Photo (CC BY 2.0) by Caroline Davis

The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health

Note to reader: When we set out to write The Hidden Half of Nature we weren’t sure what to make of our protagonists. Microbes, after all, are invisible. And when most of us think of microbes it’s mostly in terms of their notorious negative side. But once we dug into the new and burgeoning field of microbiomes and looked back in history, we found our story.

It’s taken several hundred years for the true nature of the mercurial microbial world to come into focus. Our own health and that of the soil in which our food grows is as much about the presence of microbial allies as the absence of pathogens. In other words, a focus solely on the adverse aspects of the tiniest creatures on Earth means we’ve been functioning with half a strategy in realms we rely on for our well-being. Across the board, a key tenet in the new view of the tiny multitudes that benefit our lives is to safeguard and cultivate them, even as we combat their pathogenic brethren. Embracing the duality of the microbial world, both philosophically and with new practices, holds much promise for unleashing untapped potential to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise and give us new tools to thwart the modern epidemic of chronic diseases. —D.R.M. and A.B.


We can’t help but see the world differently after unearthing the parallels in the essential roles that microbes play in both soil health and human health. While we still can’t see the half of nature hidden beneath our feet, we know it is the root of the life and beauty we see in our garden every day. And we look at ourselves differently too knowing that we are each a tribe of trillions.

Awed by the realization that the animals, plants, and landscapes we see around us are merely the visible tip of nature’s iceberg, we now appreciate how the mysterious world of microbes helps make soil fertile and food nutritious. We had thought most microbes were harmful, foes for our immune system and antibiotics to vanquish. Yet microbial communities are integral to key aspects of our own metabolism. Learning that we reap the harvest of what we feed our soil—inner and outer, for better and worse— widened our view, bringing into focus the extraordinary agricultural and medical value of cultivating beneficial microbes in the soil and in ourselves.

For well over a century humanity has viewed our invisible neighbors as threats. We saw soil life primarily as agricultural pests, and through the lens of germ theory we typecast microbes as agents of death and disease. The solutions that grew from these views—agrochemicals to eradicate pests and antibiotics to kill pathogens—became embedded in our practices. Intent upon killing bad microbes, we haven’t cared much about the collateral damage to innocent microbial bystanders, although we are beginning to glimpse the effects upon ourselves.

While spraying broad-spectrum biocides on fields may take care of agricultural pests over the short run, the pests return with a vengeance in the long run. And there is a direct parallel to aggressive use of antibiotics over recent decades, which have spawned new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, an increasing number of which we now have no defense against. Instead of solving problems, we’ve become addicted to solutions with limited staying power. Dowsing gardens, farms, and people with broad-spectrum biocides should no longer be the de facto solution for gardeners, farmers, and doctors.

What does this all mean? Soil fertility and our immune system—two things critically important to us all—don’t work like we thought they did. Plants with depauperate communities of beneficial microbes around their roots dial back producing the phytochemicals that defend them and nourish us. Of particular relevance for our own health is that it turns out we need most of the microbes we’ve been trying so hard to kill. And scrambling our own microbiome, especially early in life, is increasingly implicated as a factor underlying modern maladies. It’s not that we shouldn’t fight pests and pathogens, but that the approaches we have come to rely upon come with hidden costs.


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


Looking back on our experience, we believe the difference between a garden and a weed-covered lot can show the way forward. Nature abhors bare ground, and she’ll fill it in her own way. But you can shape a place if you work with her. We intentionally cultivated the soil beneath our tiny patch of Earth to reap flashes of color from flowers, trees to inspire us, and vegetables to eat. The discovery that the real source of the beauty, comfort, and sustenance in our garden lay beneath our feet surprised us, and so did something else about our garden. It has about the same surface area as our digestive tract. Imagine gardening your gut, tending to the life you want and need in the body’s innermost sanctum.

