Changing the Culture and Changing Ourselves

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

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

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

We started with values: the health and well-being of people and the land, interdependent relationships, strong communities, and a worldview that sees humans as an integral and important part of the natural world. We wanted all the people involved in growing, raising, processing, distributing, cooking, and eating food to have an equal voice and ownership of their food: a model community-owned food system in which the farm feeds the community and the community feeds the farm. Since economic and ecological sustainability were both critical, a for-profit structure was important. Our answer is Our Table—a cooperative business with three distinct but interdependent membership groups or classes—workers, regional producers, and consumers. Workers, from farmers to the delivery drivers, operate the cooperative’s farm and manage the organization. Producers are independent farmers and food artisans who grow and produce all the things that we want to eat but do not grow on our own farm. Consumers are the people who eat the food, which includes all of us in the community. The cooperative brings this diverse group of stakeholders together to the proverbial table to solve a common problem, and collectively, its members own and control the business and share the profits.

Our Table's Grocery Store

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

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

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

Chickens at Our Table

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

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

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

Aerial shot of Our Table

An aerial photo of Our Table Cooperative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. This is the problem of professional silos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q. Who has stolen local?

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

Q. Is community-supported agriculture a meaningful alternative?

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

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

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

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

Soil4Climate: New Organization Fights Global Warming From The Ground Up

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

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

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

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

Soil4Climate

Soil4Climate at Vía Orgánica in Guadalupe, Mexico.

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

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

Soil4Climate

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

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

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

Soil4Climate

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

Soil4Climate

Soil4Climate at COP21 in Paris.

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

Please join us online in our Facebook and Google groups.

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

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

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

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

Planting Justice

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

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

Planting Justice

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

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

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

Funding Through Self-Directed IRA and Foundation Grants

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

My Agricultural Grandparents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selman Waksman

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

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

Lady Eve Balfour

Lady Eve Balfour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Baird

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

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

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

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

Animals, Land and People: An Interview with Will Harris

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

Will runs the largest USDA-certified organic farm in Georgia, farming 1,200 owned acres and 2,000 leased. He has over 2,000 head of cattle, raises 60,000 pastured chickens, and also raises eight other species of animals, most of which roam around in a model of farming based on the way animals graze on the Serengeti plains. He has built two abattoirs on site—one for red meat, one for poultry. He has an organic vegetable CSA and an heirloom orchard. His farm closes the loop on sustainability through rotational grazing, solar power, and the recycling of all of his various “wastes” from his animal operations. All of the wash water, bones, and other animal “wastes” end up back on the land, building the soil over time.

Q. As you look at the situation in farming today, what jumps out at you?

A.Today’s farmer is facing a transformation. But it is not only the farmer. Equally important is a transformation of the appetite of the American consumer. The complexity of this transition is great. And there’s also an investment side of this transition—how do we finance kinder, gentler, regenerative agriculture. We still live in a world that is full of big box stores and fast food places. This transition isn’t going to happen immediately and it shouldn’t. It is going to take time. You’ve got to remember that the big changes to food and farming— commodification, centralization, industrialization—started after WWII 70 years ago. It could take another 70 years for the pendulum to swing back to some semblance of it was.

Q. Saying it’s going to swing back towards what it once was raises all kinds of questions.

A. I don’t mean returning to my great grandfather’s agriculture. But the ag we have today is completely built on maximizing consistency and efficiency. Very little emphasis is placed on animal welfare, the environmental sustainability of the program, or the economic impoverishment of rural America. What this has done has made food obscenely cheap and the cost has been borne on the backs of farm animals, the environment, and rural America. When I say it will swing back to where it was I mean … hey, technology is fantastic, I’m sitting in a pasture in my new Jeep, talking to you a cell phone with a laptop open on the seat beside me … but I’m talking about rediscovering fundamental respect for the animals, the land and the people who are producing the food.

Q. What’s the relationship between this kind of respect and the quality of food?

A. There was a time when farmers put everything they could into making their milling wheat or corn for cornmeal for their pigs or their chickens the best possible quality. They didn’t do so for altruistic reasons or vanity. They did so because when they went to sell, they wanted to get a higher price for their produce, based on quality. After WWII, the USDA set minimum standards for milling wheat and feed steers and Number One hogs and Number Two corn. When we set minimum standards, we de-incentivized adding quality. It became about producing as cheaply as possible and still meeting those minimum standards, with the Chicago Board of Trade deciding how much you were going to get.

