I often refer to slow money as “the CSA of investing.” As with community supported agriculture, our efforts revolve around informal, direct relationships and shared risk. Slow Money funding is flowing in a variety of ways in dozens of communities across the United States (and a few in Canada and France) — peer-to-peer lending, investment clubs, angel networks and pitch fests at public events large and small.
This year, we’re launching Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally — SOIL, a nonprofit investment club, in the Boulder area. This isn’t investing in the traditional sense. We’re using charitable donations and 0% loans to fund the next generation of diversified, organic farms and the small food enterprises that bring their produce to the local market. We’re building a permanent, member-controlled funding resource. This is investing that leaves the returns in, for the benefit of future generations.
There are many social and environmental reasons why we are doing this. Climate Change. Nutrition. Community. There are also financial reasons. If we are going to do what needs to be done in the soil, then we are going to need to put money to work in new ways along the boundaries of investing and philanthropy.
This is what has been driving Slow Money activities around the country. Since 2010, more than $57 million has flowed through our networks to 632 small food enterprises: Cheese makers, artisan bakers, heirloom seed companies, compost purveyors, small diversified organic farms (F.A.R.M.s, too), grass-fed-beef producers, goat dairies, yogurt companies, farm-to-table restaurants, probiotic pickleteers, community kitchens, regional grain mills, local distributors, inner city cooperatives and more.
Here in Colorado, hundreds of individuals have attended regional events or committed capital to Slow Money projects, including four investment clubs, resulting in the flow of $3.3 million to 36 local food deals. In 2015, we started our first nonprofit investment club, 2Forks Club in Carbondale, Colorado, and based on its success, we are now starting SOIL on Colorado’s Front Range.
Here’s how it works.
You become a member of SOIL with a tax-deductible donation of $100 or more. Then, members make 0% loans to local farmers and food entrepreneurs, by majority vote — one member, one vote, no matter what the size of your donation. When loans are repaid, funds are recycled into new loans.
We’ve been utilizing this model for the past two years in the Roaring Fork Valley in the western part of Colorado, where 33 individuals have contributed a total of $206,000, in amounts ranging from $100 to $80,000, to the 2Forks Club (named for the Roaring Fork River and the north fork of the Gunnison River). Seven loans have been made to date, with more in the pipeline.
“I’ve been farming for 20 years,” says 2Forks member Brook Le Van, “And I’ve never seen anything this heartening in the way it connects people and supports the local food system. Especially in the current climate, with so much divisiveness and uncertainty, this is just what we all need.”
Here in In Boulder, SOIL is starting off with $75,000 from a dozen founding members. I am joined on our launch committee by Brian Coppom (Executive Director, Boulder County Farmers’ Market) and Amy Divine (Member, Women Donors Network). Helping us is a “kitchen cabinet” that includes a healthy handful of local folks with experience in food and finance. We’d like to think that given population and geographical factors on the Front Range, we’ll be able to achieve more scale than our sister group in the mountains, and that, over time, if enough of us keep at it, we can grow SOIL into a significant, community resource for funding local food systems, in Boulder and beyond.
The spirit behind SOIL is reflected in the Slow Money Principles, which start with “We must bring our money back down to earth” and end with this reference:
Paul Newman said, “In life, we need to be more like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out.” Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us ask:
What would the world be like if we invested 50% of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?
What if there were a new generation of companies that gave away 50% of their profits?
What if there were 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?
Such questions point in a fundamentally new direction, although the actions we are taking — making small loans to farmers — are in many ways quite simple. This balance between big questions and small actions is central to the change we are seeking and the community we are building.
Here’s another question, along with the partial answer that arises from slow money conversations:
- We’re giving our money to people we don’t know very well, to invest in things they don’t understand very well, halfway around the world in places that most of us will never visit: Does this sound like the recipe for a healthy future?
- Put our money to work in things that we understand, near where we live, starting with food.
It just may be that, led by farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture and crowd funding and a few pioneering funds around the country, small food enterprises and local investing will mature over time as an asset class that produces predictable, risk-adjusted financial returns.
Or, it just may be that if we really want to nurture the slow, the small and the local, we’ll just have to find the gumption to go slow, small and local with our money — using not only our consumer dollars, but our investment and philanthropy dollars, as well. We may just need to splice into our 20th century investment notions the principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place, soil fertility, diversity and nonviolence.
Or . . . if that all sounds a bit much . . . we can just roll our sleeves up, do what we can locally, enjoy getting together once in awhile, celebrate a little conviviality with our neighbors, break bread and make 0% loans to local farmers and food entrepreneurs, for the good of all.
In this time of fake news and fake food, it’s nice to have something real to do with our money.
 F.A.R.M., in Boone, NC, is a café that allows customers to pay whatever they can afford: Food for All Regardless of Means. There is a network of such “one world cafes” around the country, some 70 or so strong. Denver’s SAME Café (So All May Eat) is one. We haven’t yet funded one of these cafés, but I hope we will soon.
Slow Money Institute’s mission is to catalyze the flow of capital to local food systems, connecting investors to the places where they live and promoting new principles of fiduciary responsibility that “bring money back down to earth.”
Woody Tasch is the Founder and Chairman of the Slow Money Institute. Woody is widely renowned as a thought leader in patient capital, mission-related investing and community development venture capital. He is former Chairman and CEO of Investor’s Circle (IC); was the founding chairman of the Community Development Venture Capital Alliance; and served as Treasurer of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation.