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Slow Money and the State of Soil

“Beetniks Against Global Warming.”There’s a placard you never saw in Paris.

Because to a Beetnik—someone who has participated in a Slow Money Beetcoin campaign or anyone whose occasionally countercultural tendencies are tempered by an appreciation of local entrepreneurs and farmers— investing in a small food enterprise near where we live is as important as traveling thousands of miles to negotiate international targets on CO2 in the atmosphere.

Which is not to compare the two. But it is to say that even while faced with global social and environmental challenges of imponderable complexity, we can affirm the significance of the slow, the small, and the local.

This is what those of the Slow Money persuasion did, once again, in 2015. More than $6 million has gone this year into 83 small food enterprises, bringing the total since 2010 to more than $46 million into 450 deals. The 2Forks Club (Carbondale, CO) made its first loan this year—a $23,500 zero-percent loan to Zephyros Farm of Paonia—and the Knives and Forks Investment Co-op (Vancouver, BC) introduced a new model to our family of investment clubs. Our first regional online Beetcoin campaign exceeded its target, raising more than $56,000 for several Colorado food enterprises (more details here- https://slowmoney.org/beetcoin). Slow Money Minnesota launched. Slow Money North Carolina hosted its first regional gathering. Slow Money Northeast Kansas held its first entrepreneur showcase.

We are building a movement of individuals who—not content to delegate our fate to politicians, CEOs, technologists, economists, regulators, certifiers, fiduciaries, and pundits—are choosing a constructive, hopeful course of action. We are affirming our sense that in the world of faster and faster, bigger and bigger, more and more global, we need not only new technologies and new policies, but also new sensibilities and new behavior, without which the words sustainable and transparent and accountable and socially responsible and metrics and impact will mean little in the end.

We are modeling this new behavior, imperfectly, pragmatically, learning as we go. Our conversation about food, money, and the soil continues to deepen.

While heads of state work towards international climate solutions, the earthworms among us keep busy in the soil of a restorative economy.

We may lend an ear to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who said earlier this month as the Paris proceedings opened:

Justice demands that, with what little carbon we can still safely burn, developing countries are allowed to grow. The lifestyles of a few must not crowd out opportunities for the many still on the first steps of the development ladder.

Or we may heed the words of John Roulac, CEO of the organic food company Nutiva:

The elephant in the room in Paris—and it’s quite a big elephant—is that for some reason the world’s government leaders, and many climate groups, have omitted the planet’s two leading carbon sinks, soils and oceans, from the main climate agenda … In this age of fascination with high technology, we choose to ignore the earthworm (tiller of the soil) and ocean plankton (our indispensable oxygen generator) at our peril.

Or we may take to the streets, placard held high:

“Beetniks For Peaceable Finance”

When the protesting and diplomacy are done, we must get down to the business of investing. We cannot only vote with our consumer dollars or our political contributions or our charitable donations. We also have to vote with our investments. In so doing, it is entirely OK, no, essential, to admit that there is more that we don’t know than that we know. We are moving in a fundamentally new direction, doing what we can to nurture an ethos of humility and affection.

I have no idea how to make peace directly with the violence that is emanating from the Middle East and maybe this is the point. I wonder: Is it some kind of cosmic coincidence that the most virulent rejection of western civilization has emerged from the birthplace of agriculture?

Stumped by such imponderables, I can only reflect that we of the exceptionalism kind know how to wage war remotely, to target precision bombs from high altitude halfway around the world, but we don’t know how to make peace with the land.

Making peace with the land means making peace with local farmers. It means stepping away from the violence of today’s news and reconnecting with the places where we live and with the soil. It means choosing patterns of food production that do less harm, helping us move away from dangerous over-reliance on fossil fuels and other petrochemicals.

When we join a CSA, we are making this kind of peace. When we shop at the farmers’ market, we are making peace. When we take a little of our money out of Wall Street and put it into small, local, or organic food enterprises near where we live, we are producing small quotients of peace.

So now let’s take a few moments to put down the placards, put away the check books, invite our imaginations to the table and appreciate what we’ve all been up to, together, partners in the Earthworm School of Local Food and Peaceable Finance.

The State of Soil

“If we don’t get agriculture right, then we can’t get industrialization and consumerism and globalization and urbanization right.”

The State of the Soil is weak.

We are strong in terms of tillage, but weak in terms of fertility. We are strong measured in chemical and mechanical power—millions and millions of tons of NPK, petrochemicals, herbicides and pesticides and the sophisticated technologies to apply them—but we are weak in terms of soil erosion, weak in terms of our connection to the land, weak in terms of sense of place. Our industrial systems are taking carbon from the soil instead of building carbon in the soil. We have less and less organic matter, and fewer and fewer people who know what it feels, smells or tastes like.

This is a crisis in its own right, but it is also a spoke in the wheel of a larger crisis. Some might opine that food and agriculture are not merely a spoke, but are actually the hub, because if we don’t get agriculture right, then we can’t get industrialization and consumerism and globalization and urbanization right, and so, we can’t ever really get at the great systemic crisis of climate change and the increasing dysfunction of our institutions.

