important to consider for anyone interested in achieving agricultural “sustainability.”

Given this scenario, it seems to me that the most urgent task before us now is to do all we can to restore the biological health of our soils, before the remaining old calories become too expensive to be a viable resource for continuing to “sustain” our food system. Of course other issues will need to be addressed at the same time—crucial among them: putting a cap on carbon, restoring our biological and genetic diversity as much as possible, restoring as many perennials as possible (forests and grasslands), eliminating food waste, and implementing the “right to food” and other recent UN proposals. However, key to future food sustainability will be biologically healthy soil!

Beacons to Guide us.

Fortunately we are not without practical wisdom to guide us as we design a new agriculture for the post-neo-caloric era.

Here are a few “beacons of light” to guide us. I prefer to call them beacons, rather than “models,” since we tend to think of models as examples that can be duplicated. In our new world, we will need to pay much more attention to the uniqueness of each ecological “neighborhood” and design agricultural systems that are suited to each ecology, rather than imagining another uniform, homogenized, global agriculture typical of the agriculture that has evolved in the neo-caloric era.

Here are a few of the “beacons” that can guide us on our future sustainability journey:

  1. Deborah Koons Garcia, Symphony of the Soil
  2. This new documentary on soil is a masterpiece of science and art that can be used to transform the way our culture thinks about soil. No one can watch this video and still think that soil is just “dirt.” It describes not only how soil was formed over many millennia, but also how to care for it and restore its biological health. The documentary can be obtained from Lily Films.

  3. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and cover crops
  4. In recent months the NRCS under the leadership of Ray Archuleta, has become very active, working with farmers and soil scientists to incorporate cover crops into monoculture farming operations, with significant results toward beginning a process of restoring soil health. Farmers who have incorporated these practices for a period of five to seven years have discovered that the improved soil health enables them to reduce their fertilizer and pesticide inputs by 70 percent and still maintain yields; furthermore the improved soil health dramatically improves soil moisture-absorption capacity, reducing flooding and nutrient pollution, as well as increasing drought tolerance. A video with some of the stories from farmers and soil scientists can be viewed below.

  5. The American Academy of Microbiology: “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World”
  6. One of the encouraging, recent developments concerning soil health has been the increasing attention given to the microbiome in soil. Even soil scientists, a decade ago, sometimes referred to soil as simply “a material to hold a plant in place.” Now we are beginning to understand that soil is a living community of organisms with billions of microbes at its base. While not perfect, a typical article on the subject has been published by the American Academy of Microbiology: “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World,” by Ann Reid and Shannon E. Greene, December 2012. It can be accessed here.

  7. John Deere, The Furrow, February 2013: “Building Better Soils”
  8. I take further encouragement from the fact that John Deere elected to devote this entire issue of The Furrow magazine to the subject of soil health. Again, many of the stories are about farmers and the benefits they have experienced from soil-health-restoring practices. The magazine, for example, features Gabe Brown, a “20-year no-till, cover crop, and livestock” farmer near Bismarck , North Dakota, who reports that before he started his soil-health farming practices, his soil was only able to “absorb a half-inch of rain-water per hour. Now it’ll take in 8 inches.” This issue of The Furrow can be accessed here. Brown has since also reported that while it now costs most conventional, monoculture farmers $4.50 per bushel in input costs to raise corn, his costs are $1.41 per bushel.

  9. Matthew Liebman, agronomist at Iowa State University
  10. Dr. Liebman has conducted more than ten years of research comparing results from typical two-year monoculture corn/soybean rotations with three-year rotations of corn/beans/ small grain with clover, and four-year rotations of corn/beans/small grain/alfalfa and a second year of alfalfa. The two-year rotation relies entirely on synthetic inputs of fertilizers and pesticides and the three- and four-year rotations incorporate modest amounts of livestock manure. His research has demonstrated that the soil health improves in the three- and four-year rotations; in addition, fertilizer and pesticides applications can be decreased by almost 90 percent. The land yields and return on investment in land and labor is slightly higher than in the two year rotation. Comparable ecological benefits have been demonstrated by incorporating perennial prairie strips into conventional corn/soybean monocultures. Reports on the published research can be obtained on the Leopold Center website.

