Finance Meets Food—Bringing Our Money Back to Earth
Woody Tasch, founder and chairman of the Slow Money Institute and author of the book Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, was named one of “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” by Utne Reader in 2010, and is an experienced venture capital investor and entrepreneur. In the 1990s, Woody was treasurer of the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, where he pioneered mission-related investing. And since 2010, dozens of local Slow Money networks and investment clubs have put more than $56 million into more than 625 local and/or organic food enterprises in the U.S., Canada and France—all because Woody started raising questions about the way we invest.
“We’re giving our money to people we don’t know very well, to invest in things they don’t understand very well, halfway around the planet — places most of us will never visit. Does this sound like a healthy future?” asked Woody at an early meeting where the idea of “slow money” was just beginning to germinate. Today, the Slow Money Institute is well-established and all about “slowing some of our money down so that we can put it to work in local, organic, small food enterprises that are building local food systems and putting carbon back into the soil.”
So what does ‘slow money’ look like? Woody says, “Slow money is about both finance and food.” The first of the Slow Money Institute’s principles, “We must bring our money back down to earth,” is both a metaphor and quite literal — improving our soils. “If we can’t grow food without destroying the soil, what kind of economy and civilization do we have? And if we can’t invest in a way which actually is promoting the health of the soil, what kind of investing are we doing?” he challenges.
However, Woody adds that he is not trying to convince anyone to invest with slow money principles in mind. Instead, he’s chosen to focus on the “few million people who really want to do this, that just believe this is a good thing to do.”
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Woody Tasch, founder and chairman of Slow Money, and author of the book Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. Welcome, Woody!
WOODY TASCH: Hi, Anne.
AOC: So I love the name of your organization. It’s a nonprofit, it’s called Slow Money. You know, some people may have been more familiar with [the] Slow Food movement, but tell me about Slow Money.
WT: Well, you are correct to deduce the connection with Slow Food. It’s not a formal connection, but it is an emotional, intellectual, whatever, connection. I’d been working on what I’d been calling “patient capital” for quite a while when I was running a group called Investors Circle. This was a while back now, but we were a group of green or triple-bottom-line or impact—all these terms evolve over time. But it was a bunch of angel investors who were trying to do the right thing. And as part of that, I always had a special interest in organics, which was kind of the number two area that Investors Circle folks were focused on. Renewable energy was the biggest one, just in terms of dollars and deals, but organics was behind it.
And anyway, I’d been mulling for quite a while this idea of why can’t we think really long-term, and even though we’re all trying to do the right thing we’re still stuck in the same paradigm of investing, which is relatively short-term of focus. Even when we say we’re long-term, it’s still relatively short-term. And so I’d been mulling these ideas about patient capital. And then I had the good fortune to visit the Italian headquarters of Slow Food in 2000, over in Bra, Italy. And pretty much the second I got there I was, “Oh my god, patient capital—no, it really should be slow money.” So that was where just the name, the phrase and the name for what we’re doing came from.
But, you know, it is about slowing some of our money down—that part’s kind of obvious, we can talk about that however you want—and so that we can put it to work in local, organic, small food enterprises that are building local food systems and putting carbon back into the soil.
AOC: Maybe you could just talk about, a little bit, about the world of investing as it has been, and then where you think it should be going.
WT: Oh dear—you got a few hours?
AOC: Exactly! I know, I’m asking a very… Can you tell us how the world works? What do you—
WT: Yeah, well I’ll start with the history of capitalism, and then I’ll move over to Gaia theory, and then from there I will talk about carbon sequestration.
AOC: I guess more specifically, like if you think about investing, some people have traditionally invested strictly for return. And you’re talking about a different avenue and a different… So just explore that difference for us maybe.
