Why Slow Money?
Some Thoughts on Fiduciary Responsibility, Mutually Assured Destruction and Small, Diversified Organic Farms
(Above photo: 0% loan recipients Blain Snipstal and Samaria King of Juniper’s Gardens (Brandywine, MD)
Since the slow money movement’s first low interest loan to a local organic farm in 2010, more than $80 million has flowed to over 800 small farms and local food businesses, via volunteer-led groups in a few dozen communities. Events of the last few years have emphatically accentuated our shared concerns.
The pandemic heightened appreciation of community supported agriculture and local food systems. COP26, Greta Thunberg and wildfires highlighted the urgency of climate change. Another kind of wildfire—that of populism—erupted in ways that were surprising to those who assumed that neoliberal democracy was ascendant and secure. And, today, Mutually Assured Destruction, that Dr. Strangelove-esque doctrine of nuclear deterrence, is brought to our breakfast tables and into our hearts and minds by the war in Ukraine.
The connection of war to issues of food and farming goes far deeper, has far deeper historical and systemic roots, than the current disruption of Ukrainian wheat and sunflower exports. We are talking, here, of the 10,000-year agriculture-enabled process of urbanization that turned the Fertile Crescent into the Oil Patch, taking us from the nomadism of hunter-gathering to the nomadism of cyberspace.
Oxymoronically, agriculture, as it became subsumed by and central to industrialization and globalization, passed—as if Passing Go on a Monopoly board—the culture of Taking Care of The Places Where We Live and proceeded straight to Big Box Stores And The Realm of Cheap Shelf-Stable Calories.
The Green Revolution and industrial agricultural systems are dedicated to increasing production via large-scale agricultural operations and global supply chains, in order to feed the growing world population. Since the mid-20th century, they’ve been doing this to a T, powered by synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, GMOs and other food and farming technologies. As the threshold of the new millennium arrived, something called “the food movement” emerged. Consumers in developed countries woke up to what was being degraded, ecologically and culturally, by the advent of highly-processed food. Community supported agriculture and farmers’ markets expanded. In 1989, Carlo Petrini famously pronounced when McDonald’s opened in Rome, “We don’t want fast food. We want slow food.” Slow food became a movement, linking hundreds of thousands of consumers, producers, chefs and food activists in many scores of countries, in support of indigenous food culture and biodiversity. Then, slow money came on the scene to address the investing side of things.
If we want to preserve and restore small, diversified organic farms, we are going to fund them not only as consumers, but as investors. Which is going to require new ways—slow, small and local ways—for capital to flow across the boundaries of investing and philanthropy.
Over the past few years, some of us have begun accomplishing this via SOIL groups, with SOIL standing for Slow Opportunities for Investing Locally. We’re pooling local charitable donations and then making 0% loans to organic farms and food businesses, by majority vote of member donors—one person, one vote, no matter the size of the member’s donation. When loans get paid back, the money recirculates as future loans. Today there are five groups (four in Colorado and one in Virginia), with two in formation (one in Montana and one in Israel). They’ve loaned almost $2 million to more than 60 farms.
Recently, we’ve launched beetcoin.org as a platform for small donors across the land to participate in this process, too, building a grassroots source of capital for use as matching grants to SOIL groups. We are aiming for widespread replication of local 0% loan groups in the coming decade, fixing things from the ground up in ways that industrial food systems and industrial financial systems cannot.
Bombs come from above, as do edicts from the Great Fiduciary in the Sky.
The latter are not designed to kill, of course. Fiduciary processes are designed to increase efficient capital flows, in pursuit of higher living standards. However, there is such a thing as too much efficiency. At some point, the pursuit of efficiency comes at irredeemable costs to diversity. Biodiversity. Cultural diversity. Economic diversity. We begin to think that diversification, upon which investment strategies depend, is more important than diversity, upon which living systems depend.
Efficiency is not exactly at war with Diversity. Or is he? Efficiency does sometimes seem hell-bent, as if he were a kind of Greek god, to vanquish Diversity, who might become, were the Fates to smile, his better half. The whole world, the future of our species and so many others, depends on the outcome of their relationship.
Mutually Assured Destruction as a geopolitical doctrine is almost mythic in its cultural implications. Perhaps what is being destroyed is our very capacity for myth, for elevated storytelling, part of which, in the 21st century, must include a new economic narrative. Mutually Assured Destruction is not a terribly satisfying system for keeping the peace and it is an awfully sad expression of our increasingly desperate need, in these times of multiple crises, for greater mutuality.
Hence the need for those of us of a certain persuasion to get together directly, locally, personally, informally. Yes, we are funding small diversified local farms and local food systems. We can track the number of farms, the amount of food produced, nutrient density, price, the amount of carbon sequestered. We can develop new metrics. But at a level that is both deeper and simpler, we are finding new ways to reconnect to one another, to the places where we live and to the land. In the name of health and peace.
Article by Woody Tasch is founder of the Slow Money Institute and author of AHA!: Fake Trillions, Real Billions, Beetcoin and the Great American Do-Over (Slow Money Institute, 2021)