Dear Readers: I am thrilled to introduce our guest blogger, Derek Denckla. He’s an esteemed chief of the urban ag tribe in NYC and it’s an honor to have him contribute here. Here’s his thoughts from Day 1 of the Slow Money National Gathering in Vermont. To read more of Derek’s work, see www.thegreenest.net.
– Gary Snyder (as quoted by Woody Tasch)
I am attending the 2nd Slow Money National Gathering in Shelburne Farms, Vermont. 18 months after writing his book, The Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Matter (Chelsea Green), Woody Tasch has organized a growing movement of investors, businesses and farmers to bring his ideas about saving the planet through “nurture capital” through the nascent Slow Money Alliance.
Slow Money Alliance has developed support for its idea to foster entrepreneurial finance supporting soil fertility, carrying capacity, sense of place, diversity and nonviolence. It has issued six “Slow Money Principles” that set out a vision of the destructive world of Fast Money and how Slow Money responds and restores balance and peace.
At this gathering in Vermont, Tasch has set a course for action to enact Slow Money Principles across the US. His goal is to have 1 million people invest 1% of their income in soil fertility in the next ten years. He announced the creation of the Soil Trust as a first step in this goal, aiming to collect $25 from 1 million people. The money from the Soil Trust would fund local funds that would invest directly into land conservation and businesses that practice sustainable agriculture.
The conference began with remarks from Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, who framed the urgency of the need to invest in a restorative model for agriculture that would address disastrous climate impacts caused by industrial agriculture over the last 50 years. Repeatedly, he and other speakers emphasized the ways in which industrialized farming harms the air, water and soil as well as our bodies.
Tasch introduced the next two speakers with a reference to the contrasting views on how to grow sustainable food businesses. ”On the one hand, Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface farm, told me that ‘We are not part of an industry, we are a part of a movement. On the other hand, Gary Hirschberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farms, told me ‘I hate using that word ‘Movement’ for our business. We are trying to make sustainable businesses that make change on a massive scale which can only be achieved by industry.”
“As far as I see it,” Tasch continued, “I agree with them both and see them as the separate halves of the whole discussion here about how to grow sustainable food business.”
Throughout the amazing day, the speakers represented the luminaries from the sustainable food movement who emphasized the need for investment in differing strategies for changing business as usual. Joel Salatin, author, farmer central character in Michael Pollan’s book, Omnivore’s Dilemma, spoke about sticking to your principles as a way to deal with scaling your enterprise. He said that scale was not a problem if you stay true to your beliefs and set goals with your soul not your sales target. He emphasized that the quality of his product and relationships with customers made his success.
Gary Hirschberg described his beginings as director of New Alchemy, an experimental self-sustaining agricultural center in the 1970s. ”It was a perfect agricultural system with solar heated greenhouses and aquaponics in a closed loop. But it was not a good business and it failed.”
“I set out to start Stonyfield to correct what New Alchemy lacked: a business. However, it took nine years of struggle before Stoneyfield made a nickel. 297 courageous patient capitalists gave me the funds to start. Many of them have done very well, as aresult. Today, Stonyfield Farms is a $355 million company.”
Hirschberg went on to say that our economy is based on myths that sustainable business seeks to dispel by facing the real consequences and costs of ignoring the impact of traditional business practices. Hirschberg described how Stonyfield has adopted changes in doing business step-by-step, incrementally to become more environmentally sensitive.
“Industrial food businesses make their product as cheaply as possible to get the widest margin in order to outspend the competition on advertising. We spend more on the product, spend close to nothing on ads, and make a better return than most traditional food businesses, like those in our corporate parent, Danone.” (Stonyfield was bought in 2001 by the Danone Group, a $25 billion food company. Although Hirschberg retains control over Stonyfield’s business operation.) Hirschberg agreed with Salatin that quality and loyalty were his best assets.
“This is a critical moment for the food movement. We are charged with nothing less than saving the world.” Hirschberg said. He closed with a Gandhi quote: “Anyone who thinks that they are too small to make a difference has never been in bed with a mosquito.”
All of the speakers conveyed an abiding passion for their work. Will Rapp from Gardener’s Supply who pioneered composting techniques and greened the Intervale in Burlington, VT. Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Seeds, who spoke about all the sustainable businesses in his town of Hardwick, VT who meet to discuss issues and how to support each others work. Eliot Coleman, founder of Four Seasons Farm and author of New Organic Grower, outlined his Feast Philosophy with a common sense approach to growing food that delights and nourishes the person and the soil. Each enterprise presented a different facet of how business might express environmental goals and personal ethics. The ideas were filled with joy of creativity and life but the moral task was seen in sober terms of war.
It was no accident then, that one of the speakers quoted a war-time President, Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, who warned: “A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself” It was a day of ideas that were both sobering and inspiring in equal measure.