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Add Value To Your Foodshed

March 22, 2010

You can come away from the Family Farmed Expo thinking about a lot of things. Chickens. Shared kitchen regulations. Advantages of grass-fed. Marketing. Distribution.

Right now, I’m thinking about money.

It’s easy to think about small family farming in sort of a quaint way. I mean, look at the cute little stalls and displays at the farmer’s markets. For the consumer, the person trying hard to “know your farmer”, that is the face of the farm. Turns out being a successful farm is much more than that. It is a business, which almost takes away some of the charm, but sure enough, it’s a business. It needs to make money to succeed and stay viable. If we consumers want fresh, local foods, we need our small, local farms to succeed in business. Ron Cropper said it best:

“Farming without profit is called gardening.”

For years, when aspiring photography students have asked me for advice, I’ve said, “Take business courses. Take marketing courses.” I’ve learned the hard way that being a photographer is much more than shooting – I have to invoice, keep books, set prices, market myself, manage money, pay bills. Dry stuff, but all part of the job. I’ll say it:

“Taking pictures without profit is called Flickr.”

For an entire day at this year’s Expo, the topic was funding: Financing Farm To Fork. Venture capitalists talked about how they loan money and I think most of us were glazing over. Later there was more approachable talk about micro loans and all sorts of alternative funding. Most interesting was Woody Tasch speaking about “slow money”. Woody is a dynamic, animated speaker. He admits he has trouble himself formulating his idea about slow money, but listening to him, you understand that he has a vision of a society that chases a dream that is “slower” than rapid return on investment. I’ve just started his book and heard him speak twice now, so I have no business summarizing him yet, but I’m going to do it anyway. I believe he is after this: If you think large-scale farming has lost all perspective and is destroying the soil, than you might also buy into the parallel idea that investing has lost all perspective and is destroying its base. Money, investing, is not nurturing the “soil”. It pillages in the name of high return.

Woody would like to see us think differently about money. Keep it local. Invest in small, local businesses. Invest with a social conscience. And also, expect a different kind of return. Maybe instead of 20% return, you get 5% or 10%, but you also get social return. You know that your investment stayed in your community and that you benefited by that. If, for example, you invested in a few small businesses in your neighborhood and ten years later enjoyed a 10% cash return, don’t forget that you also enjoyed having those businesses in your neighborhood. Shouldn’t that be worth something to you? Isn’t that also part of your return?

If you want another way of looking at it, check out the 3/50 Project too. I guess it’s as simple as this: if you believe in buying locally, why not invest locally too?

Here are two quick examples:

The Drinks Over Dearborn Story – recently a small, local wine and spirits shop in River North faced a cash flow problem. They calculated they needed $50,000 to survive. They got the word out virally, hoping people would pre-shop. They solicited $100 per person. With 500 Benjamins they’d be ok. People rallied and they raised the funds. Each person buying in can stop by anytime now and spend their $100. It worked. Most people I talked to helped because they believed in the small, local business idea. I “bought” and I hadn’t even previously heard of the business. I just knew from friends that the owners were good guys with a strong local business ethic. That is worth supporting.

The Angelic Organics CSA story – Watch the film “The Real Dirt On Farmer John” sometime.  It tells the up and down story of John Peterson, the owner of the farm that eventually became Angelic Organics.  There was a point where he had outgrown his small plot of land.  He had loyal CSA members, but needed to scale up to stay a viable business.  Land next door was available, but he didn’t have the cash.  Guess who stepped up?  A large group of his CSA members pooled their money, bought the land, and they lease it back to him!  Did you get that?!  A bunch of regular people, CSA members, people already spending money to buy from Angelic Organics, banded together to help the farm grow!  That is the power of money, invested locally.  Invested slowly.

Of course, 2009 was a tough year.  I didn’t come out of it with money to invest, I can tell you that.  But I am investing my skills and sweat equity in a small, local business.  I’m helping Blue Marble Family Farm, a small artisan dairy in Wisconsin get back on their feet.  The dairy needs funding, it needs an employee or two, it needs help marketing and blogging.  Because I really like Nick Kirch, the owner, and because I feel like that dairy is a vital part of our local foodshed, I am pitching in.  I can help with marketing and I’ve worked to pull together a team of others willing to help also.  “Team Nick” is working tirelessly to help a small, local business.  It is our investment. My expected return?  I will be happy to see Blue Marble open again and smiling at the farmer’s market.  That’ll be my return on investment.

As you can imagine, most farmers don’t have MBAs; they don’t have economics backgrounds; they don’t know how to write a grant proposal. Yet their businesses are businesses and need these skills. If you have them, get to work!

This is the new volunteering/investing opportunity: use your MBA or marketing skills to help a farmer or farmer’s market; use your garage to host a CSA dropoff; and if you happen to have money, even a small amount, consider a micro-loan to the local food system somehow. And remember, the “return on investment” is not measured in percentage of revenue increase (ie: you make money) it is measured in terms of the improvement to the local food economy. You have the power, even in a small way, to improve the local food system. If farmers succeed through this restructuring period and prevail selling us local, healthful, organic meats and produce, we all win. Medical bills will decrease. Pharmaceutical use will decrease. We’ll reverse the obesity and diabetes epidemics. And your investment will be the reason!

If you don’t know how to get started, I’ll spell it out for you:

1 Immediately run through your contact list and think of everyone you know who has strong business skills and an interest in healthful, local food. Email them and point them to this blog post. Suggest they pitch in. Point them also to the Slow Money site and to the 3/50 Project to give them inspiration.

2 Reach out to a farmer or a farmer’s market and offer your services. How do you find a farmer? Get to know them at the farmer’s market. If you need help, email me. I can connect you.

3 Sign the slow money principles.

4 Adopt the 3/50 ideas.

Get started!  Spend some slow money!  Fix the local foodshed! You can do it!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2010 4:57 am

    Great post. But don’t forget to encourage people to donate money to non-profits, especially ones that are educating people on the benefits of eating locally and sustainably. These non-profits can help create demand for local food products by educating people on the benefits of them.

    • March 25, 2010 6:21 am

      Yikes! I totally agree, Melissa, and apologize for the oversight. Yes, people should also consider donating to the non-profits who advocate tirelessly to improve local food systems and child nutrition. Yes, yes, yes!

      In fact, the brilliant thing about giving to a non-profit like Purple Asparagus is that the effort is already underway and well-targeted by people who’ve been in the trenches advocating for foodshed change. So, dear reader, I give you an amendment to my list above:

      2b Donate money or your volunteer hours to a non-profit that advocates for change to our food and farm system. If you don’t know where to turn, reach out to me or Melissa!

      Thanks for keeping me sharp, Melissa!


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