On Wednesday afternoon I had the pleasure of accompanying Bonnie Rukin, Coordinator at Slow Food Maine to the group’s bi-monthly meeting. A tiny lady in her mid sixties, Bonnie’s energy, humour, and enthusiasm for her work lights up the hall of the Augusta (Maine) Arboretum’s hall, where at least 80 people packed in to hear what’s happening this month in Maine’s movement of sustainable food systems. A third of those were there for the first time. Slow money aims to match lenders and investors with local sustainable food projects who are seeking funds or other networking support. The figures alone speak for themselves, in 3 years the group has managed to leverage 8 million USD in projects, although one project was a hefty 3million backing alone. Investors receive 3-5% return on their loans and get to know the people and the project that they are investing in so that they can monitor and keep involved. What is inspiring is not just the group diversity, but the fact that they are bypassing major lenders and banks in order to foster local growth and it’s working well.
Bonnie and her steering committee hear from projects ranging from local agriculture, shared community kitchens, food hubs, production, organic grain farmers, urban agriculture, and community based gardening programs. To qualify to make a pitch they must all have a business plan and a budget as a starting point. Slow Money Maine is a network primarily and usually the projects that approach them will naturally fit into their sustainable food system concept – assisting people, small scale agriculture or local food projects needing assistance. A controversial case, Bonnie notes, was one where a blueberry farmer wanted to pitch for funds but the group is aware of his toxic soil and farming practices so he hasn’t been given the stage so far.
Bi-monthly afternoon meetings are held and then an annual full day gathering in November. The meetings and organisation is set up in a way that fosters networking and discussions. Of course, delicious local food is brought along to whet the appetite for such discussions and the first hour was a buzz with people mingling and discussing projects. A local aquaponic farmer tells me about his work – growing fresh water fish in a closed loop cycles (reusing waste and growing their own feed for the fish). When it was time to be seated we heard five project pitches that ran for 8 minutes a piece with 2 minutes of questions from the audience. Then towards the end there was a 3 minute wrap up from a number of already established projects, providing feedback to the group on where things are at – my favourite story shared was a Quarry regeneration project that is planting heirloom apple and pear varieties from Maine (over 150 used to be grown there) on permaculture principles to make a local orchard. A tree can be donated for $100 and so far they have raised $50,000.
I’m impressed by the hosting, the facilitating, the level of discussions and the professionalism of the projects. I’m struck by how openly money is discussed and people do not shy away from what is needed, after all that is the purpose. For me it is refreshing after workshops and conferences on food systems but not on how to fund them. Instead of questioning how we can find public and private investors who are interested, here we have them lining up to hear local stories and to support their fellow businesses. After the pitches another intense networking session is undertaken at the meetings. The room was buzzing with conversation – connecting people, helping each other find support that could help projects get off the ground. And there is certainly a feeling that something real is happening. I left inspired, on so many levels – local food systems, community engagement, great hosting, and positive change for the future.