The idea was simple at the beginning, back in 2006: find a fund in which my clients could invest their money that would finance farms and businesses involved in sustainable agriculture. I quickly discovered that no such thing existed. Instead, the inquiry set me off on a rewarding decade-long journey of learning, collaboration, and co-creation.
I have served as a portfolio manager for high-net-worth individuals and families for almost 20 years. All of our clients at Clean Yield aim to align their money with their values, and for many that means finding ways to invest in their local communities and regional economies, especially in the food and agriculture sector. Ten years ago, just about the only vehicles for doing so were preferred shares in the Organic Valley and Equal Exchange cooperatives. They were a great start, but we were looking for more options, in particular something structured like the already popular community loan funds that support a range of economic-development activities around the globe. My search led me to Woody Tasch, who I already knew from Investors’ Circle.
Woody was busily brewing up the ideas that would eventually become Slow Money, but we came to the issue from different investment perspectives. My clients and I were familiar and comfortable with lending money through relatively safe and predictable community loan funds, but had little experience with angel or venture-capital investing, the part of the world in which Woody had been operating. Putting our clients’ assets in illiquid investments in individual farms and small food enterprises was more risk than was appropriate for most of my clients at the time.
There were also myriad administrative challenges around these potential investments: how to value them on client statements, whether to charge for our services, and how to custody the assets (our standard custodian, Charles Schwab, was reluctant to hold them). So my energy went into helping develop the organizations laying the groundwork for a more robust financing landscape for these types of businesses.
Woody invited me to participate in the gatherings that helped craft Slow Money, and Dorothy Suput asked me to join the board of the nascent Carrot Project, which aimed to address financing gaps for farmers in the northeast. The discussions that took place in both organizations deepened my understanding of the challenges to rebuilding healthy local and regional food systems, as well as the role that access to capital can play in catalyzing that process.
The Carrot Project developed relationships with existing community investment institutions in New England and launched specialized funds focused on small loans to farmers. This gave us an appealing investment option for some of our clients to begin directing capital into local and regional agriculture in a relatively low-risk way.
But it was the push we got from a handful of our clients who are deeply committed to sustainable agriculture that accelerated the flow of capital into this space. They had the risk tolerance and inclination to take the lead. So we started in late 2007 in our own backyard with an investment in High Mowing Organic Seeds, a Vermont-based company that needed capital to meet soaring demand.
At the time, I was at Trillium Asset Management, but through my research on High Mowing, I got to know Clean Yield founder Rian Fried, who was the one conducting due diligence on the deal. I eventually joined Rian at Clean Yield in 2009, in large part so that I could spend more of my time working on Slow Money opportunities. The move allowed me to cofound Slow Money Boston and, later, Slow Money Vermont.
Meanwhile, as the Slow Money movement emerged and its networks launched in Boston, Maine, the Pioneer Valley, and eventually Vermont, the pipeline of investment opportunities in food and agriculture businesses significantly increased. The establishment of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Flexible Capital Fund in 2010 played a key role in allowing more of our clients to participate, by offering a professionally managed, diversified investment vehicle focused on agriculture and clean energy. This was a dream come true for Rian and me, and I can’t thank Janice St. Onge enough for her imagination, leadership, and persistence in creating and managing that fund.
By 2011, having had a positive experience with High Mowing Organic Seeds and having become more comfortable going beyond straight lending, we were ready to ramp up our direct investments in food and agriculture businesses—and we had clients who were more than ready to take the plunge. In particular, the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation set ambitious goals for the percentage of its endowment to be allocated to impact investments in sustainable agriculture. Happily, our home state of Vermont was fertile ground for these types of investment opportunities. Vermont Smoke & Cure, Vermont Natural Coatings, the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, and Ayers Brook Goat Dairy all raised capital between 2011 and 2013 with our clients’ participation.
Although investing in private companies is inherently different than investing in the stock or bond market, we applied the same rigorous analysis to these offerings. Given that we were sticking our necks out in considering these investments at all, we wanted to have a high degree of confidence that these businesses would succeed and be able to pay back their investors. As fiduciaries, it was also essential that we ensure that each investment we made was suitable for each client’s financial objectives and risk profile. This entailed increased communication with clients and increased administrative costs on top of the time being put into researching the prospective investments. However, we weren’t earning any additional revenues from these activities.
It was clear that this would not be a profitable line of business for Clean Yield, but there was never a question as to whether or not to do it. Our clients were enthused by the opportunity we had given them to go beyond having a “clean” portfolio of stocks and bonds to having holdings in their portfolios that reflected their deeply held vision of a truly sustainable local/ regional economy and food system. Once they had a taste of it, they clamored for more. The feeling was mutual. We took great satisfaction in the service we were providing, both to our clients and to the local economy. We accepted that this would lower our profit margins somewhat, but we also found that our leadership in this arena started to bring us new clients.
Rian’s untimely death in 2013 was a critical moment for us. He had been a pioneer not just in Slow Money investing, but in the broader realm of socially-responsible investing. In attempting to honor his legacy, we settled on hiring two people instead of one. The first would focus primarily on impact investing. Karin Chamberlain filled the role that fall and brought additional concentration and structure to our impact program, catalyzing even more activity. In the three years since she came on board, our impact investments have soared from about $5 million to nearly $15 million in 25 different vehicles for more than 50 clients. The Stokes Foundation has continued to push us to bring them new opportunities and has ratcheted their allocation to impact investments to nearly 50 percent of their portfolio. Not all of that is in food and agriculture, but we have continued to find new companies and funds to invest in, including Real Pickles, Iroquois Valley Farms, Root Capital, and Fresh Source Capital.
With more than five years of very active Slow Money investment behind us now, we’re beginning to see meaningful financial returns. Our first investments have matured or been renewed or extended. Our clients continue to receive regular interest payments from those investments where it was expected. We’ve even had one unexpected “home run” where a private-equity firm took a majority stake in a company, resulting in a quadrupling of our clients’ investment value.
While we fully expect that the reverse will be true as well—that despite our due diligence some of our investments will lose money—the early results are encouraging, especially given the ultra-low interest rates available from conventional investments.
The social and environmental returns remain hard to measure, but are undeniable. Our clients’ commitment to financing the food system makes capital more accessible—and often cheaper—for the companies that are building a more just and sustainable food system.
We recognize that in the context of the global food system, it’s barely a drop in the bucket and that the playing field remains tilted in favor of industrial, petroleum-drenched agriculture, but we also know that our efforts are making a difference in our region and hope that our example will inspire others.
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.