Friday, July 17, 2009

Slow Money

I have been smitten by the ideas championed by Woody Tasch in a wonderful book titled "Slow Money. Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered".

The title is a riff on the theme of slow foods, the concept of beautifully prepared simple, local foods, natural diversity and nurturing community. Mr. Tasch has devoted his life to investment capital and knows those ropes well. He has now turned his skill toward building an organization that takes the principals of investment and applies them to the widespread needs of our broken food system through his Slow Money Alliance.

I've pulled a set of representative quotes from this great book below. Mr. Tasch will be giving a public talk in Madison, WI next Sunday evening, July 26. Details follow this post.

What draws me to this effort is the realism that is embedded throughout. Throughout my life I've watched many, many well-intentioned 'movements' dissolve into inaction. This Slow Money effort feels significantly different. They are planning their rollout of millions of dollars of investments into Small Food Enterprises (SFEs) through a series of Institutes held around the country. Madison will host the next Slow Money Institute, and I'm honored to be involved as a presenter. I will be discussing the '760 square mile incubator' we are creating in Iowa County, WI. That effort will create and integrate multiple SFEs, primarily local processing facilities, under the guidance of a leadership co-op that follows the operating principles for economic development first created at Mondregon in Spain.

I highly recommend 'Slow Money', by Woody Tasch. I do so mostly because Slow Money does not present itself as another 'ism' or another theory. Slow Money is a tool for our times.

Check out some quotes from the book:

"It falls to us to undertake a new project of system design: the creation of new forms of intermediation that catalyze the transition from a commerce of extraction and consumption to a commerce of preservation and restoration". NOTE: It is not left to someone else, the challenge is directed to "us."

There are many new thoughtful investors and angel investment groups beginning to focus on early stage companies that create commercial solutions to social and environmental problems.

"A 'patient capital' marketplace is emerging to better serve such companies, since most are not easy candidates for the same dollars that are seeking the next Google. Patient capital does not yet exist as an organized or disciplined asset class; it is the gestalt that emerges as socially responsible investing matures and the wave of triple-bottom-line [social, environmental and economic accounting] entrepreneurs and investors builds… Applied to the food sector, patient capital becomes slow money - whose name carries with it more than a doff of the cap to Slow Food, the international NGO that promotes biodiversity, artisan food traditions, heirloom varieties and connections between small farmers and consumers. Slow money can be thought of as a subsector, or sub-asset class of patient capital, focused with appropriate patience on the health of soil and bioregion."

If you are a thinking of becoming an entrepreneur, now is your time. If you are an investor looking to go beyond 'social investing', now is your time. I believe slow money is a real tool that will have real positive consequences, right down to the farm family with the best tomato chutney recipe, somewhere out there in our beautiful rural landscape. The time to fix this mess in right here. Right now.

Mr Tasch discusses a new kind of market that is rapidly developing around slow money. "We need a market that rewards humility and promotes patience and invites the participation of all those individuals who will sleep better at night knowing that some of their dollars are swirling around cyberspace a little bit slower, lending a little bit less of their energy to the economic engine that brought us, last year, 8 million light trucks and SUVs, and who knows how many million Twinkies. We need a peaceful market, a market that rewards peaceful companies, a market that dares to recognize explicitly, publicly and financially, that growth, growth, growth is predicated on dislocation and churn and continuously reinvented and unsatisfiable consumer demand, and that these conditions constitute a form of economic violence."

There are many, many more quotes highlighted in my dog-eared copy of Slow Money. Too many to put into a single post.

As the soul of Sustainable Work is entrepreneurship, let me close with a beautiful piece that helped me knit together the ideas of rural economies and entrepreneurship as I started in my current role doing rural economic development.

"Entrepreneurs and farmers are the poets of the economy. They are holders of ambiguity and risk. They cultivate interstitial spaces, where demand and need and aspiration coexist in a mildly turbulent state of chaotic possibility. They continuously test the boundaries of quality and quantity, as a poet tests the boundaries of denotation and connotation. Ideas in a business plan; seeds in potting soil; rhymes in search of new reasons."

Great language. Great concepts. A thoroughly great book.

This is the Renaissance age of entrepreneurship and it's just beginning, my entrepreneur/farmer/poet friends. Forward!

The Slow Money web site

The next Slow Money Institute (Madison, WI), will be Monday, July 27th. Woody Tasch will give a public talk on Sunday, July 26th at 7:30 p.m. at Morphy Hall on the University of Wisconsin campus, 455 North Park Street in Madison.

Triple botton line, Wikipedia

Friday, July 10, 2009

Local food processing

Since moving into rural economic development I have learned many new perspectives for thinking about how to make things happen appropriately.

When I worked in heavy industry, our challenge was to get international as fast as possible. That fit the situation, and it fit the market.

Now I am privileged to be able to work with food and farmers, along with artists, and a wonderful quilt of small and large enterprises. I'm learning new markets and searching for models that will add real value to the communities I get to work in.

Entrepreneurs look for problems to solve. That's where our opportunities are. When I look around rural economic development I see a really unusual problem. There are customers galore but very little infrastructure in place to support the production and marketing efforts needed to fill the demand.

My friend Lois Federman, a farmer (Marr's Valley View Farms, their family farm since 1874), head of the great 'Something Special From Wisconsin' program, and an all round great observer of ag market trends helped me focus on this issue.

According to Lois, we have done an outstanding job of educating consumers and food retailers of the value of buying local and regional foods. We have created the demand. The problem is that we have not created the support infrastructure to fill the buy-local supply chain.

Specifically Lois Federman discussed the need for what she calls 'local food processing' to match the demand for local food purchases. I really love the phrase. It also matches the experiment we're building out in Iowa County, WI, to create a series of small, smart, nimble, interrelated food and ag processing plants at a county-wide scale.

