What’s at stake? Investing in food and farming communities for optimal systemic health

By Theo Ferguson, founder, Vital Systems


Theo Ferguson, founder, Vital Systems

Vital Systems

Why Care about Food and Farming?

As food writer Michael Pollen says, “We are what we eat.” And the way our food is grown becomes both our bodies and the living land we eat. In the gastrological cycle, we eat and we uptake nutrients from our food which gives us our health and vitality. Vintner Paul Dolan says, “Plants fully express themselves—fruit fully expresses itself by bringing health and vitality into the space. If the space is healthy, the yield is a healthy regenerative system.” Now that we know we are all one intricately connected entity, let us begin to include our new sense of who we are—who sees, who speaks? Let’s look at food through our natural systems lenses. Further, we could begin to realize in a very deep, visceral way that all living systems areimbued with spirit.

Issues with our Current Food System

Our current industrial, corporate food system produces frozen pizza with preservatives for long shelf lives, corn-syrupy Frosted Flakes©, and other “fast” or industrial processed “foods.” System fundamentals include high fat, high sugar, and high salt items that crowd the center shelves and freezer space in our grocery stores with long stale dates and have serious impacts on our personal health. By consuming these “foods,” we have created a system of “indentured eaters” — in which industrially processed food becomes the more readily accessible and affordable choice in comparison to the time-of-purchase “costs” of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables.

However, industrialized “food” leaves families, neighborhoods, and communities with medical bills for Type 2 Diabetes, obesity complications, heart disease, and strokes. The nation’s Farm Bill becomes a medical bill, turning federal subsidies into corn surpluses and then converting corn surpluses into industrial “food” and finally into consumer health care expenses. These health conditions, in addition to starvation and foodborne illnesses, are global pandemics.

On the other hand, being able to eat beautiful organic food other than what is in season requires different infrastructure, for example facilities that freeze Pink Lady apple pie, preserve Kabocha pumpkin, or make jam from Le Grand Nectarine between seasons. These are family or locally processed, value-added foods.

Our current “feed the world” practices put the health of daily food in jeopardy. Yet a new future could be created if we — as people with assets — began to look at food and farming as all-inclusive, and we each in our regions grew a healthy community-based food supply. Many healthy food advocates, myself included, posit that we would save enormous amounts of money and taxes if we were to forestall the deluge of corporate industrial food and facilitate access to healthy food.


The most critical vulnerability in the food and farming sector is system wide infrastructure, namely land, farmers and the right partners. The average age of farmers in the United States is 57, and those chomping at the bit to get on the land can solve this infrastructure problem—but not your grandfather’s way!

Instead of traditional combines, giant silos and large range sprinkler irrigation systems, young farmers are finding less material intensive solutions to age-old farming problems. A new generation of farming professionals with MS degrees and little or no access to land (Greenhorns) do not see that they need to own land at all. These educated new farmers know how to grow businesses, form coalitions, build contacts, and do whatever is needed to not waste money on brick and mortar, and debt-building machines. Rather, they use the best machines they have—what’s between their ears–and the rest of us dedicated to their success. We need to do everything we can to support this inter-generational farming transfer.

This is where you come in!

Eaters with significant financial assets have the opportunity to divest their assets from fossil fuels and direct that capital toward Community Land Trusts, to which new farmers would have access, addressing a priority infrastructure challenge in our food system. We have not conserved agricultural land effectively, and it has therefore become too expensive, so potential new farmers seeking agricultural land cannot afford it at the current market rates. Community Land Trusts would own land and lease it to new farmers, thereby increasing land access and allowing farmers to grow their equity through their farming practices, earning enough money to sustain multi-generational farm knowledge and culture. When farmers repopulate Community Land Trust lands, the source of our food chains will have been revitalized.

Those among us with financial assets could realize that we are part of a living system and therefore rely on healthy farms for healthy food. By endeavoring to ensure that all beings have the right to good, clean, fair and affordable food (a truly sustainable agriculture) we take care of not only ourselves but also our worldwide community. What farmers bring to the table of the world is their knowledge, dedication, and culture; one of the many reasons the UN declared 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. Investing your asset value transferred from fossil fuels or like holdings that you divested from your portfolios, would provide a “sea change.” Work with the Agrarian Trust to direct these funds in Community Land Trusts and Agricultural Land Trusts with Affirmative Agricultural Easements.


