Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Slow Money Part 1 "What is the problem?"

So a farmer and an investment banker walk into a bar….
What would they say to one another?

This is the question that forms the foundation of the Slow Money movement started by Woody Tasch. We live in a time in which large farms and big business are par for the course and yet our soils are becoming depleted and the quality and nutrition of our foods lessen with every pesticide application.

Soft commodities (agricultural products that are perceived to have the same quality no matter who produces it) account for a large portion of the stock market and an even larger percentage of what farmers in the United States are growing. The issue is partly due to poor policy. In the farm bill farmers are paid subsidies based on per bushel quotas, and there are virtually no subsidies for farmers growing fresh produce outside of corn, wheat, and soy. These are often over-produced and then manufactured into stranger yet food-like products (cue high fructose corn syrup). Yet, the expectations of consumers and investors has been one of ever cheaper food and higher returns, so the subsidies continue to flow and farmers continue to grow more food faster. It all adds up to a system that recklessly seeks profit before sustainability. The USDA subsidies the top 10% of recipients with 74% of the entire allotment of subsidies. This means that the big farmers, the ones holding the largest tracks of land with the most technology get the greatest amount of money to continue doing what they are already doing- growing global commodities of corn, wheat, and soy. Farmers with thousands of acres would find it difficult to have the time, nor inclination to walk their land and identify the source of pest problems or create modes of growing companion plants together to avoid them in the first place. It is more efficient to grow acres and acres of mono-culture and then spray the entire thing. Eventually this kind of intensive industrial farming erodes the soil as well as being a questionable practice for the health of workers and consumers.

The buy low sell high mentality of investment, the mentality that drives the farm bill and commodity trading, has to change in some way if we are going to change the way food is grown. Big business principles which in the last half century have directed the movement of money have begun to show an inherent weakness. In past year, the financial meltdown bore witnesses to institutions that were thought to be bullet proof crumble before our very eyes. The current recession teaches us that we cannot expect the same return on investments that was standard even a few years ago, and that a different kind of investment strategy must evolve. The kind of unlimited growth preached by the stock market is simply unsustainable. There is also the sense of meaninglessness in the practice. If investors sole purpose is to accumulate as much wealth as possible, then what? They have no connection to the place or processes that helped create their wealth. I may be an optimist, but I believe that people have an innate desire to be part of something bigger. If money makes the world go round, why not make it go round in a trajectory that honors our land and local economies and people?

Two of our Feed Denver principles had the privilege to attend the Slow Money conference in Vermont this past week. They came back inspired and ready to put some of the Slow Money principles to work. Could you invest some of your money to see local and sustainable agriculture work profitably? There are opportunities right here in your own city. Feed Denver is working to create city wide urban agriculture, one that will provide healthy fresh foods grown by people, not machines or wall-street.

Written By: Julie Malinsky, Feed Denver's Jill of all trades

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