Just as compost, wood chips, and mulch nourish soil life, the same is true of the foods that nourish the symbiotic inhabitants of our gut. While a living soil will ripple above ground to support the health and resilience of a garden or farm, your inner soil supports another kind of garden—your body. If we cultivate the microbes that benefit us, they’ll help fend off their pathogenic cousins and keep our immune system working for us, rather than turning against us.

Tending the garden of our microbiome doesn’t mean forgoing modern medicine. Realistically though, it’s going to take some time to align medical practices and therapies so that they work with our microbiome. In the meantime, we need to ensure we start out with a healthy microbiome and then maintain it with a diet rich in prebiotics. And if our microbiota take a hit, whether after antibiotics, illness, or maybe even a colonoscopy, we might consider doing what a gardener does and replant what we’ve lost and help them get established.

In the end, it boils down to some simple advice. Starve your enemies and feed your friends. And don’t kill off your allies that help keep the enemies in check.


David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé are married. David is Dean’s professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington and a MacArthur Fellow. Anne is a biologist, gardener, and writer. You can follow them on Twitter @dig2grow. Their website is www.dig2grow.com.

Buttercup Farms, Howard, Colorado

Buttercup Farms Receives Loan From Slow Money Investment Club

Bonnie Yarbrough, owner of Buttercup Farms, was referred to Local Matters Investments, our Denver-based Slow Money investment club, by Tamara Campfield, one of our founding members and treasurer. Tamara had previously made a personal loan to Buttercup Farms.

In November 2014, Local Matters loaned Buttercup Farms $6,000 for the purchase of two cows. She paid back that loan on time. Then in May 2016, Local Matters made another loan to Buttercup Farms in the amount of $10,000, enabling the purchase of three more cows and Bonnie’s enrollment in artificial insemination school. Bonnie planned to breed her cows with Miniature Jerseys in order to increase the profitability of her business.

As Bonnie put it: “I am living out my dream! As a young girl, I would go to a farm in Coaldale, Colorado, to get raw milk. I vividly remember everything about this dairy farm and the milk room. A spring ran through the barn in a concrete trough. Stella, the owner, would chill her milk in that spring water, and the locals would come pick it up with their jars. I loved going there: I loved the cows, the atmosphere, and the smell of the milk. Even as a young girl, I told myself that if I ever got the chance to have milk cows and do what Stella did, I would.

“After years of working in various areas of agriculture—raising beef cows, breeding quarter horses, working on ranches and for veterinarians—and seeing the interest in local, raw, and organic foods, I decided to start a small raw-milk dairy.”

Bonnie Yarbrough

She started with Buttercup, her first cow (and, she reports, still one of her favorites), and now has seven. She has some customers from more than 100 miles away and more inquiring every week. She sells raw milk and cream, cottage cheese and yogurt, and all the butter she can make. The “girls” currently produce about 28 gallons of milk a day. Bonnie still works for a local veterinarian several days a week, but looks forward to when she can spend all day at home with her girls, making cottage cheese, separating cream, and churning butter. She also sells cow shares—shareholders pay a boarding fee for their cows and are then entitled to milk.

Buttercup Farms

From Local Matters’ perspective, Bonnie and Buttercup Farms are just the type of person and business we desire to support. Our investment club has 21 members, who have put in a total of $107,100 in capital. Since 2013, we have made 11 loans to eight small food enterprises.


Tom Abood is the founder of Local Matters Investments in Denver, CO.

Photo: Oregon Department of Agriculture, Creative Commons

A Slow Money Reader

The difference between a sun-ripened strawberry and a blast-chilled one is an inconvenient detail most recipe editors prefer to take out. “But,” I plead to the editor, “your rendition won’t taste anything like the berry salad you had at my restaurant.” It’s times like these that I take refuge in beloved books written by fellow practitioners of “The Slow.” They use their expertise to look at the particular in the context of the whole.

That approach—and this pithy quote by Carl Sagan—restores my affirma­tion about all things holistic:

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

Now that’s my kind of food writing.

