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Friday, June 17, 2011

Slow Money Entrepreneur Showcase Brings Money Down to the Soil

Posted By on Fri, Jun 17, 2011 at 4:15 PM

click to enlarge Brentwood's Frog Hollow Farm. - BEYONDTHEPLATE.NET
  • Brentwood's Frog Hollow Farm.

Most people are familiar with Slow Food, the organization founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986 to encourage a return to traditional foodways and reconnect with the sources of our food. So what if we took the same mentality and applied it to finance and investing?

Slow Money is the product of exactly that thinking, and the Northern California chapter hosted its first Entrepreneur Showcase at Fort Mason Center on Sunday, June 12. Of more than 50 submitted proposals, Slow Money Northern California selected the 12 it felt were the most deserving of airtime in front of potential investors, who registered to attend.

"The time is different in the way of thinking about investment," MC Marco Vangelisti said in his introduction. "Slow Money is about bringing the money down to the soil." In fact, the national organization flowed $4 million to entrepreneurs and causes within the last year; this was the local branch's opportunity to make a difference here.

All of the presenters' projects centered on making positive changes to local food systems, whether converting conventional land to organic farmland, or introducing small farms or fresh markets to underserved urban areas. What follows is a rundown of some of the projects presented.

Farmland LP applies investors' money to acquire and convert conventional land to organic, sustainable farmland. This alleviates the financial and logistical pressures that prevents many farmers from undertaking the conversion process. The potential for return is great. Farmland in general has returned 14.8% IRR since 1992, far outpacing the S&P, and the demand for organic food has grown 20% annually since 1990. Moreover, the gap between total acreage of farmland and total US population is narrowing. When you consider that one acre of farmland roughly feeds one person, the demand will surely be on the rise. Farmland LP is looking to raise up to $100 million, in minimum $50,000 investments, to acquire and convert these lands.

Brentwood's beloved Frog Hollow Farm seeks $225,000 to lease an eight-acre parcel near to its existing land to plant more peach trees; the plot will become profitable after a five-year period of maturation of the trees. Frog Hollow also plans to use this plot to develop a program to bring young people back to the farm. Considering the average farmer is 65-years-old, "Farmer Al" Courchesne believes this is the single greatest crisis facing the farming industry today.

The Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust and Marin Agricultural Land Trust acquire existing agricultural lands to prevent development and lease them back to the farmers at affordable rates. Some 40% of the Bay Area is still farmland and ranch land, but it is increasingly at risk. Brentwood, for example, has seen a population explosion from 7,500 to 56,000, and farmers are being crowded out. BALT is asking for $9 million to purchase 1,200 acres, and MALT seeks $4.8 to purchase 2,200 acres.

"My name is Teddy Stray, and I am a shit farmer from Bayonne, NJ," kicked off the founder of Pt. Reyes Compost Co. Using manure from his father-in-law's dairy farm, he's built a business on being "purveyors of premium poop." Do you know where your manure comes from? Stray's business has taken off, and he's seeking $300K in minimum $30K increments to scale the business to meet the demands of the operation.

Mandela Foods Cooperative is a locally owned, full-service grocery store in the severely underserved market of West Oakland. They are seeking $150,000 to expand their operations from strictly groceries to more prepared foods and and cafe to increase sales and direct more funds into their community-focused efforts.

Alameda Point Collaborative is a supportive housing community of 500 residents. Alameda Point is a food desert, with the nearest grocery more than two miles away. APC has undertaken the conversion of a 1.5-acre plot to a working organic farm. Their Growing Youth Project aims to involve the children of the community both on the farm and via a commercial kitchen where they can learn and teach cooking skills.

West Oakland has a population of 25,000; 70% of their demand for groceries is underserved, representing a $40.6 million opportunity. People's Community Market aims to expand their operations to build a 12,000-foot pavilion serving community-sensitive groceries. This will require a $3 million investment, with $1.8 million coming from investor equity and the remaining $1.2 million from institutional loans.

The diminished number of USDA slaughterhouses creates problems for small ranchers. Without access to a slaughterhouse within a reasonable radius of the ranch, purveyors must truck their livestock farther and farther to have the meat processed, driving up costs and decimating margins. Marin Sun Farms, which currently has a nearly complete vertical operation, is looking to acquire the Rancho USDA slaughterhouse in downtown Petaluma to serve small ranches in Northern California. Rancho is the only slaughterhouse within 35 miles of San Francisco; the next closest is in Modesto, 100 miles away. Marin Sun is looking for a variety of investment opportunities; contact them for details.

Planting Justice empowers low-income communities to transform barren land in their homes, apartment complexes, schools, and communities into abundant edible gardens, through educational programming and door-to-door outreach in urban communities. They fund their work building gardens for free for those who most need them by building permaculture gardens for those who can afford to pay, while creating living wage green jobs for people with barriers to employment. They need $25,000 to increase their canvassing efforts, and up to $250,000 to acquire empty lots to farm.

Contact information for each business or cause is available on their websites.

Sean Timberlake is the founder of Punk Domestics, a content and community site for DIY food enthusiasts. Follow SFoodie on Twitter: @SFoodie, and like us on Facebook.

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