Living systems are healthy when all components hold efficiency and resilience in balance. This is our 3.8 billion year old heritage. Let us consider a natural systems lens. In a watershed water is always moving. An ecosystem is alive when energy flows freely through the system. Our economies are alive when we keep our assets in circulation. I conceive “capital watersheds” as biomimicing the hydrologic cycle, where money flows from larger financial reservoirs (long term assets) through a series of locks (specific protocols) to the tributary foodsheds. These flows continue on to finer allocations until they reach infrastructure and market investments to grow robust programs in local food and farming communities. This flow of capital investments has proven viable, and it produces tremendous community benefit.

By creating a capital watershed together we become aware of our financial inventory. This enables us to negotiate collaborations that draw from family funds, pension funds, funds with ESG benefits, and many other sources. By charting this financial asset landscape we can structure any investment to support our vulnerable food and farming communities.

There are critical, viable investments in search of capital from the capital watershed. Working collaboratively to produce more good food products sustains fertile agricultural land, multi-generational farm knowledge and farm culture, while ensuring that the land and farmers sustain their collective effort as the source of our food chains.

What Kind of Investments and Collaborations Have Been Created

There are two sources of capital—public good and market. Below we’ve given one example of each.

Example 1: Public Good Capital

Example 1: Public Good Capital

Colusa County in California undertook an economic development project to raise the average income of members in their community and increase the quality of life by increasing spending power in the county through job development. In this case, the capital watershed model uses the following flow:

Congressional Appropriations Committees allocate funds to HUD.

HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Program (CDBG) allocates funds to State of California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD).

HCD forwards the grant to Colusa County.

Colusa County hires consultant, Community Development Services (CDS), to structure and maintain the allocation of funds toward a job-creating, local food enterprise, Premier Mushrooms.

CDS found financial partner, Farm Credit West, and netted 45 full time jobs for low-income community members and continues to track loan repayments.

Colusa County uses the loan repayments to further fund community necessities.

This capital watershed example worked because Federal capital was brokered by State oversight to a county with seasoned professional consultants who restructured the debt, complied with the CDBG requirements, and tracks required tasks on an ongoing basis. More details here.

Example 2: Market Capital placed in A Direct Relationship-Driven Investment

Example 2: Market Capital placed in A Direct Relationship-Driven Investment

Capay Valley Farm Shop is a 30-farmer community-owned distribution Food Hub. The enterprise grew from an internal community effectiveness strategy and was augmented by Slow Money Northern California equity investors. With flow of capital from the community and Slow Money, Capay Valley Farm Shop was able to buy trucks and rent a warehouse. The enterprise negotiated a mutually beneficial relationship with a fresh food web ordering and delivery service in San Francisco called GoodEggs.com. Capay Valley Farm Shop products are 50 percent of GoodEggs.com sales in the region. In turn, 30+ percent of Capay Valley Farm Shop’s profit is from GoodEggs.com. Both enterprises are pleased with their relationship, and both are growing their capacities to serve individual, enterprise, institutional, and web distribution clients as a result. Increased income is earned, grows further infrastructure, and secures the land and lifestyles to sustain the sources of the food chain. Illustrated here.

For more Capital Watershed examples see the three links below. These three are proactive strategies as well as initiatives resulting from the reduction of Federal funding:

California Financial Collaborative: Solution to reduction of Federal Capital.

SaCOG and Valley Vision: Regional Robustness Partnership–Planning and Action

For a comprehensive guide of California capital access for entrepreneurs see thisAccess to Capital Guide put together by the California Financial Opportunities Roundtable

Consider this

Everyday, we receive health and resilience from the knowledge and discipline of our food and farming providers.  We need them and they need us. I want to live in support of living systems. How do I live with the knowledge that robustness in food and farming systems roots us to a sustainable future? Knowledge of their failure puts all living systems in jeopardy. I invite you to join me to live accordingly and start by taking on these andother actions.

Join a local Slow Money Chapter and share due diligence with like-minded direct relationship-driven investors

Start or restructure your Community Fund to feature local food and farming enterprises open to all investors

Plant your seeds for health and resilience!

Theo Ferguson, Founder, Vital Systems, Inc., food and farming investor and activist, http://vitalsystemsca.com

Memberships: US SIF, Slow Money NoCal, Founding Member: Slow Money National

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the information and referred me to others.

Article By Theo Ferguson, founder, Vital Systems

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