WT: Sure. Basically, what we were just joking about is, you know, let’s say, what I often call it industrial finance—just like, you know, I think a lot of people listening to this will be familiar with the phrase “industrial agriculture.” So, but we don’t usually use the phrase “industrial finance,” but that basically is what all the institutions of Wall Street are. And I see these as two sides of the same coin. In other words, we have a certain way that money flows through the economy, and that tends to shape a lot of the activities undertaken by entrepreneurs and corporations and what-not.
So those activities, basically, the systems, let’s say, industrial finance, evolved out of centuries of conquest, exploration, extraction, manufacturing, innovation, all these things. And along with those activities rise financial innovations—you know, the limited liability corporation; let’s say, more recently, just to get the derivatives and rogue algorithms and all these things. But all of that, it’s all a part of the same broad arc of history, of creating ways… And I would say this really goes back to, let’s say, when the first East India ships were coming over from the Netherlands to the New World, it’s creating ways for capital to support extraction and exploration and manufacturing, and to minimize the risk to capital as much as possible, so as much capital will flow as fast as possible, thereby promoting economic growth and, let’s say, entrepreneurship.
And so that system, where—you know, I feel like we’re living at a period in time when that pendulum has swung past the point of…past the beneficial point, let’s say. And so all of those things—throughputs, speed of capital, financial innovation, securitization, and lots of things that are more specific than that, let’s say just banking and trillions of dollars of capital flows, and all of these things—from which many benefits did flow and still flow, but it’s happening at such a massive scale and so much speed now that lots of long-term consequences are starting to pile up, just like carbon’s piling up in the atmosphere. Lots of dysfunction is piling up in the financial system as well.
So that leads right to the idea of, okay, we need to slow some of our money down. Sounds pretty compelling, doesn’t it?
AOC: It does sound pretty compelling. I do think so. So you’re already developing this parallel, and we haven’t even gotten there yet, of the food system, right, so clearly. You know, right: “We can feed the world! We can produce massive amounts of food. We can ship it all over. We can have bananas in January in Wisconsin!”—which, by the way, I love. But there are consequences. What are some of the consequences that you saw and didn’t like in the, what you call industrial finance world?
WT: Well, again, that’s a very big question. I would say the root—I mean there’s kind of root causes, if you will, and then there’s lots of specific consequences. But the root causes are that it disconnects people from one another, from the places where they live, and from the land. Now that’s very general the way I said it, but I really believe it, and I think we have to take the time to just say the big things before we get into all the little things.
So yeah, if people… I mean, you just gave the example of bananas in January. If people feel like, let’s say, the financial world, like investing is about putting your money into financial instruments that financial intermediaries and brokers sell you, and the goal is just to have it be “safe” and create money to retire on—if that’s what you think it is, and it doesn’t matter what it is, it’s just that you want it to be safe and you want to make as much money as you can so you can retire on… When I say “retire on,” I mean save, send your kids to college, all the things that we want to do with whatever wealth we can accumulate. So if you view it, if you view investing as a kind of a passive cash-generator for the future, and that’s all it is, it becomes this opaque, kind of very complicated, but you can’t really see into it, thing where your money is going all over the place.
You know, I once said at a Slow Money meeting, and it became a little bit of a mantra—it just kind of came to mind. I said, “We’re giving our money to people we don’t know very well to invest in things they don’t understand very well, halfway around the planet, places most of us will never visit. Does this sound like the recipe for a healthy future?” And of course, everybody in the room just goes, freaks out and says, “Oh my god, no!” So that is bigger than just the food system.
In other words, that’s a macro, very deep, fundamental, systemic, cultural and economic problem, that our money is just sloshing through these huge, complicated sluices, if you will, that turn out… You know, we have institutions that are too big to fail and are this, that, and the other thing, and all the craziness of speculation, and—
AOC: And it leads us to be investing in things with our money, in our name, in things that we have no idea what’s going on, right?