Whether it’s Sagan’s “infinity pie” or an apple pandowdy for the rest of us, a well-considered meal doesn’t stay put long enough to be just one thing. Everyone’s food is becoming someone else’s as it cycles through the sun in a hand off of photons to chloroplasts, pollinators to compost-munching microbes. The ecologist will advise we eat it and send it on its way in gratitude, for it just keeps going round: turtles all the way down. This is because the ecologist knows that when we eat, we eat the world; that when we cook, we cook the world.

Okay, I know what you are thinking: our mise en place hopefully starts out in some lovely local corner of the world. But in truth, the arc of our ingredient choices has already gone and returned to our forks with countless economical, political, cultural, nutritional, and ecological consequences.

Following are snapshots of books that describe ecologies of interdependence, food, wine, nature, and cosmos. They come and go from a stack of dog-eared, underlined, and lovingly marked tomes at my reading chair. Taken in groups, they constellate, like proximate stars, each adding another dimension that makes new meaning. These are books radiating grand evidence of intelligent life at work in our overheated world. Oh, such as the ideas that launched this journal—Woody Tasch’s integral vision as presented in Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered.

The authors I’ve interpreted below are pragmatic mystics who go into the depths of their subjects—from cheese and wine to intellectual history and cultural anthropology—and return to the boat with a net full of wriggling fractals and holograms, illuminating the realm beyond either/or choices.

Slow Money Reader Books


The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America

by Heather Paxson (University of California Press, 2012)

When a presenter at the American Cheese Society said, “Everything is everywhere,” referencing microbes, it sounded a lot like cutting-edge physics. Viewed through Heather Paxson’s rubric, you could switch in string cheese for string theory—and the metaphors keep working. Paxson is currently a junior professor of anthropology at MIT, and like her renowned school’s physicists who study micro and macro properties of particles, Paxson has a scholarly foot firmly planted in both the micro and macro worlds of the cultures of cheese.

In her book The Life of Cheese, Paxson observes how microbial cultures teeming in meadows and ruminants support the cheesemaker’s culture, producing tastes that are uniquely of their place. Looking closely at this slower form of agriculture, Paxson studies the communities of artisans— many of them coming “back to the land”—who milk, make, age, and market this new generation of American cheeses. She documents how the ensuing cultures (of both people and the cheeses they sell) have inculcated a new ethos into the time-is-money juggernaut. The reader will quickly recognize versions of Slow Money at work.

In her first chapter she writes:

If the aim of twentieth-century industrial food production was to make “every farm a factory,” as historian Deborah Fitzgerald has detailed, then a central aim of twenty-first-century artisan food production is to make every farm a working landscape—one that generates, and will continue to generate in the future, multiple values: decent livelihoods, healthy ecologies, beautiful vistas, and, most immediately, good food.

Paxson makes a scholarly case for the cheese artisan’s monetization of slow and hard-to-quantify values. At another point in the book she writes:

Artisan cheesemakers illuminate this broader reality because their struggle to realize multiple values in and through their business enterprise is both self-conscious and valorized by others, whereas elsewhere the interplay of economic and moral values is often obscured through language that separates spaces of “work” from “home” and distinguishes actions carried out for money from those we do for love.

I love a scholar who uses the word love without apology in a scholarly study.


Reading Between the Wines

by Terry Theise (University of California Press, 2011)

Here is a different example of Slow Money at work. This book takes on the big concepts of wine culture via an old world with centuries of patient arts of the soil under its belt. I traveled frequently to Europe while running my restaurant for 30 years in Wisconsin. What I saw models a future that I wish for all American artisans. Europeans simply have had longer to practice how vintage (weather), village (culture), varietal (species diversity), vineyard (place), and vintner (art and craft) merge into a whole that can intimately transmit locality.

Before I write further, I must disclose some caveats about this author. I know this guy well enough to have married him. He imports wine from some of the growers he extolls in these pages, and his book is definitely not a wine compendium. But if you have ever wondered what depths of meaning the axiom in vino veritas could hold, he is your bard.