Today the Tysons and Cargills and Smithfields and other large multinational corporations of their ilk have moved so far down this model of efficiency that I don’t believe they can ever move back. They are so committed to uber-high-volume, uber-efficient production operating purely on a cost basis that they will never be able to move away from that. But it’s not just the big guys. Small producers at the other end of things face a different set of challenges as they strive to return to a higher quality system of production.

Q. Sounds like you are heading towards the ag-in-the-middle story here.

A. I am. What we are doing at White Oak Pastures is one example. We built our own processing capacity, investing $7.5 million to do it, so that we can achieve and maintain the quality we want in our product.

Q. To the small guys, you are big and to the big guys, you are small. Can you say more about how your particular scale allows you to produce a high-quality product?

A. There are some animals, in the case of beef, that just aren’t going to make good steaks. You did all the right things, you cared for them properly, you had the right genetics, but they just did not turn out as a good steak animal. If you are focused on quality, you will inform your meat cutters that when you get an animal that is of inferior quality, let me know and we’ll decide what to do. For instance, we may make ground beef. In that case, I may lose $400 on that animal. But I protect my overall quality. You can only do that if you have complete control of the processing.

Recommended: Enter to win a Family Feast from White Oak Pastures!

Q. Isn’t this the question of appropriate scale? The idea that there is an optimal scale at which quality, market share, and impact can all come together?

A. Scale is everything. I don’t mean the bigger, the better. It has got to be scaled properly. When it’s right, scale is the balance that comes from a three-legged stool: production, processing, marketing. In this balance, it can’t be the best two out of three, or the stool will topple over.

I couldn’t have built the processing we need for any less than we spent. Our $7.5 million investment worked for us. We’re profitable, but it’s not a get-rich deal. It’s a good family business, good enough to bring two daughters and spouses back into it. But I didn’t figure out that scale in the abstract. I didn’t say at the outset, ‘$28 million in sales and 123 employees is our ideal scale.’ I kind of blundered towards it. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and there were many times that I thought, ‘I’ve got this,’ that I really didn’t. But we did arrive at a scale that is working.

Q. As your operation has grown, you’ve added species, added diversity. Yet it is usually the case that the bigger farms get, the more commodified they get.

A. It used to be that farms were organisms. The farms of my great grandfather’s era had grain, cattle, chickens, lots of different species living in symbiotic relationships. Nature abhors a monoculture. Nature always gravitates to many different species of plants, animals and microbes living in symbiosis. You don’t have a forest with nothing but rabbits or a forest with nothing but deer in it. There’s always a smorgasbord. Henry Ford taught us the factory model. The efficient way to build cars was to build a factory. It works beautifully for cars or anything else that is complication. A watch is complicated. A cow is complex. A factory is complicated. A farm is complex.

Reductionist science works for complicated systems. You can isolate the variables. But when it comes to nature, to complexity, reductionist thinking doesn’t work.

White Oak Pastures

Q. How did you make the transition from the post-WWII model of commodification, centralization, and industrialization to a model that puts respect for animals, land, and people first?

A. After WWII, we applied the industrial model to farms. Just like you make cars at the car factory and shirts at the shirt factory, we started making pigs at the pig factory and chickens at the chicken factory. We started using industrial tools: pesticides, chemical fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones.

The industrial system of farming was wildly successful in achieving what it set out to accomplish—in making food cheap, abundant, and consistent. But it had unintended consequences. My family has seen these up close.

My father went to a meeting in Bluffton in 1946. A young man was a salesman for a fertilizer company. Chemical fertilizer wasn’t being used much at that point. The fertilizer company was a repurposed munitions manufacturer that was making ammonium nitrate fertilizer. This kind of fertilizer didn’t become cheap and abundant until after WWII, when all those munitions plants were repurposed. This young fertilizer salesman had two 100-pound bags of ammonium nitrate and he gave every farmer 5-10 pounds in a brown paper bag with the request to spread it out on a pasture, water it, and check it in three days. The effect was like steroids in a weight room. When my dad and the other farmers checked the results, there was no comparison: ‘Shit, I want my whole farm to look like that!’