  11. The Land Institute
  12. In Salina, Kansas, Wes Jackson established a research and education institute to explore the possibility of developing perennial grains that could eventually replace annuals. After 30 years of research, scientists have concluded that with additional research it could be possible to replace many annual grains, like wheat, sorghum, rice, and other crops with perennial varieties. Perennial plants are much more resilient than annuals and have many soil-building and carbon-sequestration capabilities by virtue of their robust root systems. Scientists have already demonstrated the soil-health-restoration capacity of such perennial varieties. In the longer term, post-neo-caloric future, these new varieties are likely to become the core of sustainable grain agriculture. Information can be obtained on the Land Institute website.

  13. Jeremy Grantham, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”
  14. The importance and benefits of restoring biological health of soils are not only being recognized by farmers and agronomists, but also by economists and investors. In the April 2011 issue of his widely read newsletter, Jeremy Grantham—one of the nation’s leading investment counselors—reminded investors that it was “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever.” Grantham points out in this essay that investors need to change their investment strategies if they want to continue to make money on their money. Continuing to invest in cheap raw materials to increase value without paying attention to natural and social capital, which sustains our economies, will not continue to be successful. Among other things he advises investors to “invest in soil.” (A copy of the newsletter can be obtained here.) Woody Tasch, founder of the Slow Money investment movement and author of Slow Money: Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered makes similar points regarding successful investing in the future and makes even more passionate appeals to “investing in soil health.”

  15. Sir Albert Howard, The Soil and Health (1947); Dr. Daphne Miller, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing (2013); Roni Neff (ed.), Introduction to the US Food System: Public Health, Environment, and Equity (2014)
  16. Finally, health care professionals are beginning to recognize the relationship between soil health and human health, a connection that Sir Albert Howard had observed back in the 1940s.

    In his book The Soil and Health (1947), Howard suggested that we could not have human health without soil health, plant health and animal health— that they are all “one great subject,” and that this synergy would become the “health care system of the future.”

    The connections between healthy soil, healthy agriculture, and healthy humans are now reiterated by Dr. Daphne Miller, a practicing physician and professor of family medicine. In her new book, Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing, she provides numerous on-the-ground examples of such connections.

    Roni Neff, a health care professional at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has also edited a book of essays, some of which suggest the connections between healthy soil and human health.

Lessons from My Own Farm.

My earliest personal lesson about soil health came from my own farm. It began with my father, who started farming on our farm with my mother right after they got married in 1930, which was in the midst of the Dust Bowl. Somehow my father understood that the devastating results of the Dust Bowl on his land were not just about the weather; they were also about the way farmers farmed. Consequently, he became determined to not ever let that happen to his farm again, and so “taking care of the land” became his central passion, and early on he began to instill that value into his young son.

Later in my life, when I returned to our farm to manage it and was introduced to organic agriculture, I discovered that managing for soil health was central to the early advocates of organic farming, visionaries like Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, J.I. Rodale, and others. Consequently, I decided to convert our farm to an organic farm and began implementing the various practices for restoring soil health—applying compost, introducing a mixture of crops in a crop rotation pattern that included alfalfa, a deep-rooted legume that also supplied our ruminant animals with forages for winter feed.

By the 1980s, our soil had visibly improved—it was more porous, and earthworms and other soil life had dramatically increased. Then, in 1988 we experienced the first dramatic, practical result of this improved soil health. That year we experienced the worst drought in the history of south-central North Dakota. Our neighbors, who farmed with conventional synthetic inputs, never pulled a combine out of the shed that summer since all of their crops dried up and died from lack of moisture by the time they grew to roughly 7 or 8 inches tall. Remarkably, by contrast, our fields produced wheat yields that averaged 17 bushels per acre, despite the severe drought. That result could only be explained by the increased moisture absorption and storage capacity of our healthier soils.

Coda.

One important lesson in all this was articulated clearly by Wendell Berry in an essay that he originally published back in the early 1980s, “Solving for Pattern.” In that remarkable essay, Wendell pointed out that in our culture we tend to try to solve problems in isolation, as if they were detached phenomena that could be solved with single-tactic, therapeutic interventions. But in fact, problems are always part of a network of interrelated phenomena. Of course, as long as we had all of the cheap “old calories” to perform all of our interventions, we could make the system of therapeutic interventions work relatively well. However, as we enter the post-neo-caloric era, at the same time that we have degraded the health of our ecological and social resources (especially soil), we will need to begin recognizing the ecological complexity of living systems and their self-renewing capacity. If we are to live healthy, productive lives, let alone feed ourselves, in our post-neo-caloric future, it will be essential that we sustain our ecological capital (soil being the foundation of that capital). We will need to “solve for pattern.”

