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Share the Bounty
How ya gonna keep ’em down on the organic farm? By investing in them, says a veteran financial strategist.

Though it’s certainly easier to find local, sustainably grown meat and produce in America than it was 20 years ago, the deck nevertheless remains stacked against small farmers and sellers who would feed the steadily increasing demand for such fare. Many of our food-production system’s most dangerous and unsustainable practices—from pumping factory-farmed livestock full of antibiotics to depleting and polluting groundwater supplies—are precisely what put the “big” in Big Agriculture in the first place. Some of the systemic advantages that Big Ag now enjoys thanks to economies of scale include widespread distribution networks, multimillion-dollar marketing budgets, and easy access to capital, to name just a few.

Woody Tasch aims to level the growing field. Tasch spent 10 years as chairman of the Investors’ Circle, a nonprofit network of foundations, venture capitalists, and other deep-pocketed interests that directs capital toward socially and environmentally progressive start-ups and enterprises. Then, in 2009, he became the founding chairman of Slow Money, a nationwide network of investors—from private equity specialists in office towers to white-haired grandmas in rocking chairs—wholly dedicated to rebuilding our food system from the grassroots up.

Woody Tasch’s Slow Money group lifts up small farmers.At Slow Money gatherings, which regularly take place on the national, regional, and local levels, investors get the chance to connect with small farmers and entrepreneurs who are committed to growing or selling sustainably produced food. The one-on-one connections forged at these events ease the way for the flow of investment capital that can help a dairy cooperative or an organic grain mill expand its operations, or get a new locally sourced grocery store up and running in an underserved community. Nearly 25,000 people have signed on to the Slow Money Principles, a bullet-point manifesto that, among other things, calls upon signatories to “invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered” and to “connect investors to the places where they live.” So far, Slow Money members have invested more than $33 million in 250 small and sustainable food enterprises around the country.

I sat down to lunch with Tasch one afternoon last December in Boulder, Colorado, to discuss food, farms, and the difference between traditional venture capital and the Slow Money concept of “nurture capital.”

What makes Slow Money different from other investment models?

Slow Money is about asking people to consider the costs and benefits associated with the production of our food. If we continue to spend all our energy and capital building 10,000-acre industrial farms and making our food-production system bigger and faster, we’ll be doing so at the expense of our soil fertility, aquifer waters, and biodiversity. These things are priceless, and we all know that they’re priceless, and we constantly bemoan their loss—but then we throw up our hands and say that we have no idea how to restore balance to the system.

Systems can consist of either small numbers of very large things or large numbers of small things. Which one of these seems likely to be more stable in the long term? Slow Money isn’t necessarily saying, “No more big things.” But it is saying, “We need more small things.”

Who’s signing up?

People who believe we’re fast approaching—or have already reached—our global limits, and who don’t want to participate in a scenario that has us mindlessly consuming our way to the very end. They understand that there are many different ways to define “return on investment,” including enhancing soil fertility, keeping water in our aquifers, and fostering healthier communities.

There are millions of people in America who fit that description and who are giving signs that they’re ready to do something about it. They range from wealthy individuals to those who may have only a few thousand dollars to invest. In our Maine chapter, just for example, we had someone write a single $3 million check to help finance a dairy cooperative. We also had 19 people who formed their own investment club by writing $5,000 checks and pooling their money. They named their club No Small Potatoes, and they’ve already made dozens of low-interest, three-year loans to a number of family farms and food-related small businesses throughout the state.

But how do you go from a handful of people writing checks for $5,000 to upending a system as well-financed and politically mobilized as Big Ag?

I know that our $33 million isn’t meaningful when you put it up against anything that happens on Wall Street during a single minute of one trading day. It doesn’t even show up as a blip. But ideas and culture matter, too, even if they can’t be quantified. There has to be a cultural shift. And it has to start at the community level.

One of the first times I ever spoke about Slow Money in public was in Burlington, Vermont. There were 50 people in the room, 49 of whom were wildly enthusiastic about the idea. But there was one guy in the back who, at the very end of my talk, said, “I’ve been banking here in Burlington for 35 years. My question for you is: How on earth are you going to get anybody to do this? You’re turning everything we’ve all been taught as investors 100 percent upside‑down.”

My answer to him was: “The other 49 people in this room want this to happen. The truth is, we don’t really have to convince you in order to have an effect. The job for those of us who want to go in this direction is just to help one another go in this direction.”

Sometimes the people who are most inspired to do something about a problem are the ones who feel they can’t do anything; the problem seems so big that they get paralyzed. Making it easier for people to buy food from the guy down the street is a way to take part in a cultural shift that’s occurring right now, the signs of which are getting clearer and clearer.

What are those signs?

Look at the growth of farmers’ markets and CSAs [community-supported agriculture, whereby small farmers contract with consumers to sell their produce over specified periods of time], which have both experienced such a burst of energy over the last 20 years. Back in 1980, there were no CSAs; now there are estimates that something like half a million Americans belong to one.

If those estimates are correct, it means that for 500,000 Americans, the decisions about how and where to get their food are rooted in something other than finding the best deal. They’re rooted in the consumer’s desire to develop a relationship with the provider of that food. It’s a completely different way of measuring worth.

In other words, the future of America’s small, sustainable farms is in the hands of their neighbors?

How is the next generation of small farmers going to buy farmland at $5,000 or even $10,000 an acre? The only prayer we have is if the people who live in communities where small farms are located decide that they’re going to be the ones to support the farmers.

That’s where relationships enter the equation. When people begin connecting personally to these farms, they begin to perceive the value of saving them. They may not even think about whether to call the act of saving them “philanthropy” or “investing.” You don’t calculate the value of going outside to play a game of catch with your son in dollars; you go outside and play with your son because it has an innate value to you personally. To our members, saving the family farm down the street is no different.

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image of Ted Genoways
Ted Genoways, OnEarth's editor-at-large, is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food (HarperCollins, online at www.tedgenoways.com), an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fellowship, Genoways has contributed to Bloomberg Businessweek, Harper's, Mother Jones, Outside, and his work has appeared in the Best American Travel Writing series. He edited the Virginia Quarterly Review from 2003 to 2012, during which time the magazine won six National Magazine Awards. MORE STORIES ➔