National Gathering Review
Shelburne Farms, Vermont -- Big Ideas Under the Big Top
By Mark Cherrington, photos by Sarah Peck
I saw a t-shirt the other day that struck me as clever. It was illustrated with a line of cows, and the text above it said, “What happens in Vermont stays in Vermont . . . but nothing ever happens.” That may be the perception, but if the Slow Money Gathering on June 9, 10, and 11 was any indication, there is indeed some thing going on in Vermont: a full-blown insurrection, and the perpetrators have no intention of letting it stay there.
Speaker after speaker spoke either agricultural or financial heresy, in the most unequivocal and passionate terms, in some cases gleefully shoving a sharp stick into the eye of convention. At times the tent under which the gathering was held seemed more like a revival meeting than a nonprofit strategizing session.
It would be hard to imagine a more ideal place to hold a Slow Money Gathering than at Shelburne Farms. The farm, originally built as a showcase for agricultural innovation, is now a nonprofit organization dedicated to environmental education. The spectacular architecture and sweeping vistas only added to the effect. But most striking of all was that tent, which meant a floor of grass and everyone fully in touch with the earth at all times—something that seemed to be appreciated by the 600 attendees.
It would also be hard to imagine a more impressive or inspirational roster of speakers. The event began with Bill McKibben, the author of The End of Nature and the founder of 350.org, an organization that aims to lower carbon in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million—the point at which life as we know it is still possible. “As bad as that slick in the Gulf is,” he said, “if that oil made it ashore and was burned in your car, it would do just as much damage up in the atmosphere. So far, human beings have raised the temperature of the planet one degree, which has been enough to cause the Arctic to melt; it’s enough to make the atmosphere about 5 percent moister than it was 40 years ago—a change that means, among other things, that somewhere around the planet every day they’re setting a new record for the amount of rainfall. Those 1,000-year storms are coming every four or five years. The chemistry of seawater is shifting profoundly as it absorbs all that carbon from the atmosphere. The ocean is already about 30 percent more acidic, which makes it difficult for small marine organisms to do their thing. NASA just said that we’ve just come through the 12 warmest months on record. Last week in Pakistan they set the all-time record for Asia of 129 degrees. That’s the most profound limit we face and the most profound damage that the fast money economy is causing.”
McKibben also had some hopeful statistics to share, including one from the USDA, which found in its most recent five-year survey of agriculture that the number of farms is growing for the first time in 150 years. “And all of that growth is coming at the bottom end,” he said. “It’s small farms growing food people want to eat. Not food to be thrown into the industrial commodity food stream, but food for people.” McKibben also talked about the growth of farmer’s markets—the fastest-growing segment of agriculture—and how that model needs to be applied to climate change. “What we need,” he said, “is a farmer’s market in electrons, what engineers are calling ‘distributed generation.’ I have solar panels up on my roof in Vermont, and on sunny days they hum right along. When they do, I’m a little utility, firing electrons down the grid. My neighbors are cooling their beer before the Red Sox game with the sunlight that falls on my shingles.” This sort of approach has a number of benefits, he said, including one that might not be immediately obvious: “Theoretically a terrorist could take an interest in my solar panels and climb up on the roof and go after them with a hammer. But if he did, it wouldn’t ramify down the grid. It would be a problem for me, but not a disaster. And one of the things we’re going to need to do in the world we’re now entering is to keep problems problems, and keep them from becoming disasters. That’s why this localized, decentralized future is so important.”
McKibben was followed by Robert Zevin, the man credited with inventing socially responsible investing. Zevin laid out both the history of social investing and the underlying mechanics of the current fast money system. “The average investor,” he said, “doesn’t hold stock for more than a year, and social investors do this as much as any.” (Here’s something that occurred to me as I listened to Zevin: we refer to “social investors,” but what is the term for everyone else? Should it be “antisocial investors”?) He said that most of this frantic turnover is driven by traders who want to see strong quarterly statements every quarter. But undoing that pattern will be difficult, he said, something that holds true even on the individual level, where the current system offers few ways for small investors to put their money into local food initiatives. “The whole system is rigged to make slow money difficult,” he said.
That turned out to be the perfect segue to Joel Salatin, an agricultural anarchist who delights in throwing intellectual Molotov cocktails at the hidebound system. His Polyface Farm in Virginia has become famous for its ecologically based approach to agriculture, in which each element—crops, free-range chickens, and livestock—is managed in a way that supports the others. “We plant no seeds and have no silo,” he said. “We call them ‘mortgage tombs.’” His approach produces a farm that is remarkably efficient and profitable, with far higher revenue per acre than conventional farms. But financial success is a byproduct of sustainable farming, not the motive behind it. “Polyface Farm will never have a sales target,” he said. “Can you imagine going to a banker and asking for a loan and having the banker lean back and say, ‘What a great proposal, but what will this do to earthworms, what will this do for your family?’ Can you imagine? And yet aren’t these the more important values? We say our food is the cheapest on the planet because we don’t internalize our costs.”