Theise rolls comfortably between poetic metaphor and expertise earned over a lifetime of travel, tasting, and learning the language of winemaking. When he started out, his stomping grounds were “unpopular” categories: Riesling, grower Champagnes, Grüner Veltliner, and wines with impossible-to-decipher labels. When much of the world still wonders, “Why bother?”, he wades cheerfully into the mob to defend the nomenclature of locality, passionately explaining why we should care.

The book explores controversially complex topics like terroir, which Theise calls “the Earth’s erogenous zones.” Concluding the profile of a father-son team whose ancestors have worked their small vineyard’s steep slate slopes for centuries, he writes,

Families like this one are why I believe in terroir. It’s neither a dogma nor a faith. It’s just a simple fact. The wines themselves lead me to this belief. It’s not only a rational empirical matter; it’s also a question of Goodness.

When educating about the less familiar sub-appellations that comprise the region of Champagne, and the unique bottlings produced there by families without the benefit of luxury branding, Theise came up with the phrase “Farmer Fizz.” His shorthand helped break down the door of overpriced and confected champagne “big houses” and won new visibility for the landed vigneron capable of making great wines:

And this leads me to consider the schism between two groups of vintners and drinkers: those who feel wine is “made,” and those who feel it is grown. It is a fundamental split between two mutually exclusive approaches to both wine and life. If a grower believes from his everyday experience that flavors are inherent in his land, he will labor to preserve them.

So, it follows that Theise can’t help challenging those who try foisting authenticity on generically sited industrial wine and who pass sweetness hidden in high alcohol for gravitas. One more caveat and you might spill your wine chuckling.


Thinking Together at the Edge of History: A Memoir of the Life of the Lindisfarne Association, 1972–2012

by William Irwin Thompson (Lorian Press, 2016)

If quaffing wine and cheese tasting of culture and place is an investment to savor, reading this next author—a brilliant cultural observer whose viewfinder spans millennia—is like sipping enlightenment from a fire hose. William Irwin Thompson is the Ur-Ecologist of our age. He weaves ecosystems of thought—including theoretical physics, religion, history, art, sexuality, and earth sciences—into a coherent Gaian vision of whole-planet dynamics.

Thompson formed Lindisfarne Association to take “a further step toward the articulation of this new culture of science and a post-religious spirituality” and invited many of its finest articulators to his communal table: Gregory and Mary Catherine Bateson, Stewart Brand, Hazel Henderson, Carl Sagan, James Lovelock, E.F. Schumacher, David Spangler, and countless others, each as brilliant as the next.

Listening in on them with Thompson over the last five decades, I can hear a future built on inclusiveness, calling for our loyalties to come down to earth. For example, writing about his decision to homeschool his child, Thompson could have been warning about the danger of money that has lost relevant touch with the body of the planet:

Many spiritual philosophers, in differing religious traditions, claim that we take on a body to experience the world of love and compassion. If we lose the body in collective systems and networks of data processing, we can lose the compassion and become intellectually cruel and economically insensitive. We forget that it was through the body that our child was brought forth, and we forget how to be with another in a sense of presence that enhances our feeling for the meaning of life. Like the “hungry ghosts” of Buddhist philosophy, we become wraiths—grey shades whose lives have been parasitized by computer and cell phone— and do not realize they are dead and only haunting the place of life.

Thompson is difficult to reduce, so I leave it here. Check him out if you dare.


Wonder: When and Why the World Appears Radiant

by Paul R. Fleischman (Small Batch Books, 2013)

The sugar rush of too much computer-enabled information works a lot like industrialized agriculture’s blizzard of empty calories. Too much of anything scrambles the brain, rendering us never able to get enough of what we really don’t need. Add money to that trifecta, and evolution for humanity seems perilous.

Our health depends on our ability to scale information into nourishing patterns. At this, Paul Fleischman excels. A distinguished psychiatrist, Fleischman is a dedicated practitioner of Vipassana meditation, and he connects contemplative disciplines, the Tao, and the revelations of science:

Just as the ancient civilizations imagined the world consisted of four basic substances—earth, air, fire, and water—we have our creative quaternity: matter, energy, entropy, and information. . . . Wonder forges diverse scientific narratives into a single vision of our identity within the universe.

