Building the Soil of a Restorative Economy
A conversation with Slow Money visionary Woody Tasch
By Bill Giebler | Photography by Kirsten Boyer
W oody Tasch has been working with food and finance for decades. As an economist in the late 1970s he worked on a project at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in El Batan, Mexico, home of the initiatives that increased global food production, somewhat inaptly referred to as the “Green Revolution.” He then spent the 1980s in the venture capital world in New York City. In the 1990s, Tasch was treasurer of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and in 1998 became chairman of Investors’ Circle, a nonprofit network of angel investors dedicated to sustainability. In 2007 he wrote Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, which early on was heralded as the beginning of a “movement” and a “revolution” by many observers.
The first Slow Money principle, “We must bring money down to earth,” hints at Tasch’s love of wordplay and his insistence on bringing poetry and humor into the conversation.
Half a decade in, Slow Money has sprouted 3,600 supporters, two dozen local networks and 10 investment clubs and has catalyzed the flow of over $38 million to 350 small food enterprises across the U.S., Canada and Europe. Four of its investment clubs are in Colorado, including the newest one, 2Forks Club, based in Aspen.
Edible Front Range’s Bill Giebler recently sat with Tasch in his home office in the hills above Boulder, Colorado.
Bill Giebler: Why food? Do the principles of Slow Money apply to other things?
Woody Tasch: The vision of Slow Money is fundamentally tied to food. I’d started talking about “patient capital” inside Investors’ Circle. In 2000 I was lucky enough to go to Italy and meet the Slow Food folks. I realized, “Oh my God, patient capital…it’s really Slow Money.”
BG: Let’s talk about fast money. The admonition of “bigger is better” is familiar at this point. How does speed play in?
WT: Slow, small and local are three nested concepts that all raise questions about fast, big and global. E. F. Schumacher, who wrote Small is Beautiful in 1973, famously said if everything were small he’d be arguing in favor of big. We need both. It’s a matter of balance. We’re in this very unbalanced mode with the idea that all solutions, all financial institutions and markets and corporations need to be big.
After what’s happened in the last five years in the financial markets, it’s obvious that financial institutions that are too big are a problem. They’re prone to collapse, they’re too difficult to regulate, there’s too much opportunity for greed.
BG: In Slow Money you write about nonviolence. How does this relate to the food system?
WT: There’s overt violence and then there’s implicit violence. A farmer pouring tons of chemicals into the soil does not think of it as violence. It’s a form of inadvertent violence. Ask any earthworm.
We’re depleting the Ogallala Aquifer. We’re pumping water out to support the irrigated monocultures in the Midwest at a much faster rate than it can replenish naturally. Sometime in the next 50 to 100 years there is going to be a major problem. Is that a form of violence?
Then there’s carbon in the atmosphere. Industrial agriculture contributes a significant amount of greenhouse gases in a bunch of different ways. Obviously, we need to work to reduce this harm.
BG: Does Slow Money essentially bring the concept of voting with our dollars from the consumer realm to the investor realm?
WT: Let’s talk about CSAs [community-supported agriculture subscription programs, where a customer pays the farmer up front for a weekly share of their farm products]. Is a CSA an investment or a purchase decision? It’s both. You’re giving the farmer money, it’s kind of a loan, but you’re not charging interest. You’re giving money in advance and you’re going to get your food back over time. And there’s risk, so it’s a form of investment.
I sometimes refer to Slow Money as the CSA of investing. It’s a very relationship-based form of investing that has a whole bunch of qualitative elements inextricably woven into it.
If we want farms to be in our communities, how do we think they’re going to be there? We need to use not only our consumer dollars, but our investment dollars.
BG: Do you think the public recognizes the value of small farms?
WT: I do. I was speaking at a wealth management conference to a group of high-net-worth families on the subject of impact investing. When it got to me I asked—trying to be as provocative as I could, since it did not seem to be a food or environment audience—“How many people think their health, the environment and the country as a whole would be better off if there were a million new small or midsize organic farms in the country?” Half the people in the room raised their hand. It really amazed me.
BG: Can you give me some examples of Slow Money at work around the country?
WT: Investments range from decent-size angel investments—a few in the millions—all the way to lots of very small low-interest loans, with a few individuals teaming up to lend a few thousand dollars to a farmer. A few examples: Maine Grains, an organic grain mill; Point Reyes Compost, attached to a family organic dairy in California; Greenling, a home delivery service in Austin. In North Carolina 16 people collaborated to refinance Chatham Market, a local food co-op, and a small loan helped Field Day Family Farm in Louisville, Kentucky, build two hoop houses. In Boulder, our investment club has made loans totaling $81,000 to a sauerkraut company, a goat dairy, a greenhouse operation, a gluten-free restaurant, a food distributor and a company that’s installing backyard vegetable gardens.
BG: Is it too early to talk about the next book?
WT: In the works. We’re publishing our first state of the sector report in a few months, so that will have useful information in it. And we’ve been publishing newsletters along the way, documenting our progress on the ground. My next book is going to deepen and expand the original vision, sharing what I’ve learned courtesy of the last five years of wonderful experiences with folks around the country.
Taking Local National
Based on the concepts that it starts with the soil, entrepreneurs are the seeds and investors are the water, Slow Money brings people together around a shared vision about what it means to be an investor in the 21st Century.
“Slow Money 2014: A Local and Global Gathering on Food, Investing and Culture” takes place at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in Louisville, Kentucky, November 10–12. Wendell Berry, Vandana Shiva, Joel Salatin, Richard McCarthy, Patrick Holden, Amy Domini, Congresswoman Chellie Pingree and many other renowned leaders in food and finance are featured speakers. Learn more and register at SlowMoney.org.
Invest in Omaha
Let’s Eat Investment Group, LLC, Omaha’s newly formed Slow Money chapter, is actively seeking 12 to 15 additional members. According to founding member Jack Round, the group intends to make low-interest loans of up to $10,000 each to local farmers, food producers and other sustainability-related businesses that may not have ready access to traditional forms of capital. The club currently has eight members and a ready-to-use investment pool of $40,000 based on the required per member $5,000 minimum up-front investment. Members actively participate in selecting the businesses that receive the loans and, in addition to earning a return on their investment, benefit by playing a role in our community’s ability to grow the local food system.
If you are interested in learning more, joining the club or applying for a loan, contact Jack Round via e-mail at Round@Cox.net.