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The New Way to Support Small Food Businesses

By 3p Conferences

By Jenna Blumenfeld

Though Slow Money's Gatheround event was intended to be primarily online, nearly 20 Boulder-based food enthusiasts gathered in a community meeting space last week.

"When planning the event, we knew we had to use the internet to do something around the country," explained Woody Tasch, founder and chairman of Slow Money, an organization that advocates for decentralized investment around food. "This is about small groups of people using the power of local knowledge, and real relationships."

Around the room, wine and beer were served. Introductions were made.

Gatheround is a live online event hosted by Slow Money that raises money for small food businesses across the United States. At it's core, the event is an investment club—attendees pay $25 to hear a main speaker, listen to three food entrepreneurs pitching their business, and vote who their registration money should go to. Nearly 100 people nationally registered for the event, which focused on building soil fertility. Eventually, Slow Money hopes to host Gatheround events on a monthly basis.

Nurture the soil

To start the night, attendees heard from Eliot Coleman, owner of the Maine-based Four Season Farm, who shared his journey building soil health. "Soil is what got me into farming. I remember reading a stat that 1 million organisms live in a single teaspoon of soil—I thought it was one of the most exciting things I've ever heard of," explained Coleman. When Coleman first bought his 40-acre farm, the soil pH registered at 4.3—a highly acidic environment for most plants. He started to raise the pH of the soil by using local resources. He sought organic matter in the form of oak leaves, horse manure, and seaweed; he obtained shells from friends who shuck clams.

"My neighbors asked why I was doing this, they said that the shells wouldn't break down for a hundred years. This was a perfect metaphor—I was putting fertility in the soil for my great-grandchildren. I was making a long-term investment for those microorganisms.

"The hidden world is under our feet," concluded Coleman. "We need to figure out how to use [the soil] as effectively as possible."

Meet the food entrepreneurs

Following Coleman's talk, three slow food entrepreneurs presented to the online and live audiences about their company in hopes of gaining funds for their small business.

Massey Creek Farm originally raised conventional hogs for Cargill. Founded in 1989, it seemed owner Garland McCollum had achieved his dream of being a high-output farmer. "I quickly realized, however, that I had become an indentured servant," recounted McCollum. "I was only concerned with the bottom line, not with how we treat the soil." McCollum calls 2009 the rebirth of Massey Creek Farm because he transitioned out of corporate hog farming. "We had just 200 pigs left, so we got sheep and chickens… I knew I was atoning for my sins of concrete and steel." Rather than raise livestock in a traditional indoor pen, he raised them outdoors. “This was the new old way of farming: we let chickens be chickens, and pigs be pigs." Now, Massey enjoys an enthusiastic local consumer base (McCollum describes local as a 2-hour drive away). "If we have a product, we sell it."

Carlos Quijano of Coast of Maine Organic Products presented next. His company, which sells bagged, organic compost, targets home gardeners who hope to increase yield without chemical-based fertilizers like Scotts Miracle-Gro. “The key to growing one’s garden is supplementing and amending one’s soil,” says Quijano. Coast of Maine works with local manufacturers to obtain residual materials, such as lobster shells, shrimp waste, and mussel shells. Now, the product is found in 1,250 retail outlets.

The final presenter, Mark Guttridge of Ollin Farms, is based in Longmont, Colorado. Founded in 2008, the 9-acre farm aims to foster community in Boulder County. Through CSAs, farmer’s markets, a farm stand, and events like farm dinners, guided tours, and partnering with local chefs, Ollin Farms not only grows high-quality produce, but also educates. “I saw a real connection between nutrients, the soil, and how it relates to what we eat,” says Guttridge. Ollin Farms hopes to continue growing their educational programs, and rebuild their land after it was damaged in the recent Colorado flood.

Slow Money’s Second Gatheround event was small, but it seeps with potential. Those interested in promoting sustainable food systems not only have opportunity to engage directly with cutting-edge thought leaders, such as Eliot Coleman, but also participate in real investment that can make measurable differences.

Stay tuned for Slow Money’s next Gatheround event, slated for February, which will focus on honeybees.

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Read more stories by 3p Conferences