Green Pastures for The Slow Movement: inspiration from Slow Money 2014 national gathering
By Brent W. Collins
Hey you – healthy person! Good news! Demand is through the roof for food that is healthy for you and good for the environment! Consider yourself part of the highly coveted “SLOH Food” segment – the Smart, Local, Organic and Healthy. The food industry is now salivating over you, but there’s one big problem: demand for local, organic, sustainably farmed food far exceeds supply. Today, only 4 percent of the US food industry and 1 percent of US farmland are organic. For super sized food, farm and agriculture businesses, this is as much a challenge as opportunity; but for small, local entrepreneurs and investors represented by an emerging “Slow” movement, it’s green pasture ahead.
Smart consumers seem more interested in understanding trends than just caving in to pithy tag-lines, so here is what you need know. In 2012, organic food sales in the United States generated over $31 billion and is predicted to generate around $42 billion in 2014. The U.S. organic food market is on a tear to grow 14% from 2013-18. You and your kind are spending more dollars in segments like Non-GMO Verified (16%), Fair for Life Certified (34%), B-Corp Certified (14%), Gluten Free (23.5%), Vegan (12%) and Raw (31%). Surprising is what is happening behind the numbers.
The Slow Money National Convention ended recently in Louisville, concluding three days of intense discussion about how entrepreneurs and investors can make local food systems healthier, as well as how communities can take more control for their own benefit. The concept holds real potential given economic, health and environmental concerns — and people are starting to listen up.Although the U.S. seems to be a paragon of efficient food production, behind the scene, more are concluding our food system is completely broken. Nutritional value of food has dropped, lack of crop diversity threatens food security, flavor has been sacrificed and consumer health (highest in spending, lowest in results) relating to diet is beyond frightening.
And the Good News, Please?
No Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas any more, but farmers and food producers like those in Kansas may hold the key! They also hold a few more “BeetCoins,” but more on that later. Local farmers defining a market niche with SLOH Food not only have a chance to fix the system, but to provide alternatives that can be achieved in small increments, one community at a time, focused on local issues, opportunities and priorities.
Given the “Goliath” size and power of companies like Monsanto, ConAgra, Tyson, Del Monte and others, it seems counter intuitive that “David” the local farmer is still in the game. But that is exactly what is now unfolding.
Thanks to groups like “Occupy Wall St.” “Transition US” and “Sustainable Cities Institute,” there’s no shortage of organizations concerned with our food system, our health, the environment and our economy. But there is a gap in connecting individuals with solutions at the local level. Slow Money is emerging as a critical match-maker to fill this gap, bringing together small farms, food producers, entrepreneurs, advocates, NGOs, non-profits and local investors who see the obvious logic in investing in their own communities.
Slowly Coming Together
The idea that communities shouldn’t waste time trying to change corporate agriculture but rather can, and should, achieve quick wins at the local level stems from the Slow Food movement started by Carlo Petrini in Italy. Slow Food’s trademark snail effectively conveys their mission as a grassroots organization linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to local communities and the environment.
In his book: Inquiries Into The Nature of Slow Money, Woody Tasch picked up on the Slow Food idea and infused it with a new paradigm of local, patient investing as an alternative to Wall St. fast-money. It gets at a critical underlying question: If Wall St. only invests in large-scale food business that are creating problems for our health and environment, how on earth will we fund demand for SLOH Food? Drum roll please… With Slow Money!
Slow Money’s approach is to support and grow local, healthy food and farming business with direct investment from their own communities. The model resonates with a growing population of those demanding greater health, sustainability and fairness for consumers and communities. The goal is no less than to “bring money back down to earth.” It provides an actionable model for those who care and can volunteer to work on solutions at the local level.
This comes at a time when consumers are using their heads more when considering what food to buy. According to the 2014 Cone Communications Food Issues Trend Tracker, Americans prioritize health & nutrition (93%) and sustainability (77%) as important when deciding what to buy. Almost nine-in-10 Americans (89%) consider where food comes from when purchasing, and two-thirds (66%) pay more for food produced close to home.