Local food processing does not mean tiny unregulated food funnels in people's kitchens. Like technology in every other industry, ag processing tech can now create wonderful efficiencies of scale at points on that curve that used to be reserved for only the largest, most capital intensive plants. Now the equipment is faster, smarter and cheaper. Processing tools can be rapidly swapped in and out to match supply and demand in real time.

You don't need large monolithic food processing plants to reach economies of scale. Local foods can be gathered locally, processed locally, and distributed locally in ways that would be impossible for the large processors to reproduce. You can achieve economies of scale with smart new tools and business organization models that match the markets, that match the consumer demands of this early 21st century world we live in.

I know this to be true. We're running numbers for our first plant now and what's emerging looks to me like the early days of the Internet and the efficiencies that brought to enterprise. It feels like lean manufacturing and Six Sigma meet winter squash.

So I thank my friend Lois Federman for the concept of local food processing. I think it's the key to growing not only the local foods market but to growing farmers of all kinds and the communities they live in.

Lois Federman's family farm

Something Special From Wisconsin program

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Day job report - a Spanish co-op model for Iowa County, WI

I usually use these posts to share something enlightening that works in support of my premise that we need to create economic security for ourselves and for our communities by making jobs through new enterprises.

For folks who have tagged along on these essays, some of what I do for my day jobs has come through. This post will be one of those essays, following up on a couple of recent ones about developing new smarter, faster, cheaper startups.

I currently am privileged to work in rural economic development in a very special place, Iowa County, Wisconsin. It's immediately west of Madison and just up the road from Dubuque, where IBM has just transformed the economic landscape by moving a huge data support center there. The landscape of where I work is spectacular. It's called the 'Driftless region' because the landscape has never been flattened by glaciers. It is a land of ancient mountains and pristine valleys, now softened by time into a scale that is so pleasant I can't do it justice.

This beautiful upper Midwest landscape is surrounded by 35 million people within a few hours drive. The rise of regional economics, especially in foods is compelling. In service to this economic and geographic landscape I'm working with wonderful new friends to launch a new job creation platform we hope to make transparent and reproducible in other counties, and other states. If we do it well enough it will work in other continents. That would be a good gift from the upper Midwest Driftless region I love so much.

So, here's a first report from the field.

We held a kickoff meeting for interested stakeholders in a wonderful one room schoolhouse built in 1875. Just down the hill from Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen, it now serves as the Town hall for the Town of Wyoming in Iowa County. When we first assembled our mailing list 12 days before the meeting, we only had 15 people on the list. As word spread during those first days, over 200 people had asked to be included. When the day came, I sat in the empty schoolhouse whistling past the graveyard as they say. When the time came however, the building came alive.

More than 50 people from all over Wisconsin attended. We had a wonderful group of farmers, food buyers, ag specialists, investors, community bankers, people from every place on the political spectrum, University folks, people from USDA Rural Development, and on and on. This is a topic people really want to delve into.

And we did.

The gist of what we are proposing is the creation of a leadership co-op based on a model developed in Mondregon, in the Basque region of Spain. They start and launch new interrelated enterprises based on a proven system of training, research, financing and mentorship. [See links at the end]. Rather than gush about the good stuff, let me highlight one number. When new enterprises are created under this model the success rate for those new businesses after 5 years is 97%. You read that right. In doing so they have created about 200,000 good paying sustainable jobs.

What this means is that investors, who typically have to wrench huge returns out of startup investments because so many fail, can now approach this model with a sense that their risks are largely mitigated, and they can participate in the economics of these emerging enterprises with longer term, more secure return expectations.

What this would mean to my beautiful county is that we can create a leadership co-op of a few key visionaries who are not afraid to fail and who hold a new vision for creating jobs and building economic independence in a real and lasting way.

In a post I put up earlier this month I talked about smarter, faster, cheaper economic development models for rural economic development.

Our new effort in support of this plan is what we are doing about it. We are calling the effort the Driftless Foods Co-Op. The people that are coming to join this new effort are amazing. I've done many startups before and I have never ever seen talent and ethics like this emerge.

We are working to develop the financing and the infrastructure to begin processing foods that we refer to produced and marketed under 'regional fair trade' standards.

We are forming the leadership co-op now. It is my hope to begin build the first food plant so that it can start processing this year. I would like to build 2 more plants the following year under the umbrella of the Driftless Foods Co-Op. The following year I hope to add 3 more plants.

We are promising our stakeholders and anyone who cares to listen that we are doing this as an experiment. We want our work to be used to create case studies and documentation such that our efforts and policies can be reproduced elsewhere, with different ag assets, probably even non-ag assets. I posit that it's the process that needs to be honed to a reproducible model. Given all that entails - financing, production, mentor relations, community relations, worker participation, buyer transparency, and on and on - this little experiment can be used to make the economics of business creation and job growth far more sustainable and valuable than the policies responsible for what we're experiencing now.

This is my kind of economic development. Work that drives revenue and security to the producers and the communities they live in. It's an energetic, well-grounded launch with wonderful people and noble, sustainable goals.

If we do it right, we just may be able to change the world in small but important ways that last for generations.

Happy Independence Day!

Mondragon in the Basque region of northern Spain is the shining example of an entrepreneurial economy shaped by over 100 co-ops owned by 200,000 people. Thanks to the Mondragon co-ops, the people of the Basque region enjoy one of the highest standards of living in all of Europe while being phenomenally entrepreneurial. Mondragon is proof that co-op ownership can work on a grand scale and compete globally.

Article about our Driftless Foods Co-Op kickoff meeting in the Wisconsin State Journal

Download our working definition of regional fair trade, in PDF

The Mondragon model comes to the inner city Mid West.