It is interesting to note that this shift in our thinking is now also being recognized by some of our leading economists. In an essay, published in the January/February 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer suggested that businesses that wanted to be successful in our future could no longer operate by “the old playbook” of marginalizing labor and raw materials in the interest of maximizing profits, and neither could they continue to externalize social and natural costs in the interest of maximizing short-term profits, since labor, raw materials, social and natural capital (including soil) have now all been so degraded that businesses can no longer be successful unless they “share value” throughout each of these sectors to maintain the health of the whole. As they put it: “Shared value holds the key to unlocking the next wave of business innovation and growth. It will also reconnect company success and community success in ways that have been lost in an age of narrow management approaches, short-term thinking, and deepening divides among society’s institutions.” We will now need to “solve for pattern.”

All of this further suggests, as John Ehrenfeld and Andrew Hoffman propose in their recent book Flourishing: A Frank Conversation about Sustainability, that any of us interested in truly achieving “sustainability” need to move beyond much of the “chatter” about simply buying more “sustainable” products. As they put it, “sustainability is not about windmills, hybrid cars, and green cleaners; it is about the way we live. It is about living authentically; it is about our relationship with nature, with each other, and with ourselves. To be sustainable requires a fundamental shift in our way of thinking and goes to the core of who we are as human beings.” I would only add that it is also about how we relate to soil!

Land cleared of rain forest for establishment of oil palm plantation in Sabah, Malaysia. Photo by T. R. Shankar Raman.

Life After Conventional Finance

I am a refugee from conventional finance. It all started in the most innocent and promising way: a graduate student in math and economics at the University of California in Berkeley lands a job with a think tank spearheading the quant wave in the 1980s— when everyone was turning to quantitative analysis as a way to determine the best places to invest. We were applying mathematical models, statistical techniques, and state-of-the-art computers (imagine a computer the size of a large refrigerator with the brain of your iPod Nano) to the field of investing, which at the time was the purview of fundamental analysts and stock pickers. (Just for reference, at that time our office had no email and no Internet!)

It was thrilling to find what I thought to be real-life applications for the many years of theoretical math that had been the staple of my education.

Fast-forward 30 years: that graduate student was now part of a team managing $20 billion in emerging markets equity at a very well-respected investment management firm. It was a glamorous job. I had smart colleagues and influential clients around the world. We were also doing great—we were managing the best-performing emerging markets equity fund with a ten-year track record, and our clients loved us.

The only glitch was my curiosity about how our quantitatively constructed, 300-company portfolio achieved such amazing performance. (You must know that I have always been a passionate and committed environmentalist. I never applied for a job that required me to commute, and I currently do not own a car. I am also passionate about social justice.)


Subscribe to the Slow Money Minute, a monthly roundup of news and updates.


When I looked at some of the best-performing stocks in the portfolio that year, I found a Malaysian palm oil company that had destroyed tens of thousands of acres of original rain forest in Borneo to plant a monocrop of palm oil trees. In the process, it had also eliminated massive swaths of orangutan habitat. I was then amazed to learn that part of this company’s stock performance was predicated on obtaining carbon credits for planting trees!

Ironically, most of our clients were foundations and endowments. Some of the best-known environmental foundations and nonprofits had invested in our fund and celebrated our strong performance. I had even donated to one of them for their work protecting orangutan habitat. Yet, the capital of this very environmental organization was invested in activities directly contrary to its mission.

That was when the cognitive dissonance between my personal values and my livelihood became too great to ignore. So in early 2009, when the economy was tanking and the stock market was in a nosedive, I quit my glamorous job. It was not an easy decision to make, but I felt I had no other choice.

Marco Vangelisti

Marco speaking at our fifth national gathering in Louisville, KY.

