A Case for Agroecology: Where We Need to Go and How to Get There

by Theodosia Hamilton Ferguson,
Founder, Vital Systems

Theodosia Hamilton Ferguson
Vital Systems

I am actively concerned that industrial agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels, requires heavy natural resource inputs, drives international land grabs and increases the disparity of health and income and I am sharing actions I have taken to inspire you to action.

There are many voices holding up agroecology as the solution for global farming practices. Agroecology employs traditional ways of farming that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society. New research in agroecology allows us to explore more effectively how we can use traditional knowledge to protect people and their environment at the same time.  Agroecology offers environmentally sustainable methods that can meet the rapidly growing demand for food.

Hilal Elver in her first public speech since her appointment to the United Nations as the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food says,

If we deal with small farmers we solve hunger and we also deal with food production…one billion people globally are hungry and called on governments to support a transition to ‘agricultural democracy’…In the crowded and hot world of tomorrow, the challenge of how to protect the vulnerable is heightened… [that] means recognizing small farmers [and women farmers], who are also the most vulnerable and the most hungry.

 

Elver points out, “currently in the European Union about 80% of subsidies and 90% of research funding go to support conventional industrial agriculture.” The US subsidies and research funding are likely higher.  Elver is among the representatives of governments advocating for reallocation of money, subsidies, and policies to small local sustainable farmers. We investors need to step up and invest our money directly in local agriculture. Why should we depend on our governments to solve how we eat in this “crowded and hot world of tomorrow” if it’s clear that “small farmers are the key to a healthy future”?

Why are these farmers the key? Because they are great land managers, they understand that good tilth clumps soil that holds water, have extensive farm knowledge—possibly also agroecological knowledge, and the list goes on.

Doesn’t it make sense for local investors to invest in local food?  Global issues embedded in the food and agricultural systems of concern to this investor community are divesting from both industrial agriculture and fossil fuels and ceasing international land grabs. Therefore, we must examine how our current agricultural systems are both susceptible to and perpetuate climate instability–low hanging fruit being biomass and Confined Animal Feed Organizations (CAFOs).

We can invest in agroecological practices through direct relationship-driven investing, also known as Slow Money or Local Impact Investing. It is patient capital that allows an investor to build a relationship with the entrepreneur. I would argue it’s one of the only ways we can truly invest in a food system that delivers sustainably healthy food in equitable ways. The concerns of this investor community are closely linked to the Slow Money Movement that invests as if “food, farms, and fertility matter.”

When Woody Tasch published his book, Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money, I immediately joined the Slow Money Movement and have invested $2 million in 12 local relationship-driven investments. Some among GMJ readers have written about investing locally as well:

 
Direct relationship-driven investments has another dimension—the growth of democracy. Elver called on governments to support a transition to “agricultural democracy”. I am calling on community members to support a transition to full on democracy—personal, agricultural, social, and financial through direct local relationship-driven investing. You live in your community—invest where you live! You know that your and your family’s well being depends on your community’s quality of life. Your local relationship-driven investments are interconnected with every other person in your community since your small farmers, your local food and farming enterprises create the health and resilience in your community that all community members seek.

Do you eat fresh, organic food? Do you go to the gym, ride a bike, hike by the ocean? You got your energy from eating your local fresh, organic food. You then have vision, mentation, endurance, and musculature to undertake whatever else in your life. Investing is like any other exercise. Why not trust yourself? You know your full universe of community connections. These connections can help you exercise that due diligence musculature in projects you care about. The relationships you have built up over the years could well translate into great investment partners, networks of intentional allies, and good food bounty. Time to get down to work with steady income as well as amazing community benefits!

This is investing, you say, this is my income. Start with 15 percent of your portfolio, cash it out, and put it into a local direct relationship-driven investment account. That’s what I did in 2011.  Start looking for your great partners—your community connections that support healthy food–good, clean, fair, and affordable–in your community. Form working groups. For example, Slow Opportunities to Invest Locally (SOIL) is an investor committee of the Slow Money NoCal Chapter. Then start looking for entrepreneurs in whom to invest. We have had various ways of encouraging entrepreneurs to let us know they need money and to think about Slow Money as a source of investment capital.

