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July 2013: Foodishiary Notes from Woody Tasch

Foodishiary. Wait, read that again, slowly: food ish iary.

It took a little nerve to introduce the term at our national gathering, but its reception was very heartening, indeed. There was a bit of laughter, a bit of applause and a lot of good will, as I rattled off the meanings of this companion to that tired old term, fiduciary.

We’ve been dealing with the consequences of fiduciary responsibility for a few hundred years now, in its modern incarnation. And if traditional fiduciary responsibility won’t allow us to steer money into small-food enterprises near where we live, well, then, we need a new definition of responsibility that will.

Taking my cue from Wendell Berry’s contrast of exploiter and nurturer[1], I contrasted fiduciary and foodishiary as follows:

A fiduciary focuses on growing portfolios; a foodishiary focuses on growing food. A fiduciary minimizes risk and maximizes return; a foodishiary minimizes chemical additives and maximizes taste. A fiduciary seeks the straightest, shortest line between buying low and selling high; a foodishiary thinks seasonally, generationally, and embraces the cycles of life. A fiduciary thinks in terms of millions and billions of dollars; a foodishiary thinks in terms of household income and keeping the farm. A fiduciary believes in hockey sticks (financial projections that zoom upward, with no end in sight); a foodishiary believes in pitchforks (triple-tined and poised to enter the earth). A fiduciary knows the direction of his stocks; a foodishiary knows the whereabouts of her flocks. A fiduciary is an expert who strives to increase wealth; a foodishiary is an amateur who strives to improve health. There’s nothing funny about a fiduciary; being a foodishiary may not be all that funny, either, but at least it offers the potential for a little mirth and a warm heart.

The day after the national gathering, the word “foodishiary” graced the pages of the New York Times.

So, let’s go with it. I’m a foodishiary, or, should I say, an aspiring foodishiary. And I’d say that all of us—more than 30,000 strong at this point—who signed the Slow Money Principles are aspiring foodishiaries. Prizing the diversity of approaches that underpin our abiding interest in the slow, the small and the local, we are not seeking a single investment technique or fund. Rather, we are setting off in pursuit of a shared economic, ecological and cultural vision, prizing diversity in all that we do.

First stop: healthy local food systems. Second stop: healthy local economies. And on, from there.

I’m very pleased to be able to report that under the banner of the dozens of Slow Money chapters and investment clubs across the country, as well as in France and Switzerland (with emergent activity in Australia), more than $30 million has flowed to 220 small-food enterprises since mid-2010. Small organic farms, creameries, grain mills, community markets, regional distribution companies, restaurants that source locally and organically, local slaughterhouses, urban farms, niche organic brands—these and other enterprises that are working to rebuild healthy local food systems and increase the availability of organic food have been recipients of funding in amounts ranging from a few thousand dollars to a few million dollars.

In the world of fiduciaries and institutional finance, these numbers are small and confusing. A single round of investment in a single deal by a single venture-capital fund could be larger than all Slow Money activity to date. On the foundation side, professionally managed private foundations have some $650 billion in assets and annually give away almost $50 billion. As it happens, small-food enterprises fall into a kind of fiduciary no man’s land: too “high risk, low return” for purely financial return driven investors, yet too “for-profit” for foundations, which pursue their missions primarily via grants, rather than via investments.

It is into this gap that we Slow Money foodishiaries have happily moved. This movement is significant and beautiful beyond its numbers because it is driven by just plain regular folks who want to know where our food comes from and where our money goes, recognizing that we live right here, in “fiduciary no man’s land,” aka real communities in real bioregions, where real farms preserve and restore fertility in real soil, producing real food for real people.

What, in this context, does real mean? Is a Twinkie real? Is polysorbate 80 real? To a pension fund beneficiary in Davenport, Iowa, are the industrial farming practices of Modern Dairy Holdings in Maanshan, China, real?[2] Is the Dow Jones industrial average real? What about the Invisible Hand of the marketplace?

Increasingly organized according to the dictates of global finance, through which our money is steered into increasingly abstract, distant, often incomprehensible investment vehicles, today’s fiduciarized[3] world is increasingly concentrated, monocultural and unreal.

Foodishiaries of the world, disperse!

 


[1] See Chapter 1 of “The Unsettling of America.”

[2] Leading private equity firm KKR & Co. has invested $150 million in Modern Dairy Holdings. Modern Dairy Holdings has 20 farms with approximately 10,000 cows each, and the company had $273 million in revenues and $65 million in earnings in 2012. Modern Dairy Holdings was named the fastest-growing enterprise in China in 2010 by China Entrepreneur magazine.

[3] The discerning reader will have noted that there is no such word as “fiduciarized.” At least, not according to Webster’s or my computer’s dictionary program. But if fabric can be sanforized, and nations, tribes, conflicts and zones can be militarized, then surely the financial fabric of today’s globalized, hypersecuritized economy must be describable as fiduciarized. 

 

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