Slow Money with Woody Tasch
I was working in my greenhouse last year, listening to the CBC as I often do, when I first heard about Slow Money as an organized movement. Being rather deeply involved in the activities of Slow Food Calgary, and having been actively promoting sustainable agriculture and a sane food system in general for more than 12 years, my curiousity was, quite naturally, piqued by this marriage of two things so fundamental to human culture. Food and money.
I continued my work, musing about the potential of such a movement in terms of the development of our own agricultural operations at Blue Mountain. I began a Community Shared Agricuture project in Calgary in 1998, and this had already given me a very good understanding of the potential of having consumers, or co-producers as we like to call them in Slow Food, investing in the operational costs of a farm such as ours, which is focused not on producing commodities, but real food for people. The upfront cost of inputs such as seed, transplants, potting soil, greenhouse supplies, energy and labour are made much less onerous for an individual producer who engages in this type of relationship with committed investors. In return for their upfront and seasonal investment, these co-producers receive as a dividend a share of the food grown in the gardens and greenhouses. An important aspect of this relationship is the sharing of risk between the farmer and co-producer, which would otherwise be borne entirely by the farm itself.
What this CSA relationship does not do, perhaps only because we had not had the audacity to imagine it was possible, is to provide investment capital which can be directed at improving and developing farm infrastructure which would make our operation more efficient and, more importantly, more sustainable. Here I am thinking of renewable energy systems which can free a farmer from grid dependence and increasing energy prices, new buildings for increasing production of animal products such as eggs, dairy and meat, processing facilities for grains, oilseeds and the aforementioned animal products, super efficient greenhouse technology and perhaps even new tools, be that a wheel hoe, a tractor or draught horses.
Currently, the only conventional sources of capital for on-farm infrastructure investment in Canada are the banks and the government financing operations, Farm Credit Corporation and its provincial counterparts. Both the banks and the government-mandated agricultural financing alternatives are notoriously unfriendly to small producers, especially those who take seriously the notion of sustainability. If you were to walk into the bank and tell the loans officer that you would like to buy a team of 4 draught horses so that you no longer have to use a tractor on your 20 acres of arable land, once the laughter had subsided, you would very quickly be shown the door. They all operate under the conceit that growing food for local economies has no intrinsic value outside of traditional economics and that bigger is better. To these financiers, sustainability does not ever enter into the equation. From my conversations with farming colleagues who have taken this path to financing capital investment in their operations, sensible and modest business plans are not welcome. What is welcome is a plan with big risks, a plan involving huge investments in equipment, livestock or land, but always with the understanding that the risk is the farmer’s, and should the plan fail, the land, the livestock and the equipment will, in the end, belong to the bank or financing corporation.
This is why the concept of Slow Money has such great potential. It allows enlightened and concerned investors, who see real value in local food production as a way of creating food security and reviving a rural economy on a long-term basis, to make their capital work towards this goal and to work in an ethical manner. This potential goes well beyond any one individual farm, as well. I can tell you with no uncertainty that there are huge holes in our local food system that could be filled if investment capital was directed with a bias towards long-term ecological, social and financial sustainability. Processing capacity in our bio-region is woefully inadequate, whether we are talking about dairy, animal or primary products such as vegetables, oilseeds, legumes and grain. Another area where the principles of Slow Money could be put into play is in assisting new and younger farmers in accessing land. The average age of prairie farmers is currently 57 and there are many inspired and creative individuals who would probably make great farmers, but they need help to access the land, and this help is not going to be provided through conventional sources of financing.
What Slow Money, Slow Food, CSA’s and other similar initiatives are really about is the creation of sustainable systems of production, distribution and consumption which operate outside of, but parallel to those operating within the dominant economic paradigm. It bears mentioning here that we in Calgary have an alternative currency, Calgary Dollars, which has been a functioning economic system operating parallel to the mainstream economy for almost 25 years. We are blessed to have this currency, as it represents expertise and experience in building a local economy, which many communities do not have. I would encourage any of you who are not yet involved in this alternative economy to do so, because like Slow Food and Slow Money, in order for these movements to gain enough momentum to become lasting phenomena and to affect real change, they need a broad based support network and the involvement of a critical mass of citizens.
While all of these parallel movements are incredibly important in initiating change and giving us a sense of optimism about the future, I do feel it is necessary to emphasize here that we must also engage in civic discourse and the democratic process in order to bring about changes in the dominant economic paradigm. I agree with what Woody Tasch said when interviewed a few weeks ago on CBC radio, that there will be no top down change to our economy initiated by our political elite. To me, this is about as likely as Moammar Ghadafy giving up power because he realizes that the interests of his fellow Libyans are, in fact, not being served by his leadership. However, as frustrated, determined and idealistic citizens all across the middle east and north africa have shown us over the past weeks, this does not mean that change cannot be initiated from below. Our esteemed PM Stephen Harper said last week that his government will bring in a budget that best serves the interests of the Canadian economy. Conspicuously absent was any mention of the Canadian people, and this should be all the evidence we need to acknowledge that our interests as citizens are being ignored in favour of the interests of capital and that we need to act in a coordinated fashion to bring about political change. The ugly truth is that the way capital is operating right now, being invested in exploitative and damaging ways without ever having to fully take all of its externalized costs into account, will ruin this planet for all of us. No matter what sort of locally oriented and sustainable farms we might foster in striving to achieve food security and food sovereignty, if the negative consequences of the rest of the human culture’s capital investments include social unrest, armed conflict and climate change which makes it nigh impossible to produce food almost anywhere on the planet, then all of our efforts will have been for naught. I believe that we all have the moral responsibility as human beings to do what we can to ensure that the living systems which support all life on this planet and the welfare of future generations are not sacrificed to a greed-fuelled and short-sighted economic theory of growth for growth’s sake.
I will leave you this evening with a short quote from the Canadian poet Richard Outram.
“The cardinal human values are humility and hope.
It takes knowledge and will to solve the problems that we have.
Knowledge can only come from humility and work.
Will can only come from hope.”