So, we put ammonium nitrate on every acre we owned twice a year. But what my dad didn’t know, what no one knew at that time, is that ammonium nitrate was killing microbes in the soil and oxidizing the organic matter that it had taken millennia to create. For the next 50 years, we kept applying ammonium nitrate all over our land twice a year.

In the ’70s, I went to the University of Georgia. I majored in agriculture. No one ever mentioned to me that fertilizer kills microbes and oxidizes organic matter. No one. By the mid ’90s, I was starting to read things that introduced me to new ideas. And then I started noticing at the edge of the woods where the truck doesn’t get, and so we hadn’t applied fertilizers and pesticides there, the land had more tilth and was teeming with life that you could see and even more that you could sense, and that made me realize that if we’d never used the ammonium nitrate and pesticides, all my land would have this much life.

Q. There’s a lot to admire in that story of observation and learning.

A. I’m still observing and learning. I’m new to the goat and hog business and I’m just learning these herdmanships. Hogs are really forest creatures. Sheep and cattle are pasture creatures. I had some goats that had been on pasture but I put them in the woods with the hogs. I noticed that they were shinier, gaining weight, playful, just generally doing better. And the hogs also seemed to start doing better. I googled and tried to research something that would explain this. Couldn’t find anything. I kept observing. Here’s what I’m thinking. The goats are eating plant species that the hogs don’t eat and the hogs were eating the goat shit and then hogs are getting different nutrients from that goat shit, so they are healthier. And when the hogs ate the goat shit, they broke the lifecycle of the barberpole worm, internal parasites that affect goats, so the goats also started doing better. Seems like textbook mutually beneficial symbiotic relationships, but I don’t have the textbook. I have the farm.

Q. What do your observations tell you about Allan Savory’s holistic management system?

A. It’s past time to be talking about sustainable farming practices. We’ve got to talk about regenerative farming practices, those that every single year improve the productive capacity of the land. The end game of most regenerative practices is going to be sequestering carbon in the soil. Not as a response to global warming, per se, but because this is what turns soil that is a dead mineral medium into an organism that is teeming with life. Allan Savory’s holistic management system is the best game in town. This system emulates nature, using prairie animals to build the soil by mimicking the predator-prey animal systems, where animal herds were bunched and moving. Hooves breaking the soil, defecation, microbes in the animal guts working with microbes in the soil, intensive grazing. This flies in the face of commodified, centralized, industrialized livestock practices.

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

From Bitcoin to Beetcoin

I don’t know what a bitcoin is.

I know how bitcoin is described in the media, that it is called a crypto-currency, that the Japanese programmer who created it is shrouded in secrecy, that it has been used by drug dealers, that venture capitalists are pouring billions of dollars into “mining” it, that websites feature pictures of virtual gold coins with “B” on it, that in a few urban spots there are BTMs, as in, Bitcoin Teller Machines, that it was created as a radical alternative to central banks’ fiat currency—I know all this but I if you ask me do I really know what bitcoin is, I’d have to say, no, not really.

Which makes me reflect upon so many other things in the “I Know That Department,” but which, were I to slow down long enough for full reflection, I’d realize “I Don’t Really Know That After All.”

I don’t know why the Gaussian copula formula morphed so wildly into an entire derivatives industry, almost pulling down the entire global economy.

I don’t know why the derivatives market is larger now, hundreds of trillions of dollars larger, than it was prior to the Great Recession.

I don’t know if GMOs are the derivatives of agriculture.

I don’t know whether the first human settlement on Mars will be American, Chinese, Russian or vegan.

I don’t know how much my financial security depends upon the next hundred million Chinese car buyers.

I don’t know why I can’t get the idea of hitting Vladimir Putin over the head with a bunch of heirloom beets out of my head.

But I do know who to thank for one of the most playful opening lines a novel ever had, “The beet is the most intense of vegetables.” Thank you, Tom Robbins.

And I do know I want my beets to be as fresh, as free of petrochemicals and as nutrient dense as possible, grown in healthy soil, rich in organic matter and home to happy earthworms and all manner (as in billions and trillions) of microorganisms, most of which still haven’t even been named.

And I do know I want my community to be home to a healthy population of small and mid-size diversified organic farms and all the small food enterprises that process and distribute their food, creating a vital foundation for a healthy, resilient local economy: fruit and vegetable growers, pasture based livestock operations, seed savers, compost makers, niche organic brands, coops, CSAs, farm to table restaurants, farmers’ markets, dairies, cheese makers, artisan bread bakers, school gardens, urban gardens and more.

