Cartwrites: Slow Money

Posted Wednesday, March 6, 2013 in Features

Cartwrites: Slow Money

Bonnie Rukin of Camden and Samuel Kaymen of South Bristol

by Steve Cartwright

CAMDEN -- A group called Slow Money Maine, organized by social change activist Bonnie Rukin of Camden, is rapidly boosting the state's organic farming movement through loans outside of conventional banks.

Slow money is something of an answer to "fast money" and corporations that are obsessed with the bottom line. But it's really about sustainable and healthy food production.

Since the financial networking group was founded three years ago, it has channeled about $4 million in loans, grants and equity to help young businesses grow and prosper. Rukin’s group is a branch of the national Slow Money alliance, and has pulled together as many as 80 people from diverse backgrounds for three-hour meetings on how to nurture a budding network of organic, sustainable food producers.

One of the bigger projects for Slow Money Maine is the effort to turn Skowhegan into a Maine-grown organic food hub, including the local jail-turned-grist mill and a grange hall just purchased for $15,000 that could become a community space.

A former organic farmer herself, Rukin said Slow Money Maine creates a network of investors, farmers, retailers and others with an interest in promoting healthy local food production. "We're a small state and a lot of people know each other," she said. She has many contacts through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, where she served as president of the board.

She is also a parent and former teacher who believes in "the interconnectedness of all things."

Rukin said her interest in the Slow Money project dovetails with a desire to "do something with greater community impact." She believes that financial investments should be based on meaningful relationships.

"Our mission is to invest in the food economy," declared Samuel Kaymen, founder of Stonyfield Farm, the organic yogurt company. He retired from Stonyfield years ago and is now enthusiastically devoting time and energy to building a healthy, local foods network.

Over an organic lunch at his South Bristol home, Rukin and Kaymen talked about Slow Money Maine's mid-coast offshoot, Maine Organic Lenders, a newly-formed group that is interested in providing start-up and expansion loans to small farmers, growers and other food producers across the state.

 "It's a vision about a whole food economy," said Kaymen. "It's about building community. The time is short, the urgency is now," he said, explaining that he knows people with financial resources who would like to invest in "something they can feel good about." Eventually, he and Rukin would like to see a network that supplies healthy local food not only to farmers markets and retail stores, but also to schools and hospitals.

Besides direct loans, Slow Money Maine is creating a $50,000 technical assistance fund, offering training in business planning, marketing and management.

Kaymen recently received a loan payoff from Dave Ouellette, who is growing grain at Lake Shore Farms in St. David, Aroostook County. The $5,000 loan, lent at 5 percent interest, was enough to help Ouellette boost his grain output to the point he may soon be able to give up his "day job" as a trucker.

Kaymen said a bank might balk at such a loan, but he sent off a check to Ouellette based on Slow Money Maine’s recommendation.

Closer to home, Slow Money Maine has helped tofu manufacturer Jeff Wolowitz of Lincolnville with soy bean storage at a new local food hub, Coastal Farms, in the former Moss Tent Works building in Belfast.

Another project involved convincing a theater camp in Belgrade to grow and serve healthy vegetables during its summer season.

Kaymen's entrepreneurial encouragement is part of Slow Money Maine, a new branch of a national movement headed by Woody Tasch. Tasch, who lives in Boulder, CO and wrote a book called Slow Money, heads a group of "angel investors" and others with the financial capacity to help sustainable, socially responsible businesses get started and grow. Tasch's web site asserts that since 1992, his group has brought $130 million to help some 200 businesses.

Tasch's book is subtitled, "harvesting as if food, farms and fertility mattered."

The next meeting of Slow Money Maine, free and open to anyone, is set March 20, 1-4 p.m., at Viles Arboretum in Augusta. Heather Burt of Edgecomb, head of Damariscotta-based Focus on Agriculture in Rural Maine Schools (FARMS) will discuss her work.

A national Slow Money convention is set April 29-30, in Boulder, Colorado. Among speakers is Jim Gerritsen, organic foods activist and long time farmer in Bridgewater, Aroostook County, with his wife Megan and their four children. Gerritsen is known for protesting the tactics of genetically modified seed and pesticide producer Monsanto - the antithesis and perhaps the nemesis of sustainable organic farming.

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