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The "Slow Money" Movement May Revolutionize the Way You Think About Food

In an economy structured around industrial agriculture, sustaining small farms can be a challenge. 'Slow money' economics could be the answer.

The slow food movement that started in Italy two decades ago has gained much attention and popularity, with a blossoming of community supported agriculture (CSA), local organic farms and general awareness of where our food comes from. But money doesn’t grow on trees, and in an economy structured around industrial-scale global agriculture, starting and sustaining small farms and local, sustainable food processing and delivery systems can be a challenge.

About five years ago, veteran financial manager Woody Tasch and his colleagues at the Investors' Circle began discussing how an intentional and organized influx of investment into localized sustainable food systems could be paired with a general increasing philosophical commitment to slow food principles.

The result is the Slow Money movement, shepherded by the Slow Money Alliance, of which Tasch is executive director. Now 750 members, including individual investors and sustainable farms and food-related businesses, are members of the alliance, and 450 people attended a Slow Money conference in Santa Fe in September.

The goals and structure of the alliance and the movement are fairly amorphous -- cynics might say squishy -- more on the philosophical than pragmatic level for the time being. Tasch’s recent book " Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered" (Chelsea Green) aims to spark and incubate investment at all levels in local or regional food systems. This means not only organic farms, dairies and ranches, but food processing facilities, food artisans (makers of jelly, cheese, etc.) and retail or distribution networks, restaurants and stores.

"It is two things: a new way of thinking about money at a macro level, in terms of philanthropy and social investing, and on the ground it is getting money into local food systems," said Tasch. "Our objective is a very robust network at regional and local levels across the U.S. -- many, many players who are all interested in the same goal: rebuilding local food systems."

Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont has been practicing slow food, and by extension slow money principles for 35 years. The family-run business makes organic yogurt, cream and other dairy products, with a small sideline in rolled oats and other grains. Jack and Anne Lazor started the farm as "back to the landers" with "one cow in the garage." They have stayed small and hands-on, with about 10 employees and 50 cows, and they have thrived economically, with products sold throughout Vermont and in Whole Foods stores down the east coast.

"We’re paying attention to things that modern industry has sort of forgotten," Jack Lazor said. "If we don’t take care of our soil and our earth, we’ll be pulling the foundation out from underneath us and we’ll topple. We’ve been channeling all our income and profits back into the earth we steward. Our farm has just become this verdant paradise of incredibly lush pastures, grasses high in minerals, and you can turn around and taste that in our products because our milk is naturally sweet. If you are generous to the earth, the earth is going to give back to you. It’s an investment of giving back more than you take. That’s certainly not the American zeitgeist, which is about greener pastures over the next hill."  

Other alliance members include Let’s Be Frank, a Berkeley-based hot dog company that relies on free-range, antibiotic-free livestock and fair labor standards; and Hawthorne Valley Farms, a 400-acre biodynamic, organic farm 100 miles north of Manhattan founded in 1972 that also has programs for city schoolchildren.

"An industrial structure for a living system is what we need to correct," said Martin Ping, executive director of the Hawthorne Valley Association. "We will correct it because we have to, there is no alternative. It’s obviously an uphill climb because it’s a fairly entrenched system. But the message is certainly resonating. People know things are out of balance."

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