WT: Right. So I just had the good fortune to—I’m working on trying to crank out another little book here. If readers have any interest after they hear this interview, you know, they should go on the Slow Money website. We have something called the Slow Money Journal, which has always, has an essay from me in that but it also has pieces from a lot of other people who are either investing in Slow Money or building the enterprises that we’re investing in. And anyhow, I’m finally trying to do something a little longer. And I pulled out my copy of Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, which of course I’d read a few times along the way and thought I kind of had it in my head. And of course I hadn’t looked at it in many years, and I was really amazed to see that he opens the book with a kind of a story about someone who works for the Sierra Club but has his money invested, I think it’s in a mining company or something—I forget the exact enterprise that the person’s invested in. That’s how he starts the book—it’s with the dissonance of an environmental activist whose funds are invested in the very thing that he’s fighting with his day job.
And it must have imprinted on me, because I first read that book in the 1970s when I was a young man, and now here I am, my whole career is based, is doing that. So I blame it all on Wendell Berry.
AOC: So one of the things that you like to talk about is “bringing money back down to earth.” So maybe that will sharpen our focus just a little bit more. And this whole idea of, we’ve gone for this big idea, and so bringing it back down to earth. What does that mean?
WT: Well, I got from the, all that macro thing about speed and complexity of finance and what-not down to food, because I took some time off from Investors Circle, this angel group, this group of high-net-worth individuals—you know, it was beginning to [unclear] stuff. I was thinking to myself, we were just not getting enough money flowing, and we’re just not getting to the root of the problem. The “we” was bigger than just that group of people, meaning everybody who cares about this stuff, what’s the problem.
And by hook or by crook, I can’t really tell you how, but I ended up focusing on the soil. I was trying to get to like what’s the ultimate metric? What’s the ultimate measure of our success? You know, something that isn’t just incremental—it’s not like screwing a light bulb in, you know, that whole thing. It’s like, well, what are we really trying to get at? And somehow I just started thinking, well, if we can’t grow food without destroying the soil, what kind of economy and civilization do we have? And if we can’t invest in a way which actually is promoting the health of the soil, what kind of investing are we doing? I can’t really tell you exactly how, but I’d always been interested in organics stuff. But somehow, once I got on that thought…
So the principle, the first of six Slow Money principles is “We must bring our money back down to earth.” You know, I pulled that out of my book—that phrase, “bringing money back down to earth,” is in my book. And the actual words came from a member of Investors Circle who just stood up in one of our meetings and said, you know, “I think Woody is right—we have to bring our money back down to earth.” And when he said it, it just stuck in me like… You know, Ray Anderson used to talk about a spear in the chest; I suppose that might have been it. I heard him say those words and I said, “That’s it.” That’s what we have to do.
So what that means to me is, yes, slowing down, meaning coming, going out of the abstract world of computer investing in invisible smokestacks in China and all that stuff, but it actually then means also down to the land. So that means agrarian, food-producing, small and mid-size organic farms. Actually bringing money down to earth is a metaphor but it’s also literal, like right down into the enterprises that are producing healthy soil.
AOC: Which is, it’s an incredible lens, actually, to look through, right? Because if you have healthy soil, you have all these other parts that you’re talking about, you know, in all likelihood.
WT: Well, that’s the—and that’s the beauty of Slow Food when it works. What I mean by that is when you really experience the full power of it—let’s say, going to Turin, where there are 5,000 small farmers from 100 countries, with chefs and students and whatever, and Carlos Petrini is sharing his brilliance—when you really feel that in its full manifestation, you realize it’s not just about food, it’s not just about any one thing. It’s about culture and economics and community and biodiversity and indigenous culture. I mean, it really is about all those things. It’s just very hard in the U.S. for people to really carry that, partially—you know, we invented fast food here, so we’re going to be the last, probably the last place on earth to fully understand what slow food is; which of course is a little bit of a challenge for Slow Money too.
