Just as I was about to head from the kitchen to the office to write an article about Slow Money for this issue of the GreenMoney Journal, a story appeared on CNN about Whoa Nellie Farm in Acme, Pennsylvania. I had no choice but to start here.
When, due to Covid-19 supply chain disruptions, the farm’s Pittsburgh-based milk processor stopped purchasing their milk, they ramped up a 30-gallon-per-hour bottling and pasteurization operation on the farm and put out a call to their community. Before long, there was a line of cars down the street and they were expanding to 45 gallons per hour. “It has been wonderful to see the community coming together like this. Everyone is so happy to get their milk from a local dairy again, to know where their food comes from. No one wants to see us dumping milk…”
Whoa Nellie, indeed. Whoa, pandemic! Whoa, Wall Street! Whoa, Main Street! Whoa empty streets and empty skies! Whoa food grown for export! Whoa fast food and fast money and 30,000 Dow and runaway financialization and globalization! Have we lost our senses?? Will we rush back to business as usual when the pandemic is over? Or will this time be different?
The structural problems of the food system mirror structural problems in finance. Ultra-fast trading and ultra-pasteurization are twins. Over dependence on distant markets and complex intermediation make us insecure.
Thoreau wrote, “A man is wealthy to the extent he can afford to leave things alone.” Leaving aside the rich discussion we could have about that observation, let’s adapt the spirit of it thus: “A community is rich to the extent it can afford to feed itself.”
Whoa Nellie, indeed.
Since 2010, the Slow Money movement has been Whoa Nellie-ing its way towards a systemic response, encouraging groups of individual investors to come together to put money to work in support of small, diversified organic/regenerative farms. I use the backslash there because I am not particularly enamored of the recent rush to the term regenerative. That said, neither am I against it. It’s a perfectly good word. But I am concerned about the way we constantly feel the need to trade in common sense and direct action for new terminology and the latest distant shiny object, whether that object be a financial derivative or a new, fancy name for longstanding principles of sound cultivation and stewardship.
As just one case in point, check out the caption to the photo on the front page of the New York Times, April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day:
I hope formatting will allow you to make it out, but in that photo caption are the words “a call for the regeneration of a polluted environment.”
Folks are now talking about regenerative economics as well as regenerative agriculture. The conversations are elegant, systemic, nuanced. Some come with elaborate models. Some come with formal certification schemes. To which we might wonder, in the spirit of Whoa Nellie, whether we are going to chase the rabbit all the way down the hole until we arrive at Certified Local. Or Certified Common Sense. Or Certified Neighborly. Or Certified Community.
That is coming off a bit crankier than I intend. But I am very concerned about whether we have the wherewithal, here in the home of fast food, here in the home of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, to bend the arc of history, 50 years after the first Earth Day, to take back control of runaway economic forces, runaway forces of globalization and urbanization and industrialization and militarization and commodification and consolidation and intermediation.
Slow Money’s contribution to this cultural conversation is local and direct. Since 2010, more than $75 million has flowed, via volunteer-led slow money activities in dozens of communities, to over 750 local, organic farms and food enterprises, in amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to a few million. Most recently, we’ve seen the emergence of SOIL groups—SOIL as in Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally—that take in charitable donations and make 0% loans by majority vote of donor members.
Today, kicked in the gut by the pandemic, we all find ourselves wondering if this time will be different. Earth Day felt different to the 20 million Americans who marched in 1970 in thousands of places around the country. Think about that for a second. 20 million Americans in thousands of places. And it felt different when Greta Thunberg stood in front of the UN General Assembly last fall and admonished us to stop chasing “fairy tales of endless economic growth.” It really did feel different.
For regenerative agriculture to be an effective agent for making things different this time, it will need to be accompanied by a process of re-localizing portions of the food system. For regenerative economics to make things different this time, we are going to have to re-localize meaningful aspects of the economy. When we hear the word regeneration let us also think of the word re-localization. Not as an alternative, but as a complement, empowering acts of completion and rebalancing that have the potential to make things different this time.
As David Brooks observes: “We’ve tried liberalism and conservatism and now we’re trying populism. Maybe the next era of public life will be defined by a resurgence of localism.”
I think of local investing, in general, and slow money, in particular, as vital grounding, a “homecoming” (to borrow from Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson) for the process that began as socially responsible investing and then became double-bottom-line investing and then triple-bottom-line investing and then impact investing. We are marching towards the greatest AHA! moment of all time. An awakening, an inspiration strong enough to break us out of the shell of Making a Killing so that we can breathe the air of Making a Living, connecting us in new ways to one another, to the places where we live, to the land. . .all the way down to the life in the soil, teeming with life. Hence my forthcoming book…
AHA!: Fake Trillions, Real Billions, Beetcoin
and the Great American Do Over:
If the need to relocalize the food supply was not widely apparent prior to the pandemic, it is now, as supply chain disruptions result in millions of gallons of milk being dumped daily and traffic jams at food banks around the country. In response to these disruptions, we can double down on the speed, power and scale of factory food production. We can call in the national guard. We can import a little less apple juice from China. But going beyond such fixes, we also need to address the underlying vulnerabilities of a system that was designed not to feed the local populace, but to produce prodigious quantities of cheap agricultural commodities for export.
The next 50 years will be the epoch when diversity, decentralization, deceleration, and disintermediation come to the fore, not as replacements for the industrial-strength efficiencies of globalization, but as vital components of rebalancing, relocalization and resilience.
As we consider all of this, let’s use the current moment to realize that we were shutting down long before the Shut Down.
We were shutting down small towns. We were shutting down small farms. We were shutting down local newspapers. We were shutting down diversity in the name of efficiency. We were shutting down culture in the name of commerce. We were shutting down trust. We were shutting down home and hearth in favor of fast food. We were shutting down Here in favor of Everywhere and Nowhere. We were shutting down the real in favor of the fake.
Now may or may not be the moment to open up this part or that part of the economy. But it is definitely the moment to do what we can to begin making sure this time is different. Which means opening our hearts and minds to whole new ways of investing, in things that we understand, near where we live, starting with food.
Article by Woody Tasch, founder of Slow Money
Woody Tasch is the author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered (Chelsea Green) and SOIL: Notes Towards the Theory and Practice of Nurture Capital (Slow Money Institute). Tasch is former chairman of Investors’ Circle, a nonprofit angel network that has facilitated more than $200 million of investments in over 300 early-stage, sustainability-promoting companies. As treasurer of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation in the 1990s, he was a pioneer of mission-related investing. He was founding chairman of the Community Development Venture Capital Alliance. Utne Reader named him “One of 25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World.”
- Some 60% of apple juice consumed in the U.S. is imported from China. From 1970-2005, total U.S. imports of apple juice increased from 27 million gallons to 428 million gallons. From 1995-2005, U.S. imports of apple juice from China increased from 2 million gallons to 253 million gallons. (Fonsah and Muhammad, Journal of Food Distribution Research, March, 2008)