In the days between the 2012 Republican and Democratic Conventions, a group of eighty farmers, ranchers, grocers, produce distributors and food activists met in Carbondale, Colorado. They hunkered down in a big tent on a farm nestled below the drought-stricken peaks of the Rocky Mountains as dry winds gusted around them. Like many who spoke at the conventions, their goal was to discuss how to create jobs and help rural economies ravaged by the economic downturn get some rebound.
But unlike the Democrats and Republicans who offered top-down plans for righting a capsized economy, these rural Westerners spoke of “collecting small donations from individuals, aggregating them, and then using them as catalytically as possible” to support food and farming microenterprises all across the country. Their approach is radically different than that which the federal government took over the last two years in dealing with so-called “food deserts,” providing Wal-Mart and other big box chains with a half billion dollars of incentives to open more of their food super-center in low income areas. So far, few poor people have had their hunger vanquished or their nutrition improved merely by access to supermarkets overloaded with cheap calories….
Those attending this “Slow Money” event included liberal venture capitalists, Tea Party farmers, back-to-the-land libertarians, college-age anarchists, and fiscally-conservative Republicans, but all seemed to be in agreement on one thing: they cannot wait for the government to fix either the food system or the economy; “we” must do it ourselves.
“If four million Americans contribute $35 per annum to the NRA,” asks the Slow Money website, “will one million Americans contribute $25 per annum to the Soil Trust to begin to fixing our economy from the ground-up?”
The Soil Trust, a crowdfunding strategy to be launched this October by Slow Money, is seeking slower, smaller and more local means of investing in strategies that will provide both rural and urban communities with greater food security. It will do so while creating jobs with live-able wages at the same time. Spearheaded by Slow Food founder Woody Tasch and Marco Vangelisti of the NorCal SOIL network, the Soil Trust is particularly interested in linking local food producers who build soil with micro-investors who build social capital.
If this seems to you to be some pipe dream, think again: Slow Money’s strategies have already led to eighty-six completely local investment deals during the last three years. Over the same time period, more than $19 million has been raised for one hundred and thirty nine food micro-enterprises. These initiatives have involved Slow Money-style investors from thirty-six states and nine countries.
Kerry Nelson of Ploughboy, Inc. in Salida, Colorado runs just the kind of independently-owned business that Slow Money’s Soil Trust is hoping to help. A hybrid of a grocery, community kitchen and local food distribution hub, Ploughboy features some two hundred and fifty food products from seventy-five producers, 80 percent of whom farm or ranch within one hundred miles of Salida.
But to get such a business launched in a small Western town was no small feat. Kerry reminded those in attendance at the Sustainable Settings farm in Carbondale that Salida is no Boulder or Aspen when it comes to mobilizing capital for green businesses. Salida sits in Chaffee County, Colorado, where per capita income for non-migrant residents has ranged between $19,430 and $24,032 over last 5 years. Even in the best of times, recent household incomes have averaged only $34,368, with multiple family members working out of the same house, garage or workshop. Kerry Nelson put it bluntly:
“The town I work in is drastically different than most other places. One thing that really surprised me was how different it is to start a business in a small place.”
But Ploughboy has not merely done well for itself; its community kitchen has begun to spawn other micro-enterprises, like an already successful artisanal bakery. The question that consumes Kerry Nelson is whether such efforts can gain momentum through Slow Money-style food financing strategies.
Earlier in the year, Woody Tasch keynoted a similar gathering in an unlikely spot–the Community Center of Elgin, Arizona–population 161–far from the Bostons, Santa Fes, Seattles, Durhams and Berkeleys where such “locavesting” discussions are all the rage. But within two hours of the meeting being launched, residents of three border counties spontaneously pledged $150,000 if they could be matched with farming, ranching and food processing innovators within the same region.
That’s good news for Santa Cruz County, where the official unemployment rate in its county seat of Nogales is twice the national average, and the unofficial rate (including undocumented residents born in Mexico) may be three times as high as that countrywide indicator. It’s not surprising that Nils Urman of the Nogales Community Economic Development Corporation took a keen interest in what four other southern Arizonans were proposing at the Community Center as projects that might create jobs and produce food in or near Nogales.
Urman and I recently facilitated the “Pitching to Peers” economic showcase featuring a half dozen farmers, food processors, nurserymen and ranchers at the first-ever Border Food Summit, September 16th to 18th on the outskirts of Nogales. Food producers, marketers and working lands restiorationists from the border counties of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico told their stories to some 250 attendees, hoping to attract marketing assistance, loans and equity to keep their dreams afloat. Their micro-enterprises varied in scale, structure and products–from Arevalos Family Farms, Borderland Restoration L3C, Double Check Ranch and Good Food Allies, to La Semilla Food Center, Rezonation Farm Institute for Natural Beekeeping and Sleeping Frog Farms. But all of these operations had one thing in common: they were intent on rediversifying food production through novel means of financing their work.
Although there is no way to predict the long-term benefits of the Border Food Summit, one thing is for sure: many in attendance are “hungry for change” in our food system, and in our economic system at large. With the food production of over 1500 rural counties damaged by this summer’s drought, something will need to change to keep food prices rising beyond the reach of America’s most food insecure families, the ones who often live in the very communities where our food is being grown.
Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book