One of the common observations from members of the SOIL group is, “As individuals we know only certain aspects of investing, and many of the entrepreneurs know very little about investing and do not know how to present to investors”. There is no one-process-fits-all for food and farming direct relationship-driven investing. I, myself, am only beginning to learn the questions to ask such as: Does this entrepreneur have the fire in the belly and the knowledge and expertise to stay in business?  Will the contract be complete and fair? And many more. Together with your associates you begin this due diligence and grow your investments when all parties are ready.

Well, are you beginning to consider taking this on?  And what about the food and farming entrepreneur? Is she ready to pitch at the next Slow Money Chapter meeting? Probably not. Don’t stop now!

My most significant investment step was to form Vital Systems, Inc. Vital Systems is the result of that wonderful renewable resource—systemic thinking. It helps answer the question: What are the issues that every direct relationship-driven investor faces when s/he realizes that “small farmers are the key to a healthy future”?  Some among the issues are: Can farmers find the help they need to actually adopt agroecological practices? Can food and farming entrepreneurs find services that help them raise capital? How do we reduce climate instability in agriculture? How do we increase community land trusts that are now sprouting eco-villages of young agro-ecological farmers, who had been struggling to access land and are our next generation of food producers?

Vital Systems works with clients through three interrelated services designed to support direct relationship-driven investors by reducing the obstacles for both the investors and entrepreneurs.

Our lead product, GoodFoodWeb.com, is an online educational marketplace composed of peer expert advisors in food, farming, and finance. Every entrepreneur works through challenges and develops methods they may use one time and never need to employ again in their own business, but that are useful for entrepreneurs at the onset of a similar challenge. For example, Hannah Kullberg, the “Bean Queen” of her family’s company, Better Bean Co. supports fellow entrepreneurs on the GoodFoodWeb as a peer expert advisor. On her profile she describes, “I shepherded the company through HACCP, Non-GMO Verification and B Corp Certification.” Therefore, an entrepreneur who knows they want to become B-Corp Certified can contact Hannah and glean from her experience. If you’re interested in becoming an expert advisor, join us!

Consider another case study that shows how someone uses all three products in our toolset:

My name is Sue Struthers.  My family owns a stone fruit orchard. I’m taking over the orchard I worked for many years and forming a new venture, Stone Fruit Bounty. I need some help making my business case to investors, a three year projection based on orchard management, and new equipment to produce the value added products I want to sell on the web—jams, dried fruit, fruit pastries.  So, I contact Vital Systems and find a peer expert advisor on the Goodfoodweb.com who knows how and where to buy used commercial canning and jamming equipment. Business Services for Entrepreneurs (BSE) produces Food and Farming Summaries that presents my case to investors. What about my three-year projection? They can help as well. They have bookkeeping services too that can help me clean up my books, so I can concentrate on my orchard management, marketing, and grow my value-added product line.  I know that Johnny Mellon is interested in investing in Stone Fruit Bounty.  He’s got the money, but he doesn’t want to hassle with the contract and the income tracking–the loan repayment collection and reporting. OK, Vital Systems has Local Investor Support Services. That’ll suit Johnny just fine. I’m wondering if I could pay back some of my loan to Johnny in pie and jam—he certainly loves them…and he’s a Kiwanis member. There’s a good market in itself! I’ll look up on Goodfoodweb.com and see if someone knows how to structure loan repayments with products.  Now I’m cookin.’.

 

Vital Systems was formed to enable investment in living systems. We seek to serve the investment community by providing services that support food and farming entrepreneurs to become funded and investors to invest locally. So don’t stop now. Settle down and THINK!  How am I going to invest in local food and farming entrepreneurs—the key to a healthy future? I can take this on; Vital Systems has my back. Open up your browser and go to vitalsystemsca.com and check out the technical support we have been developing for you, for all of us who feel in our guts that food entrepreneurs in our own communities grow our health and resilience.

Article by Theodosia Hamilton Ferguson, Founder and CEO, Vital Systems, Inc. is presenting her infrastructure portfolio at the 2014 Slow Money Gathering in Louisville, KY, November 9, 2014. If you are attending the conference, come on by our breakfasts, lunches, and the reception to learn about the GoodFoodWeb, Business Support Services, and Local Investor Support Services.

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