So, with just a few moments of reflection, it has not been all that hard for me to look beyond the abstract, distant, speculation-riddled, financial razzmatazz of bitcoin and turn my attention to Beetcoin—a new way for folks to chip in $25 or more, vote for a small, local and/or organic food entrepreneur, and bring some of our money back down to earth.

It’s beets without the stains on your cutting board. It’s a new kind of soil-centered, local-food-nurturing, pay-it-forward-enabling crowd funding. It’s as much fun as you can have without going to a Slow Money meeting.

So, let’s not forget those eight wonderful Colorado food and farming entrepreneurs, from Ft. Collins to Boulder to Denver to Alamosa to Carbondale, who are virtually egging you on, right now, these last two days of October: Buy Beetcoin!

The Beetcoin

A Beetcoin Smile

I’m guessing that you, like me, watched the presidential debate on Tuesday night. And I’m also guessing that many of us have already made contributions to Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders … or, for that matter … Ben Carson or Ted Cruz.

To my thinking, money spent on presidential politics is all pretty much the same, the way that venture capital investing, currency speculation, betting on the price of oil or myriad other forms of investing as usual are all pretty much the same.

Send your money to a candidate. Send your money to a money manager. We need to do it. Or, we should say, many of us get to do it.

In a mature democratic society and a mature capitalist economy, we get to vote for the kind of government and the kind of economy we want. Millions of us get to vote with our dollars, this way and that. And despite all the special interests and dark investment pools and powerful forces that never seem to see the light of day, now and then we get a smile, a moment of affection, a moment of authenticity. A moment that gives us hope—not the hope of a political slogan, but actual hope.

We had one of those Tuesday night, when Bernie and Hillary shook hands and smiled, after his mini-rant about “your damn e mails.” Despite what Bill O’Reilly said afterwards—he thinks it was all scripted—I experienced it as a moment of authenticity. With some constrained but actual affection sneaking through and some actual hope mixed in.

But such moments are fleeting up there on the stage of presidential politics.

Before you know it, the candidates are back debating whether Black Lives Matter, Native Lives Matter, Syrian Lives Matter or All Lives Matter. What I’m waiting for is the moment of authenticity and hope that arises when the candidates start debating whether Earthworm Lives Matter.

Here’s one question that will never be asked of any presidential candidate during a debate:

Q. What is the earthworm population in an acre of organic farmland in Boone County, Iowa?

(A. 1.3 million.)

Much less the follow up question:

Q. What is the earthworm population in an acre of conventional farmland in Boone County, Iowa?

(A. 19,000.)

Do earthworm lives matter? They do if you believe that every living thing on this planet depends upon the life of the soil. They do if you believe that hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil washing down the Mississippi each year matters. They do if you believe that while industrial agriculture (much like capitalism, itself, although to say this invites us down not the earthworm burrow but the rabbit hole of capitalism vs. socialism, which debate happily deflects attention from a much more fundamental tension between industrialism and agrarianism) is a magnificently powerful tool for producing cheap shelf-stable commodities, it is a wildly deficient instrument when it comes to the health of Main Street and the health of bioregions.

But this is not an anti-industrial agriculture call to action or a Too Much Money In Politics call to action. It’s a call to action that goes, with a certain predictability in the case of me, like this: If we’re going to send money to any presidential candidate, mustn’t we also get some of our money to an organic farmer down the street?

And smile while we’re doing it?

There is surely too much money in politics. We are surely bombarded with ideological sound bites. There is surely much that is broken in the craven competition for our votes.

We can still smile. Not a Bernie smile. Not a Hillary smile. Not a political smile. A Beetcoin smile.

Because all the money in politics notwithstanding, relationships still trump transactions. In the long term, as surely as someone’s car in Madison sports the bumper sticker “Mother Nature Bats Last,” as surely as ecology trumps economics, as surely as a beet root has hair, relationships trump transactions.

Which is why some of us, on our way to who knows how many of us, are finding ways to invest some of our money in honor of relationships, and, so, do our small but vital part, as earthworms in the soil of a restorative economy, to preserve and restore the fertility of the American Dream.

The Beetcoin