Through my experiences, I have come to believe the intermediation of global finance is at the very core of the many environmental and social problems our world faces today. We live in a global economy driven by global financial capital, which is for the most part managed by fiduciaries legally bound to strictly confine their attention to financial risk and return considerations and nothing more. All the non-financial impacts of an investment—what an economist calls “externalities,” such as the destruction of the rain forest, the pollution of rivers, and the displacement of communities—cannot be considered. Through this intermediated arrangement, we render these externalities invisible to the owners of capital. As a result, the vast majority of us are all collectively unaware of what our investments are really doing out there in the world.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, a UN initiative focused on “making nature’s values visible,” published an important study in April 2013 called “Natural Capital at Risk: The Top 100 Externalities of Business.” It was a result of a massive global, 15-year study that measured—in dollar terms—the value of the natural capital we use for free—air, water, land— as well as the cost of polluting them. The results of the study are staggering. Our global economic activity in 2009 alone caused a loss of unpriced natural capital of $7.3 trillion, more than 10 percent of global GDP (the total output of goods and services produced worldwide that year), which was about $62 trillion for the same period. In other words, we have been using natural capital to subsidize economic activity, as well as financial returns on global investment capital. We have been treating nature as a business in liquidation!

I came to realize that through my traditional investments I was involved in a massive intergenerational injustice. The financial returns I relied upon to provide for my comfortable retirement came at the expense of future generations, since a large part of those returns were predicated on extractive activities that diminished the natural capital future generations will need to survive.

And thus, as I said, I left my rather cushy job.

A couple of years later, I realized that I had to overcome my concerns about the increased risk of giving up broad diversification in my investment portfolio and the potential loss of investment return. I divested from all international investments, all large capitalization stocks, and all mutual funds. Basically, I sold all investments for which I did not have a complete understanding of their ultimate impact on communities and ecosystems. Then I shifted to mostly local investments.

Over the past six years, I have invested in many local food enterprises. The process has called for a significant investment of time as well as money, since direct investing requires taking a close look at each business or project and, at times, advising the entrepreneur receiving funding. (Yes, local investing can be risky.) Over that time, I’ve experienced investment losses in two areas: pre-revenue start-ups and direct personal loans to entrepreneurs whose character I did not know well enough. But at the same time, local investing is greatly rewarding. Seeing local businesses thrive and knowing your investment had a part in their success is wonderfully gratifying. People’s Community Market is one example.

People's Community Market

People’s Community Market will be the first full-service grocery store in West Oakland’s underserved food desert.

Local investments are also investments for the long haul, since there is no developed secondary market to provide liquidity (the ability to sell the investment to someone else for cash). Risk, liquidity, a steep learning curve, and time commitment are the primary challenges in realigning our values with our investments. Yet I consider such realignment to be the moral imperative of our time. This is our responsibility toward future generations.

This year I started offering daylong workshops on local investing in California, Oregon, Washington, DC, and Vermont. The starting point in these workshops is the realization that money and investment capital are constructs, and that the safety promised by global investing is illusory. The next step is building our own personal investment compasses, clarifying the issues we care about.

Local investing requires reframing the very concept of investing to include the non-financial aspects of our lives. If we are blessed not to be trapped in the positional game that keeps the wealthy from ever experiencing “enough,” we can recognize that the money we save and invest will eventually be converted into life experiences. From a financial standpoint, spending our money is equivalent to a -100 percent investment return. In other words, if money is at our service rather than the other way around, we will eventually experience a -100 percent financial return on our investment capital as we spend it to support and enrich our lives.

Local investing is a way of buying a better future for ourselves and our community and should be framed as a spending decision—it is like buying “livable future” insurance. The question is, then, “What percentage of our portfolios is prudent to devote to such spending decisions right now?” The type of “due diligence” we engage in needs to be expanded. Traditional due diligence, with its exhaustive lists of things to check, only engages our minds. Yet if we want to bring about a better future through our investing, we also need to engage our hearts and our values, and this is best done with local investments.

Through my Slow Money activities in Northern California and the half-dozen workshops I’ve run so far, I have been privileged to get to know a wonderful group of souls who are striving to take responsibility for their agency in the world, as expressed through their investments. Slowly, together, we are making a difference for the future of our communities and our planet.

Marco Vangelisti has been a coleader of Slow Money Northern California for seven years. In that capacity, he has helped host dozens of local meetings and several larger regional gatherings, including three Food Funded events, which featured dozens of food entrepreneurs. Since 2010, Slow Money Northern California has facilitated the flow of $4 million to more than 20 local food enterprises.

