The economic headlines are mind-numbing, announcing wild gyrations in the stock market, skyrocketing government debt, and unpredictable prices of gold and petroleum. Against this backdrop of financial turmoil, a quiet movement is taking place, led by a small but growing group of investors who have chosen to place their money where it benefits local food systems and in ways that promote stewardship of natural resources. This is the story of slow money.
The idea behind slow money is reassuringly fundamental: We need to take some of our money—a tiny fraction of it to begin with, of course—out of the accelerating, increasingly volatile, abstract, and complex global financial marketplace, where we can never fully know what it is doing or to whom it is doing it, and put it to work in things that we understand, closer to home, starting with small food enterprises.
Such notions are built on principles that are nothing new to the legion of folks who have recognized the value of organics for decades. But these fundamentals have rarely been applied to the field of finance. Are we in the early days of a new school of earthworm economics? We shall see.
Slow money is small, but sprouting. The Slow Money Alliance was founded in 2008 as a nonprofit organization that encourages and facilitates investment in community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms, organic food distributors, farm-to-table restaurants, and other food sources. A national network, the alliance has more than 2,000 members, 11 chapters where local investing is taking place, and dozens of emerging chapters that are facilitating the flow of millions of dollars into scores of businesses around the country. At the 2010 Slow Money National Gathering in Vermont, 12 food-related companies were selected to receive investments totaling $4 million. The recipients included an organic-food home-delivery service, an organic creamery, an inner-city farming project, and an organic beverage startup. The 2011 national gathering in San Francisco was another step toward the movement’s goal: 1 million Americans investing 1 percent of their assets in local food systems within a decade.
More than 20,000 people have gone online to register their support for the Slow Money Principles (slowmoney.org/principles) and their belief in locally grown food, community investment, and a new era of “nurture capital.” The word is spreading, buoyed by Slow Money Alliance success stories from around the country:
Funds provided by New York City investors allowed Fleisher’s Grass-Fed & Organic Meats to open a second retail location in a pedestrian-friendly commercial strip in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. Run by Josh and Jessica Applestone, the butcher shop offers antibiotic- and hormone-free meats from animals raised on a grass-based diet. The farms that supply Fleisher’s are all within 100 miles of the couple’s Kingston store in New York’s Hudson Valley. With the 2011 opening of the Brooklyn location, Fleisher’s has returned to its roots: Josh’s grandfather founded the business in Brooklyn in 1901.
Justin and Danielle Leszcz, owners of YellowTree Farm, were growing pesticide-free foods on a cramped 1⁄10 acre of land in suburban St. Louis. In early 2011, the couple presented their expansion plans to potential investors at a local Slow Money gathering. Two investors provided a loan of $6,000 at 2 percent interest—funds that have allowed YellowTree Farm to rent 11/2 acres of farmland, start a CSA program, increase their sales to local restaurants, and rent a booth at a farmers’ market. In the program’s first year, the CSA memberships sold out in 24 hours.
In a project led by Slow Money member Narendra Varma, Community by Design purchased 58 acres near Portland, Oregon, to be used as a small-farm incubator. Varma plans to bring several small organic farming businesses to the property, where they will share infrastructure and resources such as barns, equipment, a greenhouse, a commercial kitchen, and sales and marketing staff.
Each investment in a local food producer is a small step toward fixing our economy from the ground up—an incremental step in the rewarding and hopeful process of bringing money back down to earth. —Woody Tasch
Woody Tasch is the founder and chairman of Slow Money and author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered (Chelsea Green, 2010).
Illustration by Paul Blow
Photo by Jennifer Silverberg