One of Salatin’s foundational principles is that none of the farm’s food is ever shipped more than four hours away. But, he said, the national food system is set up to make local food production impractical. He offered the example of a restaurant in upstate New York that raises hogs 20 feet from the kitchen door. In order to serve the pork from those hogs in the restaurant, the animals have to be trucked 200 miles away to be butchered at a sanctioned slaughterhouse, and then trucked back 200 miles to the restaurant. Because the existing legislative requirements are expensive to meet, they favor large commercial slaughterhouses that can spread the cost over many animals. For a small operator like Salatin, those costs become prohibitive. Not that that stops him. He said Polyface just bought a small abattoir, and it costs them $400 to butcher one cow, where it might cost Cargill $50. But he said that doing things locally is more important than making a bigger profit, and if he acts as the sharp edge of a wedge, the system may change. “Every single kitchen needs enough chickens to eat all the scraps,” he said. “If we did that, there would be no commercial egg industry.”
With an approach like that, it’s not surprising that Salatin felt at home at the Slow Money event. “The sheer creative and passionate energy amassed in one place at one time testifies to the breadth and depth of this movement,” he said afterward. “Tired of cute, fluffy, green-around-the-edges, nickel-and-dime activities, Slow Money takes modern and unnatural Wall Streetification by the throat, questioning and giving alternatives to the very essence of hubris economics.”
The afternoon also featured Gary Hirshberg, the CEO of Stonyfield Farm, whose success is like a roadmap for what’s possible, and whose experience spans most of the major changes in agriculture. He cited the recent report on cancer by a presidential panel that reported that 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, and that further concluded that environmental toxins, specifically including agricultural chemicals, are a significant contributing factor. In fact, chemical exposure was the panel’s primary issue of concern. “We’ve built a lot of our model not just on faulty information,” Hirshberg said, “but on outright myth.” Stonyfield Farm offers a strikingly viable alternative. The company supports 1,750 family farms and 180,000 acres of land, all farmed organically. “The greatest success that we’ve put forward is to prove the economic model,” he said. “Even though I’m paying farmers the wage they need to make it, our profit margin is better than conventional competitors because we don’t have to advertise.” But, typically, Hirshberg is not resting on his laurels, and he’s not satisfied with the progress that organic local food is making. “Success will be when you eat the yogurt and then eat the cup,” he said.
The final group of speakers on the first day were all local Vermont farmers who had done groundbreaking work, including Will Rapp of Gardener’s Supply, who restored land in nearby Burlington that had been abandoned and abused.
If Thursday was a day for inspiration, Friday was a day for perspiration, putting theory into practice. It began with a whirlwind showcase of 26 small food enterprises from around the country looking for investment. Some of them were fairly large and had very polished presentations, as expected at investment showcases like this. But many of them were farmers: self-confessed dairy nerds and beef braggarts, feed fanatics and orchard owners, looking not to take over the world or promise lucrative exit strategies, but only to preserve the land and spread the message. One trend was seen in several businesses that aim to bring organic food production to the food deserts of cities. City Fresh Foods, for example, is a Boston-based company that works with underserved communities, bringing organic food to schools, elder facilities, and daycare centers in inner-city neighborhoods like Roxbury. Even more inspiring, they are buying up inner-city vacant land (there are some 600 acres of it in Boston), bringing in topsoil, and turning it into farmland. Perhaps most notable was Lhasa Beer, which is imported from Tibet, and which supports Tibetan farmers, women’s education, Buddhist nuns, and earthquake survivors. CEO James Casilio was so moved as he described the people being helped by the company that he choked up, broke into tears, and had trouble finishing. It says something about Slow Money members that his emotional turmoil was greeted by cheers and applause.
Jerry Cunningham, a farmer from Austin, Texas, was typical of many presenters in being an atypical entrepreneur. “I’m a farmer growing pasture-raised chicken eggs and grassfed beef,” he says, “and my passion is healthy soil.” He started his business when the CEO of Whole Foods—a personal friend—asked him to produce pastured organic eggs for the stores. “So I started making my plans,” he said, “and I saw that I was going to have to get my feed from Pennsylvania or Virginia or someplace like that, and I decided to make a little feed mill to feed my own chickens. I didn’t have any employees; I just ran it by myself. It’s like the Field of Dreams: build it and they will come. People started to ask me to grind feed for them, and then more and more and more. We’ve grown exponentially over the past few years. It’s just beautiful: people come and say, ‘Thank you for being here.’”