Boulted Bread

Investment: Boulted Bread

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more about the Journal »

When Sam Kirkpatrick and Fulton Forde got together to open their bakery, Boulted Bread, in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, they had an ambitious goal. They wanted to use fresh-milled, locally sourced grain and improve the design of currently available commercial stone mills. Fulton had traveled in Europe and North America learning from bakers who use heirloom grains and researching various age-old mill designs, and creating a plan for a new type of stone mill using locally quarried, natural granite and American-made motors and parts.

The current consumer market, Sam and Fulton believed, was “shifting away from inexpensive conventional practices and beginning to value high quality and process.” Their business would honor this shift toward intentional consumerism and serve the growing number of people interested in sustainably produced food in the greater Triangle area of North Carolina. Their customers would experience “the inherent value, sublime flavors, and simple elegance of bread as craft.”

A Slow Money lender provided $3,000 to cover the construction of a custom stone mill that was more effective, more attractive, and less expensive by thousands of dollars than the few other commercial mills available. Another Slow Money loan for $10,000 covered build-out costs, and Boulted Bread opened for business in August 2014. Sam and Fulton added another partner to the team, Josh Bellamy, who brought along excellent baking experience and a shared philosophy.

Carol Peppe Hewitt and Fulton Forde

Slow Money NC cofounder Carol Peppe Hewitt and Fulton Forde

The bakery supports numerous local farmers by purchasing heirloom varieties of Southern grain that might be otherwise unavailable or lost, as well as vegetables, eggs, milk, and cheese for their breads and pastries. And they have hundreds of happy consumers. “Bread respects and pays tribute to all the players—farmer, miller, baker, and consumer,” Fulton explains. “Many of our customers are avid home cooks,” Sam told me, “and our moist, naturally leavened, seeded levain is something they can’t find anywhere else.”

Their business has been so successful that they paid off the smaller Slow Money loan two years early. “Our lenders were thrilled for the opportunity to help us get started and proud of us for paying it all back so soon,” said Sam. “We are enormously grateful.”

“My next project,” Fulton shares, “is building stone mills for sale to the public. I first wanted to build a mill when I worked at Farm & Sparrow in Candler, North Carolina. We used a German-made mill that allowed us to use a wide variety of locally sourced grains, but it had many shortcomings. There is an American mill-building company, but their mills also often leave people disappointed and dissatisfied.”

So, he investigated possible design improvements that could make the mill both much more effective and user friendly. He traveled around North America to research mills new and old, and slowly his ideal mill design emerged.

“I built a 26-inch stone mill for a small grain farm in California, another for Boulted Bread, and a third for Farm & Sparrow, to replace the German mill on which I first learned about milling,” Fulton explained. “There is a nascent local-grain movement seeking to extricate grain from the industrial model and in desperate need of high-quality American-made mills. I had orders from four bakers and two mill/grain projects. I began construction on the first three mills ordered. We needed $12,000 to help finance these orders. We planned to pay the money back in 18 months or less.”

Two Slow Money NC lenders who are frequent customers at Boulted Bread made loans of $9,000 and $3,000, and New American Stone Mills is on its way.

Fulton's Stone Mill

Fulton’s stone mill

Fulton is now collaborating with Andrew Heyn, owner of Elmore Mountain Bread in Vermont, to offer a larger, 40-inch stone mill for use in medium-production bakeries or specialty gristmills.

Farmers are planting more heirloom grain varieties, local milling is growing, and for us eaters, the bread and pastries just keep getting better— for the planet and for us.

Please log in in order to complete your donation.

Central Grazing Co

Investment: Central Grazing Company

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more about the Journal »

I have been a sheep farmer for 15 years. It is my life calling. Quite an unexpected path for me, since I didn’t grow up in farming and my knowledge of sheep was very limited. I was, at one time, one of those people who didn’t know the difference between sheep and goats—and yeah, I can admit that now.

My career in sheep farming began with my former business partner. She had a dream to open a sheep dairy and creamery, and she wanted my help. Neither of us had any background in farming, so it took us a very long time to learn how to wear all the hats small-scale dairy farmers wear: businesswomen, grass farmers, mechanics, electricians, animal-welfare experts, and more. Together, we put in the years and created one of the best-known sheep dairies and creameries in the Midwest. We started selling our cheeses and yogurts at farmers’ markets and, finally, through national distribution.

