Reweaving the Economic Fabric to Support Sustainable Farms and Ag-based Businesses

Final report for LNC14-360

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2014: $199,634.00
Projected End Date: 09/30/2017
Grant Recipient: Renewing the Countryside
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Jan Joannides
Renewing the Countryside
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Project Information

Summary:

A key factor that limits the growth of sustainable farming is the difficulty farmers and ag-based businesses have in accessing adequate financing. This is especially true for small-scale and limited resource farmers. Through this project we developed a financing mechanism to infuse needed capital into sustainable farms and ag-related businesses. Concurrently, we developed pathways for individuals and businesses to invest in their local food and farming systems. This work built on models that have been proven successful in other parts of the country.

Our work involved identifying and sharing financing options currently available for sustainable farmers and foodmakers and exploring additional options that we could develop locally. We also explored and shared options available for individuals, businesses, and institutions to make investments into their local food and farming system.

On the educational front, we provided information and assistance in navigating the confusing maze of finance options to over 300 farmers and local food makers. We reached over 1,000 people with information on ways to invest in farm and food businesses closer to home.

After exploring an array of options, we landed on forming a Slow Money Minnesota Network and launching, in conjunction with the Feast! Local Food Network, a donation-based crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a micro-loan fund: the Grow a Farmer Fund. This campaign included a Barnraiser (like a Kickstarter, but for farm and food businesses), regional fundraisers and house parties. In a six month period we raised $98,000 from 250 individuals, businesses and foundations.

The first loan from the Grow a Farmer Fund ($15,000) was approved in September 2017, and our goal is to have the remainder of the funds lent out by spring of 2018. We have found that getting the money dispersed is more of a challenge than we expected, and has required a significant amount of outreach. We anticipate that as the fund gets better known, that this issue will dissolve.

Of particular interest was that our efforts also helped make connections that led to additional investments of over $420,000 to date. We anticipate that the momentum developed through this project will result in more funds leveraged over time.

Project Objectives:

Following is a summary of the Action and Educational Outcomes we set out to complete in this project along with our project.

We indicated we would develop at least one Financing Mechanism for sustainable farms and ag-related businesses.

  • We met this target by creating the Grow a Farmer Fund. So far, one $15,000 loan has been made to a farm family through this fund, and we anticipate making an additional $83,000 of low-interest loans by mid-2018.
  • We also formed a Slow Money Minnesota network which is not providing a direct financing mechanism, but is providing a "space" for farmers and ag businesses to connect with investors.

Investment Mechanism Created. At least 1 new mechanism will be developed that will enable local people and businesses to invest in their local farms and food system. 

  • This process has also helped us hone in on ways we can develop mechanisms where investors can get their principal, and potentially some interest, back on their investments. This includes efforts to develop investment clubs focused on food/farm businesses, an application for the Minnesota Slow Money Network to become a Kiva Trustee, and efforts to develop something like an investment-type crowd-funding portal.

12 sustainable farms and ag-based businesses will have accessed financing made available through this initiative.

  • We have not yet met this target, but anticipate that we will by mid-2018. We do know six businesses were able to access grants and loans through connections made through this initiative: three to help in the purchase of farmland, one to help finance a meat processing plant, one to help with operating costs for a small produce farm, and one to help purchase equipment for a hops farm and processing operation. As we have $83,000 left in the Grow a Farmer fund, and as the cap on loans is $15,000, we expect to make at least six loans to farmers.  

At least 1,000 interested eaters will have learned about opportunities to invest their money closer to home and in ways that support sustainable farms and fair food systems.

  • We have met this goal through a combination of events and outreach through traditional and social media. 300+ people attended events including the four Slow Money gatherings in St. Paul, an event in Mankato, a house party in Minneapolis, and a presentation on the Sustainability Stage at the Minnesota State Fair’s EcoExperience. 70+ people learned about opportunities through tabling at two natural food co-op annual meetings and at one farmers’ market. Several media outlets covered this initiative including AgriNews, the Rochester Post Bulletin, and The Growler. There was also social media outreach through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the e-newsletters of partner organizations and a blog post on the initiative featured on the national Slow Money blog.

Over 150 farmers and/or ag-based businesses will have learned how to better navigate the many financing options available.

  • 163 people attended events focused on navigating financing options. This included workshops at the 2015 & 2016 Sustainable Farming Association conferences, 2015 MOSES Organic Conference, 2016 MN Organic Conference, 2016 New Farmer U conference, and 2016 Feast Local Foods Tradeshow.
  • At least 18 farms or ag-based businesses have received personalized assistance on navigating financing since the beginning of the grant.

Financial Literacy Increased for Loan/Finance Recipients.

  • Recipients (and applicants) to the Grow a Farmer fund are receiving assistance that is increasing their financial literacy.

Lessons Learned Shared.