Too Big to Snail?
Increasing unmet demand for SLOH food is opening new opportunity for small farmers to achieve a living wage, maintain distinct local brands and align with local ecosystems. Why does this opportunity exist? Factory Farms and Corporate Ag by definition pursue huge volume at low, low costs to maximize profits. As expected, this comes at the expense of nutrition, taste, consumer health and environmental impact. Just like too-big-to-fail banks that receive irrationally large subsidies, the food system behemoths get big subsidies and a deep well of financial resources from Wall St. Small players are then left to sprout and grow with credit cards debt, loans from uncle Joe and atrociously high interest bank loans.
The fact is, monolithic food businesses are not as well positioned as small, local farmers to address growing demand for healthy organics. Investors concerned with the next recession and how it might impact their Wall St. portfolio are taking heed.
Farmers Getting Lucky in Kentucky
Slow Money, made up largely of volunteers, is organically organized into local networks that host monthly community gatherings across the U.S. (and now Europe). The National Convention, recently held in Louisville, KY, was an annual celebration of volunteer teams and results they achieved for their communities. Participants were addressed over three days by heroes of the local movement, like: Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Richard McCarthy, Woody Tasch and many more championing a movement thinking in terms of ‘many small units’ vs large economies of scale, and asking: How might this influence how we invest as a society?
These inspirational speakers and new-world innovators came together to tap the growing wave of interest around the idea that big and fast is not always better, but in fact has reached a point that it is quite destructive. Presenters explored untapped potential in “economies of communities,” and reasons why “small is beautiful” – ideas that have been around for a long time but have more meaning than ever.
Following keynote speakers, the entrepreneurs took the stage. Through Slow Money over $38 million of direct investment has gone into hundreds of community “agrepreneurs.” And more good news has arrived: an exciting new crowd-funding model – BeetCoin.org – was launched. To kick it off, $100,000 was raised to award entrepreneurs in the form of a 0%, 3-year loan. The idea allows anyone to contribute $25 or more to help food sector entrepreneurs that subscribe to Slow Money’s basic principals. When winners pay back loans, dollars are returned to the donation pool so the fund will grow and benefit recipients in perpetuity. This year’s BeetCoin winners were Bauman’s Cedar Valley Farms –from Kansas! — receiving $60k. Sustainable Iowa Land Trust and New Roots, Inc. tied for second place and received $20k each.
Going SLOW Where You Live
It’s easy to get involved. Slow Money is a network of local volunteer teams that hold gatherings intended to catalyze funding for local food and farm entrepreneurs. Networks educate about the importance of local, sustainable food systems, and act as a forum for connecting entrepreneurs, farmers, investors, philanthropists, and other stakeholders with each other.
Gatherings are for anyone concerned with problems caused by corporate agriculture and Wall Street. Monthly events provide an action based alternative focusing on solutions that make sense locally.
In Southern California, where I volunteer, we organize local gatherings across L.A., Orange, San Diego and Inland Empire Counties, supporting a population of 22 million and a diverse mosaic of communities.
These are social events designed to inspire, inform and connect participants. Each gathering is unique; bringing together an eclectic mix of curious investors, bright-eyed farmers, philosophical thought-leaders, inventive artisans, indulgent foodies – the tent continues to expand.
Evenings start with artisans sharing samples of their local foods while people network and local musicians often perform. Hosted in a variety of venues, attendees nosh on heirloom wheat breads, organic meats, mead, wine, chocolates, spices, spreads… the variety is constantly changing.
Presentations follow, and keynote speakers or panels cover a wide range of topics. Past events have included: “Addressing Water Supply Problems,” “Farm to Toast with Local Heirloom Wheat,” “The Farm Bill,” and “How to Create a Stronger Local Food System.” Attendees are guaranteed to learn something new, meet someone they didn’t know, and leave with a good taste of innovation happening in their own local food system.
Brent is a Slow Money SoCal co-founder and volunteer. He resides in Newport Beach CA and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.