His sense of wonder stretches from electrons to marigolds:

The laws that birthed and expanded the universe can also converge and cooperate. A marigold startles us because it brings together electrons, protons, atoms, electromagnetism, photosynthesis, ATP, DNA, and so much more into a temporary coherence. Within the cosmos that is mostly black, cold, and empty, there is also a governance of marigolds.

He writes, “The mind that sees and understands the star is no less radiant than its object.”

He could have been describing the mind of Thoreau.


Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings

by Henry D. Thoreau [edited by Bradley Dean] (Island Press, 1993)

Thoreau did not live to complete the works collected in this book, yet in these pages he gives us all the time in the world to reflect on what he saw most intimately. Thoreau’s genius is his capacity to observe the world through the prism of his soul and his naturalist’s eye. He can see the forest in the seeds and tease out the thread of a miracle in progress.

This volume is composed of recently brought-forth manuscripts, including “Dispersion of Seeds” and “Wild Fruits.” They are patiently reconstructed and instructively annotated by Bradley Dean. The foreword by Gary Paul Nabhan and introduction by Robert D. Richardson are inspiring reads on their own, making for very good company in this collection. Abigail Rorer’s illustrations complement the writing and are placed throughout the book with understated grace.

In his foreword, Nabhan imagines Thoreau’s journey:

It was on the wings of seeds that Thoreau sailed home, where he found peace before he died. Although often itching to travel to the far reaches of the world, and always cosmopolitan in his readings, Thoreau gradually became convinced that what he could learn closest to home was what was ultimately of the greatest value. If literary historians sense that he had ceased to emulate Wordsworth and Goethe in his poetry and lofty philosophical essays, they misread his intentions. Instead of turning his back on these literary traditions, Thoreau tried to incorporate them into his search for a language more difficult but more enduring: the language of the forest itself.

There is no end to Thoreau’s reach; even the finality of his words on the page launches a new round of inspired writing by those who study him. I am indebted to Robert Richardson for these words: “Thoreau …revealed the world around us in so concentrated and passionate a way as to convince us that every single day is a whole new season.”

Over the years I ran L’Etoile, my restaurant in Madison, I thought I had identified nine distinct eating seasons in the Midwest. Our menu, which changed daily to track ingredients, told the greater truth.

Through 2005, I kept this book on a shelf where I would see it every time I entered the kitchen. This was an emotional year for me—the year I turned my restaurant of 30 years over to new hands. I dipped into the book’s pages randomly, divining perhaps, to illumine my faith in the seed which held L’Etoile’s next generation, continuing my journey, begun long ago, to discover the distance of local.


Odessa Piper is the founder of L’Etoile, a pioneering farm-to-table restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, which she established in 1976 and ran for 30 years. During that time she helped create local supply networks that enabled her to cook primarily from her region through all seasons of the year. Now resettled in her native New England, she continues to advocate for the gastronomy of the Snowbelt—its seasons, farmers, and artisans.

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.

Post Donate Form

It’s important to reduce dysfunction in our national, political and financial systems, but it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to invest in the future we all want to see in our communities. A healthy local food system is the place to start. For every $1 donated to Slow Money, $11 flows to local and organic food enterprises through our network. Our work is supported entirely by donors like you who recognize that our small nonprofit team is facilitating systemic change.

$
Personal Info

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.

Billing Details

Donation Total: $25

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.

Post Donate Form

It’s important to reduce dysfunction in our national, political and financial systems, but it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to invest in the future we all want to see in our communities. A healthy local food system is the place to start. For every $1 donated to Slow Money, $11 flows to local and organic food enterprises through our network. Our work is supported entirely by donors like you who recognize that our small nonprofit team is facilitating systemic change.

$
Personal Info

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.

Billing Details

Donation Total: $25