  • We shared information on this project at the national Transitions Towns conference, through the National Slow Money network, and through outreach with our partners. With this phase of the project completed, we will submit proposals to conferences to share our learnings and seek out opportunities to share our process and success in professional journals.

Systems Outcomes - More Resilient Food System Created.

  • We know that this initiative has helped to fuel greater interest and grow support in this area, which we anticipate will lead to a more resilient food system. Because of this project, we were able to secure funds to further research mechanisms for local, food/farm-mined investors to invest in local food/farm businesses. We have also been able to provide information to partners who are working with institutions interested in investing closer to home and are open to investing in food and farm businesses.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Pam Bishop
  • Christina Jennings
  • John Mesko

Research

Participation Summary

Education

Educational approach:

Our educational approach was to gather everything we could learn on both the financing farm/food systems side and investing in farm/food systems - and adapting that information for our audiences.

We then crafted presentations, conversations, and communication pieces based on our audiences and delivered this information in settings that ranged from farmer conferences to house parties.

Project Activities

Creative Financing Education

Educational & Outreach Activities

18 Consultations
2 Published press articles, newsletters
18 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

167 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

We conducted a number of outreach and education activities to inform both farmers (167 reached through 6 events) and potential investors (491 reached through 12 events) about creative financing opportunities for sustainable agriculture businesses, and specifically build on what we have learned and developed in Minnesota.

This includes 5 investor workshops/events about the creative financing and slow money landscape in general, 5 additional educational events that included information about the Grow a Farmer Fund that has developed out of this line of work, 1 presentation at a national conference, and 1 more investor event that took place after funding for this grant concluded. 

To reach farmers, we met them where they are, including a number of state and regional sustainable farming conferences. Between 2015-2016, we reached 167 farmers about creative financing solutions and opportunities in workshops at the Sustainable Farming Association annual conference, the MOSES Conference, a New Farmer U Minnesota gathering, and the Feast Network's annual local food tradeshow.

Our work that led to the establishment of the Grow a Farmer Fund made it into two news outlets, and further developed our network with folks on the cutting edge of sustainable farming economies, both in the region, and nationwide. 

Additionally, at least 18 farms or ag-based businesses have received personalized assistance on navigating financing since the beginning of the grant.

Learning Outcomes

167 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Farmers learned how to better navigate the many financing options available

Project Outcomes

Key practices changed:
    6 Grants applied for that built upon this project
    6 Grants received that built upon this project
    Success stories:
    At one of the Slow Money events that brought farmers and people interested in investing in farms together, a farmer shared with another attendee that they needed more land to expand their sustainable livestock operation, but were finding it difficult to access capital. The person mentioned they might have a connection that could help. The farmer lost the business card of the person - and forgot their name - but when they called us, we were able to narrow down who it was they might have talked to. The farmer contacted the person, and this eventually led to a substantial loan that enabled the farmer to purchase the land he needed.
     
    A diversified livestock farm struggled with finding sufficient processing for their specialized meat business. After several years of research, they determined their best option was to open their own processing plant. But the cost to do so was substantial, and they didn’t have the savings or collateral to access traditional loans. SARE funding enabled us to help them navigate the complex financing options, assist them in securing a grant that provided cost share, and through the Slow Money network, connect them to an investor who helped round out their financing.
     
    Hare and Tortoise Farm is the first recipient of a low-interest loan through the Grow a Farmer Fund, part of an initiative within our collaborative Slow Money Minnesota Network and Feast! Local Food Network. Ellen, Bill, and their two children, Molly and Isaac, are in their third year of farming in Zumbro Falls, MN. They work with another farm in the area to market their organic vegetables in the community, and hope to launch their own CSA or market stand in the future. After two years of establishing their practices, they have a firm foundation to build on, and many more projects planned to improve their operations. This loan gives them the much needed financial stability to begin work on new infrastructure, address some water issues (they were flooded out two times this summer and need to take some steps to prevent future flooding), get a jumpstart on the fields for next spring, and wipe away credit card debts accrued when no other funds were available. 
     
    More details on the grant numbers listed above:

    MN Value Added grant Hidden Stream Farm

    MN Value Added grant Mighty Axe Hops
    SMIF grant to Grow a Farmer Fund
    Selected by Mississippi Market as recipient of Round Up Campaign (for Grow a Farmer)
    Blandin Foundation, grant to further explore creative financing options
    Northwest Area Foundation, grant (contract) to further explore creative financing options
    Recommendations:

    This is an emerging area, and is certainly likely to expand in coming years. Because this influx of capital from people in the community to farmers and food-sector businesses is happening in a dispersed manner, if feels like there aren’t good systems in place to gather longer terms impacts. It would be great to see research that could not only quantify the impacts of this sort of work, but also somehow capture the ripple effects that it generates.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.