But I kind of feel by bringing the money part into the equation, it’s like a different hook, because we are in a money culture here. So when you say slow food, unfortunately, there’s like an easier place for people to go, “Oh, that must mean, you know, they just want to go eat at a fancy restaurant or shop at a farmers’ market.” And Slow Food is about way more than that. When you say Slow Money, if people are still listening after they hear those two words, it’s because they’re going, “Hmm, there’s something there. That’s not the way we’re supposed to think about money. What does that mean?” And there’s like an intuitive little click there of there must be something fundamental being suggested here. And then [that] kind of gives us a hook for going down the path a little bit. So that’s a long way of saying that Slow Money is about both finance and food.
AOC: Okay. So this is the framework: we’re going to start doing some things that are going to make things head in a different direction. So let’s just talk a little bit about, what do those things look like? What does it look like at a sort of practical, logistical level to bring money down to earth? And how does your organization help? This has spread now to many places across the country. There have been 56-plus million dollars. Tell us about how did that happen, and what is it that’s happening?
WT: Well, it’s a…I don’t mind saying it’s a little bit of a crazy process. But I mean, just since you’re mentioning where it’s happening, we just found out this week that a Slow Money group in Australia is finally up and going, and they just launched something called the Organic and Regenerative Investment Co-op to buy farmland and invest in food enterprises. So it’s mostly U.S., so this is very decentralized, very grassroots. We don’t manage anybody’s money; we don’t take any transaction fees of any kind. This is really—you know, you could call it community organizing, grassroots activism, whatever you want to call it. It’s individuals self-organizing in small groups and locales.
We’ve got about, depending on how you count, let’s say 15 to 20 groups in the United States that are functioning on a regular basis. And then we’ve got two groups in Canada, one group in France, and now one group in Australia. And basically these groups, you know, they hold meetings, large and small; sometimes have pitch fests where they’ll get food entrepreneurs and farmers up in front of groups of people and saying, “I need money for this, that, or the other thing.” And then as well as people who aren’t household names but are trying to be the next—or not trying to be, they are the people on the ground, growing, doing small farms or small new organic brands or processing businesses or distribution businesses, could be slaughterhouses, seed companies, farm-to-table restaurants. So it’s the whole gamut of small enterprises that are rebuilding local food systems and promoting organic and sustainable agriculture.
AOC: Yeah, so everybody gets together, you talk about things…
WT: Yeah, I mean, it’s pathetically simple!
AOC: (laughing) Great!
WT: But I think it is important to try to keep it as simple as we can, even though everything… We just had a fairly convoluted conversation about finance and this and that, and all kinds of things. But the word neighborly, you know, if we act neighborly, if we act like, “You know what? I want my community to be better off, I want there to be more small and mid-size diversified organic farms in my neighborhood…” I’ve heard very few times, in all the conversations of the last ten years, anybody saying they don’t want more small and mid-size diversified organic farmers in their community. So would you feel better off if there were more of them or less? People go, “More.” But then there’s no follow-through, like how would we do that, or how do we… It’s going to take money. And even when these farms are successful, they’re not particularly profitable in the greater scheme of things. So they’re a lot of hard work, there’s a lot of risk involved, land prices are crazy and prohibitive in so many places in the United States now, so how would we actually do that?
And the process of doing it is pathetically simple. How can we take something which has many nuances and many threads and many whatever, but try to just stay focused on the part of it that’s really very simple, which is just take some of our money, put it to work in a way which is agnostic about financial return—I’m saying some charged things now that we may want to explore—and just say we want there to be more of this in our community, and we need, each of us in our own way, whatever we can afford, to take some of our time and money and put it to work. And you know, our consumer dollars are one thing, and how important that is, to spend your dollars the right way, on the right products, and knowing where your food comes from and everything. But we also have to take some of our investment dollars, because this is, I don’t know, how I’ve always felt: I can’t really enjoy purchasing things that are the right things if my investment dollars are zooming around doing the opposite.
