Monday, March 14, 2011

Financing Farm Futures

[Community Supported Agriculture, image via Harvest Moon Farms]
The perspective taken in this article in the Muskegon Chronicle about a local, urban CSA is refreshing. Rather than focusing on a gourmand approach to great tasting veggies, or the trend behind the rise in urban farms, it focuses on a CSA as an investment. Now in some ways this is an obvious point. But in a world of increasing financial turmoil, its a point worth spending some time on.

For people with the financial means to have investments, the conventional choices - savings accounts, IRAs, mutual funds, etc - all mean giving control of more capital to financial institutions and large corporations. We have seen the dangers of this approach all too clearly in recent years - reckless lending, corporate monopolies and a financial system that seems to benefit very few. Often to a wage-earner if may seem as if there are few other choices for how to invest one's money. Thinking of a CSA as an investment in the future of sustainable food and the local environment is one way to understand the value of paying up front for your vegetables.

Much more eloquent than I on this topic is Woody Tasch in his book Slow Money, which delves into the dangers of seeking high rates of return and the opportunities for investing in ways that support slow food. Although fairly technical it is still highly worth the read!

A session on Alternative Captial at the 2011 Eco Farm conference explored a variety of ways that small farms and related businesses might be financed. Examples included the CSA members of Angelic Organics who invested in physical expansion of the farm, the Foodshed Initiative and subsequent La Montanita Fund organized by La Montanita Co-op in Santa Fe, the Permaculture Credit Union and creation of one's own "money" such as Salt Spring Dollars and Berkshire Farms Notes. Many of these efforts seek to find financing from individuals rather than banks for a host of reasons - not wanting to use one's farm as collateral on a debt, avoiding high interest rates or simply not qualifying for a traditional loan.

The old saying "put your money where your mouth is" could not be truer in this context. What we buy matters, especially when you consider that every purchase finances potential business expansion. For landscape architects and planners, describing a farm program as an investment in the local environment can be an effective approach with some clients, who may value a productive landscape as an investment return. Further, knowing the full spectrum of financing strategies will help designers become more active and able advocates for small farm programs.