By 2014, we had expanded our operation through collaboration with other small family farmers. We shared experience with and purchased sheep milk from these farmers. We built a great new revenue stream for our farmers and ourselves. However, we didn’t anticipate the problem this expansion would create—the fact that with the increase of milk came an increase in lambs. We grew from one sheep dairy to 10, and all of our lambs were sold directly to the livestock auction. They likely became feeder lambs and spent the rest of their lives in confinement, being fattened on GMO grains. This problem weighed heavily on me and fueled my desire to seek an alternative market for these lambs.

In 2014, I went to the Slow Money National Gathering in Kentucky. I was very curious about Slow Money. I had a lot of reservations, but I went with an open mind and what I experienced affected me profoundly.

It was at the Slow Money national gathering that the seeds for Central Grazing Company were planted. I was proud of the work my business partner and I created. However, when I returned home from the conference, I started to piece together my exit from the dairy business. My business partner was very supportive in my desire to start Central Grazing Company—something I will always be grateful for. I contacted Nancy Thellman, the founder of Slow Money Northeast Kansas, and applied to be an entrepreneur for their first-ever Entrepreneur Showcase. At the showcase, I made my pitch for the company to a room full of potential investors.

Central Grazing Company’s mission is to provide consumers with Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) raised lamb, while providing the farmers a value back for raising their animals with high animal-welfare and environmental standards. We encourage these high standards by sharing profits with our farmers. Central Grazing Company purchases lambs directly from farmers at a very fair commodity rate. At the end of the year, we share 50 percent of all net profits with our farmers. My family farm is one of seven farms currently providing Animal Welfare Approved lambs to Central Grazing Company.

My partner, ReGina, and I (along with our two small sons) rotationally graze our sheep just northeast of the Flint Hills in Kansas. We purchased this land when we decided to start Central Grazing Company. Much of the surrounding prairieland had been converted to crop or hay fields. We chose to purchase hay land instead of cropland, because we needed to start rotationally grazing immediately. Our soils are very poor and will need a lot of work to restore them, but I know that holistically grazing livestock is one of the best practices for prairie restoration. One year into grazing, I can already see some signs of our soils coming back to life.

Central Grazing Company

My pitch at the Slow Money Northeast Kansas event went very well. A few days after the showcase, one investor loaned me $5,000. This money was used to get Central Grazing Company on its feet. We purchased labels and marketing material for our lamb with this money. In 2015, our first year in operation, we processed 105 lambs from two sheep dairies in Missouri. We placed our lamb in natural grocery stores in five states. Demand grew. I went back to our local Slow Money network looking for more funding to help us meet this new demand. We received $10,000 from two local investors and $30,000 from Cienega Capital, a California-based Slow Money lender. We have used this money to increase our supply of lamb inventory by purchasing 500 lambs directly from our producers and paying for processing of the lambs. With this increase in lamb inventory, we will expand our market into 15 states.

Slow Money allowed me a new perspective on how our individual financial decisions influence our local economy, our sustainable food systems, and our relationships in our community. As a farmer, I was impressed that people actually wanted to invest in companies like mine and I’ve been pleased that we can provide new opportunities for investors. Slow Money hasn’t just been a tool I used to fund my business. It has provided me with a community—a community that has helped me to create an alternative market for farmers, allowing our animals to live and behave naturally, while also preserving our precious grasslands.

After launching Central Grazing Company, I joined my local Slow Money network as a planning-committee volunteer. Through Slow Money I have developed relationships with neighbors, investors, mentors, and new friends, all of whom share the same values with regard to money and sustainable agriculture. The relationships formed around Slow Money principles elevate our entire community by supporting a sustainable approach to investing in the land we farm. It has been gratifying and exciting to be a small part of this movement.

Please log in in order to complete your donation.

Any questions?

Separating the Tweet from the Chaff

There are tweets and there is chaff and the two need to be separated. Isn’t this clearer than the hair on you know who’s head? We’ve got too many tweets and way too much chaff these days and far too little separating of the two going on.

On the Sunday morning news shows this week, when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he didn’t keep up with the latest tweet, the anchor responded earnestly, “You’d better start reading every one of Donald Trump’s tweets!”

Then, a panelist noted that we’ve spent more time following tweets than we have covering the tragedy in Syria.

And then a guest, a media professor, finally went where none of the other pundits had been quite willing to go. She asked whether it is really necessary for the media to cover each and every one of the President-elect’s tweets.