AOC: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, and I’m here today with Woody Tasch, who’s the founder and chairman of Slow Money. Today we’re talking about Slow Money. We’re talking about mission-related investing. We’re talking about community building, venture capital. And we’re talking about—
WT: Nurture capital—say “nurture capital,” because I really like that—
AOC: Nurture capital.
WT: —what that implies.
AOC: It’s a nice—yeah, I like it, nurture capital. So we’re nurturing our communities, nurturing the food system, looking out for each other. Let’s just talk for a minute about—I mean, you have said some things there that are like, wait a minute… In fact, one of your principles is, “What would the world be like if we invested 50 percent of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?” Now there’s a radical concept! “What if there was a new generation of companies that gave away 50 percent of their profits?” Okay, so I’m with you, I’m like hey, let’s do it, let’s go. But…
WT: Well, so hang on. So I know where you, you’ve sort of already asked the question, so let me jump in.
AOC: All right, go to it!
WT: Because you said, “I’m with you,” so… Here’s the thing. Very, very early on in my little Slow Money journey, I ended up being interviewed by a Toronto business show, and it was because a Toronto newspaper picked up a story about Slow Money, and one thing led to another, so there was a little blip of activity in Toronto. And so I went into the PBS station—I happened to be in Albuquerque, New Mexico—to do the interview, meaning just to get set up somewhere that the camera would be, and whatever, and that’s what they set up. And no one had told me that I was just going to be sitting in an empty studio, staring into a camera that was about two feet away from my face! And I’d never done anything like that before.
And so I have the earphone, and I’m listening to the thing, and they’re getting ready to cue up my interview. And so I listened for a couple of minutes before I went on, and so it was very obvious it was going to be a wildly skeptical, it was going to be a very conservative financial skeptic asking me questions. So I was prepared, and of course the first thing he goes, “So, [unclear] Slow Money, this is kind of a crazy thing—how are you ever going to convince anybody to do that?” And so my answer was, “I’m not trying to convince anybody to do it. It seems to me that there might be a few million people who really want to do this, that we just believe this is a good thing to do. And so my job is trying to connect with those people and just kind of empower us to do what we want to do, rather than to try to convince someone of a whole new economic idea or theory or something.”
And I really still believe basically that’s true, although in the years of talking about Slow Money around the country I’ve become a little more convinced that we’re on to something, that this could be, let’s say, a more significant part of healing of our economy and rebuilding rural communities and all the things that we know need to happen. But I don’t always, I don’t really go there. I mean, I know that if we were wildly successful, that would be great, and if we were wildly successful, what we’re doing would be a kind of a healing thing between conservatives and liberals. And it’s not a very ideological thing because it’s about small communities and jobs and food and health, and those aren’t really political things, really. But the world’s a little more complicated than that, so I kind of stay [unclear—off that?].
But to your point where you said “I’m in,” it’s like I’m not really trying to convince anybody to do something they don’t want to do. I’m trying to enable those of us who feel, who believe these things, that to get some of our money to work, doing what we believe in.
AOC: Okay, so that’s one of the things I was wondering about. You know, what I’m hearing you say is this is a movement more about attraction rather than promotion. And you haveattracted people to it, and people are investing and people are thinking about local economies and how they can improve those in connection with food through the Slow Money movement.
Now, you know, you’re saying, “I’m not trying to convince anybody. People who want to do this, there are plenty of us—let’s do this.” Could I ask you a very challenging question? Should we have a kind of society in which there are people who can do this and there are other people who simply have no options in this realm at all?
WT: Oh, well, I mean that’s called the human condition, I’m pretty sure. I mean, and it always makes me think: nobody ever just sat down and invented capitalism. You know, it emerged over hundreds of years with all kinds of innovations and risk taking and entrepreneurs and innovators and Henry Fords and this person and that…you know. I mean, it came over a long time with lots of people kind of having their energy flow with a certain kind of broad worldview about risk taking and conquering new territories and freedom, free markets, and all these ideas conspired to kind of… And then we had a lot of technological innovation that abetted it and everything.
