The Value of Slow Money and Regional Food Systems

(l to r) Jan Joannides and Melissa Driscoll in front of Melissa’s new greenhouse

Jan Joannides was born in Athens, Greece, and grew up in a mid-sized town in Indiana. In her forties, and filled with memories of her grandparents’ farm in western Pennsylvania, she and her husband looked for a home in rural Minnesota.

“It took us nearly six years to find our current house, which is along the Zumbro River [in a town of 200, 15 miles south of Lake City]. I live in an incredibly beautiful place where I see bald eagles almost every day and get to watch how the river changes through the seasons,” she says.

For 20 years, Jan Joannides has been working on rural sustainable development. In 2002, she co-founded Renewing the Countryside, which builds support for sustainable endeavors, including connections between urban and rural people. “We have faced the normal challenges small nonprofits face — trying to do work that moves us toward our vision, while working to secure funds to support that work.”

Joannides talked with many local farmers who struggled to find and access financing. Some had innovative businesses that were not likely to be more than modestly profitable, so conventional lenders and investors were not interested.

For example, many farms that sell directly to consumers either at a farmers’ market, at a roadside stand, or to restaurants or schools, are barely covering their costs. “As a society, we have become accustomed to cheap food, and so we are more likely to pay $5 for a cup of coffee at Starbucks than to pay $5 for a pound of carrots,” Joannides says.

Large commodity farms have federal policies to help mitigate risk, she adds, but that is not the case with local food farmers. “To support the sort of robust food and farming system we wanted, we needed to make connections between those in need of financing with those who are interested in funding businesses that align with their values.”

Neighboring farmer Melissa Driscoll wanted to create an experimental greenhouse designed to rely on solar heat and other innovations for year-round growing of local produce.

Three hundred miles away, near Moorhead, Verna Kragnes had discovered that local immigrant families seeking ethnic groceries were traveling weekly to the Twin Cities to purchase produce because it was not available in local markets. She also knew that it was expensive and time consuming for older farmers and landowners to transition their land to new farmers. She wanted it to be easier for emerging farmers to get a foothold, especially to open up to sustainable practices.

Both independently and collaboratively, these three women have been part of a movement to reduce reliance on food that comes from conglomerates and unhealthy farming practices.

Slow Money Investing

Joannides learned about the nationwide Slow Money movement and attended national conferences to learn more about how groups in other places had formed to initiate a flow of funds to local food businesses in their communities.

“I was interested in where my personal investments at that time, through my retirement accounts, were going,” she says. “Was I inadvertently investing in things like dirty energy or companies that used child labor?”

The Slow Money Minnesota network was created in 2015 by a group in the Twin Cities, as an offshoot of the national organization that connects entrepreneurs, farmers, investors, philanthropists, and other stakeholders to fund sustainable, local food systems.

“We have reached a situation where new models are needed for community engagement in agriculture — a more widespread application of the dynamic of community-supported agriculture for a single farm,” says Kragnes, “so that the burden of agricultural startups and ensuring ecosystem health through appropriate land use and farming does not lie solely as the responsibility of the farmer.”

Today, its revolving Grow a Farmer fund of $100,000 provides small-scale sustainable farmers with low-interest loans, in partnership with the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation.

Money to Grow is a new lending fund that offers up to $10,000 to existing Minnesota farmers who are committed to regenerative practices and diversity of emerging farm owners.

New Roots Farm Incubator Cooperative

Kragnes is a founding board member of the New Roots Farm Incubator Cooperative, which provides support for beginning farmers by offering a lease to farmland, the shared use of equipment and facilities, and training that provides support for launching a small farm enterprise, primarily with fresh vegetable production.

She also wrote a USDA grant that provided Farm Beginnings training to local emerging farmers. In 2021, there were 16 families and individuals in the co-op, including 15 farmers who came to the U.S. as refugees from Zambia, Burundi, Congo, and Bhutan.

Kragnes’ Prairie Rose Farm will provide advanced training in organic and biodynamic agriculture through internships and side-by-side participatory research projects with New Roots and others interested in small-scale farming. For example, Kragnes is participating in a three-year research project, alongside Caliton Ntahompagaze and Simeon Bakunda, to bring white (grain) sorghum, sweet sorghum (syrup), and African eggplant into wider production.

To support transitions of land to new farmers with sustainable practices, she created Farmland Conservation Partners LLC. Farm land in the program will be transferred to a perpetual trust, a new kind of business structure that permanently supports companies that do not want profit to be the primary aim. As the New Yorker recently described it: a perpetual trust “exists not for the benefit of particular individuals, but to fulfill some purpose … which might include sharing profits with workers, protecting the environment, and hiring the formerly incarcerated. Perpetual trusts last indefinitely, preventing future owners from discarding pro-social policies in favor of higher profits.”

Growing Regional Wealth

A 30-page document supported by Northwest Area Foundation, called “Growing Regional Wealth: A closer look at the impact of local food systems and creative financing,” lays out the vision of creating and supporting local economic systems.

The report indicates that it is smart to start with smaller communities and regions identifying their needs and challenges before building wider food networks. Collaborative vision that prioritizes development of the region as a whole and aims to share benefits broadly and for the long term is more successful at growing a “local food economy and generating wealth in rural areas than areas focusing mainly on supporting individual entrepreneurs.”

In Vermont, a state-funded strategic plan has been developed to help identify needs and integrate hundreds of initiatives around the state. Land Stewardship Project is encouraging the Minnesota legislature to make a $1 million investment in designing something similar, to enable local governments, regional planning organizations, and tribes to create economic development plans to address needs in zoning laws, community kitchens, co-packing facilities, and land access.

This kind of vision is shaped, the report says, by asking fundamental questions, such as: What will it take to fundamentally address poverty? How can we support a new local economic system?

Re-Evaluating Success, submitted by Melissa Driscoll

One of the first recipients of a Money to Grow loan is Seven Songs Organic Farm owner Melissa Driscoll — coincidentally, once an intern with Kragnes who was farming in Osceola, Wisconsin, at the time. Driscoll is creating an experimental greenhouse.

My new greenhouse has a fully insulated ceiling, a frost blanket to retain the roughly 45-degree temperature of the soil about five feet below the greenhouse, and a glazing wall — with a mylar curtain to come — to slow heat loss in winter. The heat backup is the packing shed, with underfloor electric heat. The solar hot air heater has black gutters designed to pull air from the greenhouse before a fan blows it back in.

The space in summer, when it is hot, will be used to dry herbs used for a local tea maker. This will enable me to grow lettuce most of the winter for the local market, and to grow ginger, turmeric, and galangal sprouts that end up at food co-ops.

Our American culture cultivates a belief that you want to make as much money as fast as possible. Sadly, there are a lot of things that are not given a value in our economy, such as clean air, healthy soil, clean water, and vibrant diverse rural communities. If we want to invest money in those things, we may make money more slowly than when we invest in companies that do not consider these “externalities” to their investment profile.

I say “may” because I think ethical companies do look at and take into account things that they don’t have to, but that benefit us all. I have met people of my parent’s generation who believe that if a company is making money, it is successful. I feel that profit is important, but not the only measure I want to use to determine “success.” The Slow Money movement helps to fill in that gap.

Yes, these are still investors, and they still want a profit on their investment, but they want to know that they are helping small farmers while they profit.

Slow Money investors realize that might not be the quickest buck, but it might teach people, employ people, create a community of people, and support soil-building farmers.

All of these factors help small farms and rural communities build social and environmental resiliency. We really need resiliency as the climate changes, as we are forced to change habits in the face of a pandemic, and as we learn more about taking social risks and reaching across racial and belief barriers.