How deeply concerned we should all be, as citizens, that this is even a question for our media professionals, faced as we all have been with so much social media that has been designed to provoke, distract or confuse. It has been as if, to media professionals, this is Axiom One: “Every tweet is news.” And this is Axiom Two: “Lots of tweets makes lots of news.”

We have become so busy chasing the latest shiny object, the latest electronic utterance, no matter how deliberately provocative, that we—we the people, we the public who wants to be informed, we the media whose business is … whose business is … Wait a minute … What is the media’s business? Tweet chasing?

This cannot be, because if the major media outlets put every tweet on television, then the distinction between possible news, fake news and real news becomes impossibly blurred.

By reacting to every single bit of babble, the media becomes part of the babble. By reacting to each and every tweet, no matter how powerful the tweeter, a media outlet loses its vitality as a value-added source of information—with the emphasis on inform.

There is wheat and there is chaff and the baking of a loaf worth breaking depends on their being separated.

I look forward to breaking bread with the television journalist who has the courage to announce publicly: I am not going to give air time to every tweet. I am going to do what I can to provide the public with the results of investigation, research and analysis; to encourage informed, long-term thinking; and, to diminish, not add to, the babble of the moment. (Ratings, shmatings. And who knows, they might just go up … Now, pass the bread!)

Two Roots Farm

Investment: Two Roots Farm

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more about the Journal

Christian and I fell in love with farming not too long after falling in love with each other. Before graduating from the University of Montana, we had our first farming experiences at PEAS farm, the university farm near campus. It was there that we began to grasp the serious consequences posed by our current food system, but more importantly, we learned how it can be completely reversed through sustainable agricultural practices.

Propelled by enthusiasm to change the world one small farm at a time, we set out to California for a full-season internship.

What we didn’t know then was just how many giant hurdles were in the way for not just our country to reverse its habits, but for each individual who sets out to farm sustainable products. We knew that we wanted to own and operate our own farm, but the road was not clear. How would we find the land? The money? The tools?

We decided the first thing we needed was experience and knowledge. We read every book about sustainable agriculture and small-scale farming that we could get our hands on. We enrolled ourselves in an online course for beginning farmers and completed a local course on farming business. After our internship, we spent two years as the agriculture managers at Rock Bottom Ranch with Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, where we gained invaluable experience growing in this mountain climate.

Four (farm-filled) years later, we have now started our own farming business, Two Roots Farm, aimed to fill a simple mission: to provide sustainably produced, freshly harvested, nutrient-dense vegetables to the Roaring Fork Valley community. We are leasing land from friends in Missouri Heights and selling our produce to restaurants, the Aspen Saturday Market, and through a CSA program. We received a loan from Slow Money for $7,500 to help us purchase the materials for a mobile walk-in cooler, drip-irrigation system, and a season-extension structure. By the time June came around, we were hitting our stride. We felt good about the tools we had, the crops we were growing, and the direction our business was headed.

Two Roots Farm

Recently we hit a pivotal moment for our first year. Crop loss is inevitable; no matter how wonderful a grower you are or how carefully you prepare, there is simply nothing that prepares you for flood, fire, tornado, earthquake, or drought. For us it was hail—chunky, powerful, unexpected hail—on an otherwise summer-like July third day.

We came home to it, confused to see white piles spread around the property. Did it snow? We walked into the garden. It was a traumatic sight: kale leaves ripped into fragments or torn off the plant entirely, heads of lettuce that looked like they had been put into a paper shredder, cucumber plants reduced to bare twigs.

It became evident right away that our community cared and supported us—a farming friend donated produce for our CSA, chefs agreed to buy “hail kale,” and many friends offered a hand.

It has been two weeks now, and I am reminded of the resilience of plants. Many of the longer-season crops are valiantly bouncing back to life; regrowth continues and has popped up everywhere. We replanted a great portion of the garden in preparation for fall.

Greenhouse

Christian and I were able to respond with a level head and a sense of calm because we knew that we had lenders who cared and understood. Our loan from Slow Money allowed us to absorb this shock because we had the tools we needed to get back on track.

All entrepreneurs will hit hurdles like this, so you must be the kind of person who can pick yourself back up. However, when you choose a business as risky as farming, you also need to be able to ask for help. We feel lucky to have found a place where people are willing and able to offer it.

Please log in in order to complete your donation.

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.