Cunningham says that he had investment offers from four very large investors, “but the one that was most eye opening for me was this one middle-aged woman from Vermont who was obviously a farmer and didn’t have a lot of money of her own. She said, ‘What’s your minimum investment? I’d just like to invest something in your feed mills.’ That’s the kind of people who were there: unselfish, caring people who want to change the way we feed America. It was the event of a lifetime! Amazing energy. I am still buzzing from it.”
The afternoon on Friday was given over to a variety of breakout sessions, including one that was, if not unique, certainly unusual for any nonprofit gathering. It was a nuts-and-bolts session for Slow Money members to decide what the structure of the organization should be and how it should grow—literally building the organization on the spot. There were so many people participating in this breakout session that they had to be further broken into smaller working groups. The session was led by Ari Derfel, Slow Money’s new executive director, whose tenure at that point was measured in hours, but whose passion could not be measured at all. And he rose to the occasion, leading a large and strong-willed group through some challenging territory. The main point being discussed in all the working groups was the relationship between local chapters of Slow Money and the national organization. The almost strident independence of some representatives was both striking and healthy, especially given the emphasis of Slow Money on local economies. There was also discussion of branding and other business-related matters, but most of the attention was on local operations.
The upshot of the discussions was that the national organization should provide inspiration, branding, and publicity, but that regional chapters should be largely independent. If anyone doubted the ability of local groups to manage their affairs, those doubts were relieved when half a dozen local chapters gave reports on what they had been doing in their towns to grow the organization. The western Massachusetts group, for example, had set up a program that is a blend of venture capital and foundations and already has $1 million assembled. The Austin group held an event at City Hall and sold it out, while the North Carolina chapter is already loaning money to farmers and CSAs.
One of the most impressive aspects of the gathering was the extraordinary range of people who attended, from extremely wealthy investors to farmers to students and every imaginable social stop in between. Barry Hollister, a lifestyle entrepreneur from Pittsfield, Massachusetts, said, “There was a brilliance to it, a brilliance of connectivity and collaboration and shared commitment to this powerful economic and cultural vision.”
Brian Byrnes, president of the Santa Fe Community Foundation, expressed the same idea: “There was a moment when I looked around the tent to see the wonderful old codgers who have been farming in Vermont for generations, sitting with young environmentalists and food entrepreneurs and New York investment types, all nodding in agreement with Bill McKibben, who said, ‘The only way to heal our increasingly broken world and communities is to come back together, to play together, think together, plan and act together.’ Wow. Talk about being the change we seek. It was a profoundly hopeful moment.”
Attendees also included experienced venture capitalists and investment advisors. Scott Collier, a venture capitalist from Austin, Texas observed: “This is a new way to start thinking about risk, return, and social impact. It is motivating people in powerful ways. A bunch of us are meeting every Friday to explore ways to do slow money investing in our region. Slow Money has already proven catalytic here and we are only at the beginning.”
Mary Carol Rose, an independent professional training and coaching expert from Maryland, said that she first heard about Slow Money when she heard Woody Tasch talking it about it on NPR. “I listen to National Public Radio all the time,” she says, “and there are lots of things that catch my attention, but he caught my attention so much that I pulled over to listen. So I got his book and I read it, and went to the site and called them up and asked if there was anything I could do to raise money and help them do what they’re doing. I just missed the gathering last year, so this year I went.”
Rose says that she started as an investment broker, and first became aware of socially responsible investing when her clients asked her to look into it for them. “The more things progressed,” she says, “the more I progressed, my business developed into something entirely different, where I talk to people about how they’re using money for exchange. The dialogue has an entirely different flavor. It brings people to a consciousness that makes them look at things differently, and I found without exception that people immediately start to pay more attention to the environment and how they spend their money and how they invest their money.”
“What I love with Slow Money and RSF Social Finance,” she says, “is that they are putting together investors and borrowers and creating community. It’s taking the best of what we had many years ago in terms of how we did business, and evolving it to an even better place, especially for smaller investors: people who have $1,000 to invest instead of $5 million.”
Those smaller investors were well represented during the final part of the event, which was devoted to hearing from members and reflecting on the lessons learned. It was a highly emotional outpouring. It seems everyone was touched by what they had heard and moved by being with so many like-minded folks. One woman stood up and explained that the people in her community had pooled their money to send her to the event, including paying her for the days of work she missed. And she was not alone in representing regular folks making sacrifices. Slow Money founder Woody Tasch ended the event by presenting a check he had been handed. Earlier in the gathering there had been a presentation by the CEO of 1% for the Planet, and Woody had suggested that Slow Money establish a Soil Trust on the same model, asking corporations and members to give 1 percent of their revenue to the organization. Now, at this final session, he held up a check for $250 from a woman who had written “1%” on the face of the check. Woody said the woman told him, “You can see how little I make: this is 1 percent of my income, and I’m giving it to the organization.”