This is what New York Times writer Mark Bittman was getting at in 2015 when he wrote: “The world of food and agriculture symbolizes most of what’s gone wrong in the United States.” He went on to pose the following question:

Is contemporary American agriculture a system for nourishing people and providing a livelihood for farmers? Or is it one for denuding the nation’s topsoil while poisoning land, water, workers and consumers and enriching corporations? Our collective actions would indicate that our principles favor the latter; that has to change.

Surely, things in the food system have to change. But what also has to change is the way we frame things in overly simplistic, either/or terms. Nourishers vs. denuders. Disempowered consumers vs. greedy corporations. We must resist these labels and the overly simplistic world of us vs. them. If we do not resist, then our conversations will be little more than tribal squabbling. Or worse. They will lead to full-blown righteous struggles between good and evil.

I am not a nourisher and you are not a denuder. I am not a disempowered consumer and you are not a greedy corporation. We are all investors, that is, we are all directly or indirectly invested in the systems we hope to change, and our position vis-à-vis these systems and one another is way more nuanced than us vs. them labels. Our intentions and beliefs and hopes and imagination are way more nuanced, way more beautifully ambiguous and full of meaning than that. Our interdependence is way more nuanced and beautiful than that.

For instance, it is a certainty that some in this room have investments in Monsanto or Exxon or McDonald’s, whether you know it or not, through one of your index funds or mutual funds or retirement accounts. That doesn’t make you greedy or evil. It doesn’t make you a denuder. But it does raise the stakes in terms of the need to avoid the blame game.

Us vs. them is to imagination what Roundup is to weeds. And Twinkies are to nutrition.

Happily, later in that same New York Times piece, Bittman wrote: Let’s try to make sense of where the world is now instead of relying on outdated doctrines like ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ created by people who had no idea what the 21st century would look like.

I couldn’t agree more. This is our urgent task: to get beyond the false political and economic choices of bygone eras. We can’t find our way through the problems of the 21st century if we are wearing 19th and 20th-century goggles.

Here’s how E.F. Schumacher put it:

We have become confused as to what our convictions are. The great ideas of the nineteenth century may fill our minds in one way or another, but our hearts do not believe in them all the same. Mind and heart are at war with one another, not, as is commonly asserted, reason and faith. Our reason has become beclouded by an extraordinary, blind and unreasonable faith in a set of fantastic and life-destroying ideas inherited from the nineteenth century. It is the foremost task of our reason to recover a truer faith than that.

Now, you may not have thought you were signing up for an exploration into the relationship between reason and faith, or into what comes after capitalism and socialism, when you put on your scarf this morning. But that’s precisely what is needed if we are going to preserve and restore the soil, and it is precisely what we are doing every time we make an investment in a small, local or organic food enterprise.

The word “small” is key here, because we are not undertaking some great project of system redesign at the level of macro-economic theory or ideology or national policy. We are undertaking it directly and with the utmost pragmatism, one small food enterprise at a time, one CSA at a time, one seed company at a time, one rooftop urban farm at a time, one less-eutrophied aquifer at a time, one fewer Big Mac at a time, one soil-building investment at a time.

In Closing

if you spend more of your household budget on food, and you get food of higher quality, food that is fresher, more biodiverse, more local, less tainted with chemicals, and the provision of which has done less damage to soil, water and air, is your standard of living higher or lower? Italians spend on average 14.8 percent of their household budget on food, compared with an average of 6.6 percent in the U.S. Most economists would interpret this in only one way: Italy’s standard of living is lower than that in the U.S., because after buying food Italians have less money to spend on other consumer goods. A meta-economic earthworm would interpret this in an entirely different way: Italians recognize the centrality of food to culture and so have not rushed to trade in culture for commodities.

This is some of what E.F. Schumacher was after in Small Is Beautiful. And unless you believe that increased consumption is synonymous with improved well being, that there is no such thing as too much consumption, or mindless consumption, or destructive consumption, then you will find Schumacher’s work thought-provoking, maybe even inspiring. So, if you haven’t read Small Is Beautiful, do it. Some of the particulars are dated, but the underlying thinking is timeless.

To find out more on The State of Soil and get the latest news from Slow Money go to- www.slowmoney.org

Article by Woody Tasch, the Founder and Chairman of the Slow Money Institute and author of “Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered” (Chelsea Green). Since 2010, dozens of local Slow Money networks and investment clubs have catalyzed the flow of $46 million into 450 local and/or organic food enterprises in the U.S., Canada and France.

Woody is widely renowned as a thought leader in patient capital, mission-related investing and community development venture capital. He is former Chairman and CEO of Investor’s Circle (IC), one of the oldest angel networks in the country and the only one dedicated to sustainability; since 1992, IC members have invested more than $200 million in early stage ventures. Woody was founding chairman of the Community Development Venture Capital Alliance and Treasurer of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation during the 1990s, where he spearheaded the integration of asset management and grant making, including a substantial investment in Stonyfield Farm, now the world’s largest organic yogurt producer.

Woody has worked as an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, board member and consultant with many companies and non-profits. Early in his career, he developed management case studies at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Mexico), birthplace of the Green Revolution.

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