Life After Fast Money And Fast Food

The founder of the Slow Money movement makes the case for the kinds of return on investment you get when you put money into your local community.

Is there such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, investments that are too abstract and securities that are too complex? What comes after 1,000 point swings in the Dow and an economy hooked on CDOs and GMOs? Is there life after derivatives and Big Macs?

A few years ago, these questions might have seemed moronic. Today... well, today, they don't seem moronic, even though a simple answer to them is far from clear. What is clear is that doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different outcome is not a prescription for economic sanity.

So, a few thousand of us, under the banner of Slow Money, have started to move some of our investments in a new direction. No, not gold. What we are interested in is a different kind of value proposition, a different kind of hedge. What we are interested in is healthy food, sustainable farms, and soil fertility--and the many benefits these generate: less carbon in the atmosphere, fewer chemicals in the environment, more biodiversity in the soil and in our food supply, fewer pesticides and herbicides on our food, stable water supplies in our aquifers, less soil erosion, fewer food miles, healthier diets, maybe even healthier communities.

To those of us of the Slow Money persuasion, it seems that after a century of speeding up and scaling up and heating up, must come--according to Whatever-Comes-After-Moore’s-Law--the century of slowing down. Not slowing all the way down or slowing all things down. But recognizing that in certain matters, such as food, soil, and community, we need to rediscover a sense of balance. We need to move away from fast, faster, and fastest. We need to roll up our sleeves and collaborate with our friends and neighbors to begin fixing the economy from the ground up. We need to begin investing in small food enterprises near where we live.

There are a plethora of macro-economic, ecological, cultural, and, perhaps, even political reasons why this makes sense. Let’s imagine: What would our food system look like if a million of us invested 1% of our money in local food systems? What would our economy look like if we, as individual investors or fiduciaries, focused a bit less on distant, global markets and abstract asset allocation schemes and more on the places where we live? What would the world look like if we invested 50% of our money within 50 miles of where we live? What if there were 50% more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now? Big questions, leading to lots of small actions.

Slow Money is small, but sprouting. 15,000 people have signed the Slow Money Principles. 2,000 have joined the Slow Money Alliance, a national network and emerging group of 11 local chapters that are facilitating the flow of millions of dollars into scores of small food enterprises around the country. Six hundred people attended our second national gathering last year in Vermont and $4 million was invested in 12 of the small food enterprises that presented there. A local, organic food home delivery service. An organic creamery. An organic beverage start-up. An inner city farming project. And many more. This year's national gathering in San Francisco promises to be another step towards our ultimate destination: 1 million Americans investing 1% in local food systems, within a decade.

Now, before you jump to the conclusion that we are "speed luddites," please note that Mardi Mellon, head of the Food & Environment Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has stated, "We need slow money. Fast."

Fast Company, meet Slow Money. Below are examples of Slow Money investments that are occurring around the country.

Kelly Childs from St. Louis writes: At a Slow Money gathering in St. Louis, Missouri, YellowTree Farm presented plans to expand their urban farming operation onto more rural pastures. YellowTree Farm grows chemical free, pesticide free, non-GMO foods, forages for wild mushrooms and fruits, and raises antibiotic, hormone-free, pastured livestock. As an innovative farming enterprise, they have a reputation for cultivating uncommon varieties and continuously improving their growing techniques, which have made them a favorite source among many local chefs. After the Slow Money gathering, two individuals came together to make a $6,000, 2% interest loan to YellowTree Farm. This funding has enabled them to expand onto an additional two acres of land, start a CSA, increase their thriving restaurant business and rent a booth at a farmer’s market. Their CSA sold out in 24 hours and they are already signing up members for 2012.

From Portland, OR, Slow Money Founding Member Narendra Varma reports: What do you get when you combine several small organic farming businesses with excellent permaculture design and land stewardship tenets? What if you threw in a residential community and an education center as well? And what if the returns on investment were thriving small farm enterprises, soil health, and skills?

Community by Design, LLC is embarking on a unique experiment to create a small-farm incubator integrating all of the above with the expectation that a group of independently owned and inter-dependent businesses can realize significant efficiencies by sharing resources such as barns, equipment, greenhouses, commercial kitchen, sales and marketing, and more. An overarching permaculture design will aim for a tight integration of all systems and businesses on the site and ensure a healthy diversity of plant and animal communities. We are currently under contract to acquire 60 acres of land 15 miles from downtown Portland, Oregon, and hope to take possession of the site in fall, 2011.

Aaron Naparstek reports from New York: We have a great Slow Money success story developing in New York City. Fleisher's Grass-Fed Organic Meats, the renowned butcher shop in Kingston, New York run by Josh and Jessica Applestone, is going to be opening up a new shop in Park Slope, Brooklyn this fall. The new shop is a direct result of the Slow Money National Gathering at Shelburne Farms last year. Here's how the project came together.

As many of the New Yorkers naturally gravitated toward each other at last summer's 2nd Slow Money National Gathering, in Vermont, Jessica and I met. She was at the event because she had won a free pass, as winner of the Nominate Your Favorite Slow Money Business competition. After Shelburne, we stayed in touch and I began exploring project ideas with Jessica and Josh. They have long wanted to open up a shop in Brooklyn, where the original Fleisher's Meats was founded by Josh's grandfather, Wolf Fleisher. My wife and I were interested in making a Slow Money investment in Park Slope, our neighborhood. That's exactly where Josh and Jessica wanted to be.

The project required too much funding for my wife and I to handle on our own. So, to help out, I introduced Josh to a neighborhood friend of mine, a community-oriented, Wall Street guy who recently launched an 800-acre biodynamic farm in Madison County, New York. He is looking to be out of the fast-money Wall Street business and running his farm full-time in the next two years. The Fleisher's deal fit his business plan perfectly and he was excited to be involved. The three of us began fleshing out the deal and bringing aboard some other strategic local investors, including the founder of a local brewery and an owner of an outstanding locavore restaurant in Manhattan's East Village. Josh found a perfect storefront location at 192 Fifth Avenue, right in the middle of a burgeoning, pedestrian-friendly commercial strip (and, best of all, just around the corner from our house). Thanks to Slow Money, Brooklyn will have a new, locally sourced, grass-fed and organic butcher shop up and running by autumn.

[Images: Slow Money]

Woody Tasch is Founder of Slow Money and author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. Slow Money’s third national gathering takes place October 12-14 in San Francisco.

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3 Comments

  • Michael Bartner

    Slow Money's ational gatherings are supporting the on-going work of local chapters and an on-going series of local and regional events.  Once in awhile, there is great benefit in sharing deals and learning across regions.  Local food work has national implications and can be a very positive voice in a range of national conversations about the economy.

  • Jose Chavira

    Alan,
     I don't understand what you mean by your comment. It actually doesn't make sense in my opinion. In order to get people on board with a movement, you have to meet with them. Thus, a series of national gatherings"...Not to mention the article clearly states:

    "Now, before you jump to the conclusion that we are "speed luddites," please note that Mardi Mellon, head of the Food & Environment Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, has stated, "We need slow money. Fast.""

    This is where the world will need to go if we plan on surviving past the mid-century. So, it has to happen fast. In other words we need to go from fast to slow...very fast.

  • Alan Earnshaw

    A series of "national gatherings" seems to contradict everything this movement claims to stand for.