Cash Cropping

Microloan broker Brett Melone joins the slow money EcoFarm panel Friday.

If a person were to believe that “slow money” was the means by which someone would purchase slow food, it’s not far off. Slow money, as a concept, seeks to feed the local, sustainable and conservationist “slow food” movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. More info on slow money will come when, among the dozens of talks and panels of the four-day EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar Conference Center, three proponents speak 10:30am Friday.

Brett Melone of Prunedale is one of them. For nine years he was the executive director of ALBA (Agriculture & Land-Based Training Association), which trains aspiring farmers in Monterey County, but as of 2011 he has worked as a loan officer with the nonprofit California FarmLink, which finds and brokers land and microloans for farmers. A 2011 survey found that lack of land and capital topped beginning farmers’ biggest challenges.

“For smaller scale, organic, sustainable, local and regionally distributed ag businesses, financing options are further and fewer between,” he says.

That’s because they are riskier.

Sarah Lopez is another panelist. She and her husband are the owners of Fiesta Farms in Santa Cruz and Watsonville, where they tend pasture-raised chickens, eggs, rabbits and pigs. They’ve acquired land to farm through the slow money philosophy of FarmLink.

“Start-ups in the tech world, you’re looking at potential returns of many hundred times on initial investment,” Lopez says. “Farming produces very small returns, if you’re lucky enough to turn a profit at all. That’s not the kind of venture that attracts venture capitalists.”

FarmLink also provided a production microloan so that the Lopezes could try their hand at growing organic vegetables. The couple also turned to Slow Money South Bay. It’s one of 17 U.S. chapters of Slow Money, an NGO launched by Woody Tasch in 2009 to finance the slow food movement. Slow Money also provides microloans, crowdsourced from its members, to those organic farms that support the slow food ethic. Peter Ruddock, the South Bay chapter coordinator, is the third person on the panel.

“The mission is to fund the local food shed,” he says. “Slow Money is interested in retail, distribution, restaurants that bolster the food shed.”

Slow Money purports to have lent $30 million worldwide, which Ruddock describes as a “drop in the bucket” when compared to traditional lending: “But not bad for a brand new decentralized NGO.”

Ruddock and Melone knew Lopez prior to doing business. In fact, it was a prerequisite. “We are impact investors,” Ruddock says. “We not only want to know where the money is going, but that it’s aligned with our principles. I can care about Fiesta Farms. I know Sarah. I know what she sells. We have to trust you.”

That deeper understanding – “relationship lending” Melone calls it – mitigates the risk. It’s also a level of engagement that big lenders aren’t willing to commit. Without these niche financial tools, Melone thinks the slow food movement could stall, or have to turn to higher-interest lending institutions.

Ruddock says “there is some germ going around” linking slow money, as a concept, to similar ones like the “gift economy” promoted by author Charles Eisenstein, the “caring economics” of social scientist Riane Eisler and the Public Banking Institute.

“It’s an exciting time to be involved,” Melone says.

EcoFarm happens Jan. 22-25 at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove. Get more at www.eco-farm.org
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