By Art Menius
Each day of Money and Meaning involved a different venue and a different focus. Thursday at Fearrington Barn in that affluent development north of Pittsboro offered a cocktail party feel and a serious conversation between Judy Wicks and Frank Stacio. Friday resembled many conferences with a number of session on a community college campus.
Saturday took us to The Plant, an increasingly well-known hybrid of a business incubator and an industrial park housing a number of sustainable
businesses along with the Abundance Foundation which hosted the conference with Slow Money NC. Occupants of the plant include Piedmont BioFuels, Homs, Screech Owl Greenhouses, Fair Game beverages and tasting room.
Many attendees took a five hour bus tour to Eric Henry’s remarkable localist business, TS Designs, in Burlington, NC and the thriving village of Saxaphaw. As a local, I skipped that expenditure of time and arrived at the Plant around three o’clock. By that time the Slow Money Market was in full swing with product samples and sales and discussions about investments. One of the exhibitors was Marty Hanks, whose hops farm was my first Slow Money NC loan.
At four o’clock, Slow Money NC’s Carol Peppe Hewitt began an organizational tradition of those seeking loans to give three minute pitches. Those climbing on stage included Sweet Retreat Orchard near Hillsborough, NC. It has more than 80 fruit bearing trees plenty so far. Seal the Seasons aims to provide dependable income to local farmers by buying large quantities of high quality, local vegetables and fruit, freezing them
(25,000 pounds so far), and selling these in groceries and in food deserts year round. They seek funding to build their own facility in order to process hundreds of thousands of pounds. Scratch Baking in downtown Durham needs desperately to expand. They need funding to by the iconic David Baking Building to house their bakery, a coffee shop, and a 70 seat restaurant. Screech Owl Greenhouses, which grows out of season produce at the Plant, needs loans to protect his investment with a generator backup system. Sweeties. Kitchen, located west of Carrboro, needs a van for its catering business. Tony Cleese, well known for developing for profit and nonprofit organic food enterprises, seeks a business partner to get his disease resistant organic seeds in the marketplace.
After a musical performance, Slow Money founder Woody Tasch took the stage for Money and Meaning’s closing keynote. He began by recalling the May 20, 2010 meeting at Central Carolina Community College, which launched Slow Money NC before second national Slow Money conference. Describing Slow Money as a conversation and a network, Woody pointed out that Slow Money NC did the very first Slow Money loan.
The culture change driving slow money is transactions based in relationships. Woody quoted an organic farmer’s simple, yet profound formula: “Feed the soil, not the plant.”
Tasch read excerpts from the first chapter, currently called “conversation,” of next book including the memorable line, “all the king’s markets and all the fiduciary’s men can’t put the economy back together again.” Not long thereafter he read, “We’re giving our money to people we don’t know very well to invest in things they don’t know very well. Does that sound like a healthy economy?”
Woody recounted how, after quoting major league investment manager Jeremy Grantham without credit in a speech, Grantham came up afterwards and introduced himself. He eventually said, “Thomas Malthus was right, he just got the arithmetic wrong,” to which Tasch responded, “I say that too.”
He moved into referencing the Slow Money essay, “Commons_nth.” While the quip, “Say no to oil and yes to soil,” is memorable, Tasch pushed a deeper problem at the Plant and in the essay. Several million of us share these beliefs, but few of us are acting on it. We have become invisible investors. It is time for us to become visible and act on our beliefs. He also identified the root issue. “What is stopping us is that we are looking backwards at the age of Wall Street rather than forward.”
“I trying to make an entrepreneurial setting for E.F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry.” He compared investing to farming: “Who told you investing would be easy? Conscientious investing will be hard like farming.”
Admitting that a real strategy for spreading slow money still doesn’t exist, Woody explained that regionals conferences, of which this was the first, will be happening for the next 18 months rather than a national. “There are five more planned that we know of. They may be a new template.” North Carolina ($2,000,000 in loans) and Maine ($9,000,000) are the most active slow money networks.
Moving into final segment he called conversation, Woody posed three rhetorical questions: What if we invested 50% of our money locally? What if a new generation of companies invested 50% locally? What if we increased topsoil biomass by 50%.”
Audience comments led Tasch into a description of how the two investing clubs he belongs to in Colorado work. He delivered at least three more memorable lines. The first came from local foods pioneer Odessa Piper: “Local is the distance the heart can travel.” Woody added “Instead of thinking about the economy, think about where your money is,” and “Is the power to heal things going to come through the system or from what we can each do ourselves to change things?”
Challenged, inspired, and entertained, we queued up for an amazing dinner of Spanish Mackerel and shrimp boil from the North Carolina coast, local BBQ beer can chicken with corn on the cob, and local vegetables both cooked and in salad. The meal and the conference reached its conclusion with the cutting and consumption of the Slow Money cake.
September 12, 2015