So I don’t think you have to have an entirely, you have to have a whole coherent worldview that is different from that, and you don’t have to solve all the problems all at the same time. So the problem you’re raising, which is wealth inequality—I mean, that’s one word to put on it, I guess, right? social justice, wealth inequality, or elitism might be another way to say it, “What about the people who…,” you know. Hey, that’s fun—some of you people have money to risk and talk like this, but the rest of us, you know, we’ve got to keep our heads down. There’s no solution to that.
The point is, trillions of dollars a day are flowing through financial markets. Those dollars didn’t come from nowhere. They came from lots of people putting their money into those instruments. And there’s a lot of people, whatever it is—I don’t even know the number today, 60 million, whatever it is—people, Americans who have money in the stock market. So whatever that number is, it’s a lot of people. And a lot of people have some money in an IRA or a 401(k) or sitting in a savings account, or whatever. So it’s not just about investors with a capital “I,” you know, fancy people who have financial advisors and spend their days trading and all that stuff. This is about, we as a society have created some wealth and we’re trying to figure out how to deploy it in a way which isn’t just aircraft carriers. I’m being a little incendiary when I say stuff like that, but I’ll just say it.
AOC: So it’s a great thing. So listeners, Woody is talking to you. If you have money and you’ve got your 401(k), do you know where it’s going? Do you know what you’re investing in? Have you got smokestacks in China? What have you got? What have you got, right? So this is one of the things that you’re saying: Take a look, see what there is to invest in in your local community perhaps. And so that requires a little more thought and a little more consideration, right?
WT: Mm-hmm, yeah. I mean, in other words, the system that we have, all the products and all the securities laws and everything obviously are not set up around this idea. They’re set up around the idea, as we were saying earlier, of just maximizing, sort of “minimizing risk”—that’s a whole other discussion. You know, one early, I’m thinking back to a very early radio interview I had like this, where the person said, “How are you ever going to convince anybody to do something so risky?” And I said, “Risky?” I said, “Risky compared to what? Because you don’t think investing in like those cities in China is risky, then just go ahead and put your money right in the stock market and don’t give it a second thought about where it is.”
This is inefficient. I mean, in other words, this is not just clicking and doing a little buy/sell with your computer. You have to actually spend time going to meetings. One of my favorite quotes that I heard during a Slow Money thing was someone quoted Oscar Wilde, and the quote is, “The whole problem with socialism is that it requires too many evening meetings.” (Laughing) So this idea of, if we’re going to do what we’re talking about on this call, you have to go to some meetings. You have to think about it, you have to spend time getting to know some of the other people in your community. If you’re a person with money and you don’t know anything about food and farming, you have to spend some time getting to know farmers. If you are, on the other side, if you’re a farmer or a food producer, you have to spend some time getting to know some of the people in your community with whom you might have to do a deal of some kind. But it’s not passive. It’s a kind of an active, you know, kind of roll-your-sleeves-up kind of activity.
AOC: Well, Woody Tasch, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s a pleasure talking with you and about Slow Money. If our listeners wanted to hear more about you and Slow Money work, where would they go?
WT: Well, obviously the first place would be to slowmoney.org. That’s our website. And then I mentioned earlier we have something called the Slow Money Journal, which is available through the website, which is the voices of scores of people from all over—entrepreneurs, investors, whatever—in their own words. And that’s available as a PDF, and we actually did print a few copies too.
And then I would also just mention that we occasionally do a larger, a national meeting, a place for people to get together from many communities, and the next one of them is October 16 in Boulder. So if someone’s, let’s say, extremely motivated to learn more and wants to be in the room with 500 or 600 other people from around the country who care about this stuff, that’ll be the next time that that opportunity will be available.
AOC: Okay. Well, thank you again, Woody, for talking with us on Rootstock Radio. And thank you, listeners. We hope you enjoyed this episode with Woody Tasch. Join us next week on Rootstock Radio.
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