Slow Money

Talking about getting people to use money differently is hard.” Yet that is exactly the task Woody Tasch has taken on. He is the chairman and president of Slow Money, and he was in Madison recently for the fifth in a series of Slow Money Institutes across the country attended by invited guests, farmers, producers, educators, community activists and others involved in building healthy, sustainable food systems.

Slow Money is a movement for lack of a better word (and there are probably better words), like its obvious inspiration Slow Food is a movement. It is an obvious next step in the growing interest in local food systems. And like Slow Food it is based on a set of principles, twelve in all, the first three of which set the stage.

First, we must bring money back down to earth. Second, we must bring our money home and put it back into local economies. And third, we must invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered.

Principle number three begins to crystallize Slow Money’s obvious relationship to Slow Food. Most that follow make the relationship even clearer. But it pretty much comes down to this: For the good of our food supply, our land and our environment, we need to get more people into farming. And because of the complexities of our modern system of agriculture, for those reasons and more—including the increasing awareness of the threats of chemically dependent agri-business and life-draining monocultures—sustainable agriculture needs a new economic paradigm. Throw in the devastating collapse of the country’s economic pillars and the emergence of what some are calling a restorative economy you can see the foundation for Slow Money.

As you might expect, the numbers are significant. While organics are growing at about twenty percent a year and now comprise at least three percent of U.S. food industry revenues, less than half of one percent of our farmland is organic and one tenth of one percent of foundation grants go to sustainable agriculture. And that’s Slow Money’s challenge, “re-integrating social and environmental concerns into the financing of food [that] mirrors similar processes underway in broader capital markets and philanthropic arenas.”

Here’s what it comes down to: Are we willing to accept a two- to three-percent return on our money if that money is used to support small food enterprises, more community supported agriculture initiatives (CSAs), and family and organic farms? Given thirty to forty percent reductions in net worth over the last year or so, that certainly doesn’t seem like any way to rebuild a portfolio. But if we were to begin to redefine “portfolio” to include the food we eat, the land it’s grown on, the resources it uses—or conserves—and the economic well-being of our neighbors and friends, would that investment become more appealing?

On a variety of levels Tasch, with a ten-year background in angel investing and social purpose funds, believes it’s possible. As of July the Slow Money Alliance had seventy-five members, each of whom had contributed a thousand dollars or more. The goal is five hundred members by the end of the year.

The marriage of slow money and slow food has tremendous appeal. In fact it may be a necessity. Socially responsible economics are at the root of the “fair” part of Slow Food’s mission of “good, clean and fair.” But it’s a significant challenge that will require some tough conversations about values like organic vs. local, local vs. regional, size and scope of operation, etc. And, of course, getting people to use money differently.

As the Slow Money movement grows there’ll be time to talk about the potential impact on the greater Madison region. There are many terrific examples of the kinds of agricultural businesses that would thrive with some investment support. To learn more visit slowmoneyalliance.org or pick up a copy of Tasch’s aptly named book, Inquires into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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