Slow Money: The CSA of Investing

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A fiduciary focuses on growing portfolios; a foodishiary focuses on growing food. A fiduciary minimizes risk and maximizes return; a foodishiary minimizes chemical additives and maximizes taste.

Throughout the United States, thousands of citizens have begun to reconsider the direction and basis for our economy and have begun to ask if there might be a better way to run things. The non-profit Slow Money Alliance brings people together for a new conversation about money that is connected to people and place, and to imagine a way we can begin fixing our economy from the ground up, beginning with food. Woody Tasch is the founder and chairman of Slow Money and authorof Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money and the digital book, Staring the Pig in the Face, an address to the fourth Slow Money National Gathering, from which this excerpt is taken.

Our fate is in the hands of experts. Our fate is in the hands of technologists. Our fate is in the hands of fundamentalists, by which I mean not only religious fundamentalists, but free market fundamentalists as well. Surely our fate is in the hands of military industri­alists, even more than it was when President Eisenhower issued his prescient warning after World War II.

And, our fate is in the hands of fiduciaries.

But if it is true that our fate is in all those hands, it is also true that we hold the seeds of a different future in our own hands.

It’s a future toward which the phrases slow money and nurture capital point. It’s a future that will have fewer industrial farmers who only spend 45 minutes per year on each acre of their land. That’s right — the typical large-scale industrial corn and soybean farmer spends only 45 minutes per year on each acre of his land. What shall we call that? Efficient agriculture? Fast agriculture?

Phrases like fast agriculture and slow money and nur­ture capital and innate value, and maybe even heroic grunt, begin to give us the vocabulary we need for our new conversation.

In this spirit, in the spirit of not only seeking a new kind of accounting but also of looking for new lan­guage, I would like to offer a new term.

I want us to get down into the linguistic soil and get our hands dirty. And I want us to have some fun, since economics is such a dismally dull science and humor a much-needed antidote.

Let’s entertain, for a few playful moments, the idea of turning the concept of fiduciary responsibility around, all the way down to the very word itself.

So, here it is, a new term to contribute to our new conversation:

[food • ish • iary]

A few of us here today are fiduciaries, but all of us here today are budding foodishiaries.

Stick with me, because it is not entirely inappropriate to opine that if we chase down fiduciary this and internal-rate-of-return that, we get to the most fundamental struggle of all: the struggle between arithmetic and real life, the struggle between numbers and words.

Here’s how John Bogle (founder and CEO of The Vanguard Group) puts it:

“Today, in our society, in economics, and in finance, we place far too much trust in numbers. Numbers are not reality. [Emphasis his.] At best, they are a pale reflection of reality. At worst, they’re a gross distortion of … trust, wisdom, character, ethical values, and the hearts and souls of the human beings who play a cen­tral role in all economic activity …”

He goes on to cite Albert Einstein:

“Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

So, are we to find our way to a restorative economy merely by piling a new set of numbers — triple bottom line this and social return on investment that — alongside the old set of numbers? Or dare we go further? Dare we challenge the limitations of quantitative analysis altogether? Could we ever, in the name of imagination and affection and place, assert the primacy of words over numbers?

Now, before you go rushing for the exits, I would point out that more than half a million Americans are already doing this after a fashion. That’s how many folks belong to CSAs around the country. I’ve asked many hundreds of CSA members over the past four years: How many of you ever calculated quantitative metrics supporting your decision to join a CSA — food miles, price, nutrient density, pesticide levels, organic mat­ter in the soil or any other such factors? In four years of asking this question, only one person raised a hand and said they had done any such calculating.

This means that hundreds of thousands of Ameri­cans are using a sense of innate value to prepay for food from a local farmer. They are entering into an arrangement that is part investment decision, part consumption decision, part transaction, part relationship, part capitalism, part socialism, both deeply conservative and deeply liberal.

This is why I think of Slow Money as the CSA of in­vesting. We’re a network, a bunch of distributed relationships, rather than a centralized fund. We’re a bunch of reasons and intentions and values, rather than a single technique or strategy. We are as non-fi­duciary as possible, as direct, as dis-intermediated as possible.

We want to spend more, lots more, than 45 minutes on each financial acre.

We want to turn fiduciary responsibility into something very different.

Let’s use Wendell Berry as our guide. Some of you may recognize the following passage from his seminal work The Unsettling of America. I’ll never forget reading this passage to the folks at Investors’ Circle, during my first meeting as that organization’s chairman. The excitement was palpable. I believe this was because, without using the word fiduciary, Wendell was seeing deep into the inner conflicts of investing:

“I conceive a strip miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old-fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an ex­pert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health — his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is, how much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?)… The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nur­turer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, hard facts; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.”

So, with the deepest gratitude to Wendell, let’s take a few steps forward, from fiduciary to something not quite so serious, but just as important:

[food • ish • iary]

A fiduciary focuses on growing portfolios; a foodishi­ary focuses on growing food. A fiduciary minimizes risk and maximizes return; a foodishiary minimizes chemical additives and maximizes taste. A fiduciary seeks the straightest, shortest line between buying low and selling high; a foodishiary thinks seasonally, gen­erationally, and embraces the cycles of life. A fiduciary thinks in terms of millions and billions of dollars; a foodishiary thinks in terms of household income and keeping the farm. A fiduciary believes in hockey sticks (financial projections that zoom upward, with no end in sight); a foodishiary believes in pitchforks (triple-tined and poised to enter the earth). A fiduciary knows the direction of his stocks; a foodishiary knows the whereabouts of her flocks. A fiduciary is an expert who strives to increase wealth; a foodishiary is an amateur who strives to improve health. There’s nothing funny about a fiduciary; being a foodishiary may not be all that funny, either, but at least it offers the potential for a little mirth and a warm heart.

This is why I love Slow Food and Carlo Petrini. Slow Food’s commitment to culture and taste and the plea­sures of the table warms the heart. And while it takes up nonviolent arms against many of the worst excesses of industrial agriculture, it also brings a smile to the face and something beautiful to the palate. This is the beauty of Slow Food and, I hope, it may also be the beauty of Slow Money.

Admittedly, the $25 million that has been invested in 200 small food enterprises over the past three years by Slow Money folks around the country is only a begin­ning. But it is a beginning of which we should all be proud.

It is a beginning marked by more than a little affection.

E.O. Wilson, who gave us the term biodiversity, also gave us the term biophilia, meaning “the innate affec­tion humans have for all other living organisms.” Isn’t that what we sense when we stare this pig in the face?

If the idea of affection seems quaint or ineffectual given the challenges of the day or the complexities of modern financial markets, then I say: It is affection that will reconnect us to place, to the land in that place, to one another as inhabitants of that place, and to the food and farming enterprises that turn a place into a community.

It is affection that will give us the gumption to take some of our money from over there, that abstraction called global financial markets, and put it to work here, near where we live, with our neighbors, in things that we understand, starting with small food enterprises.

And the nice thing about affection is that it cannot be outsourced. It is slow.

It is nonviolent.

So, let’s stare this pig in the face one more time.

Now, please take a moment, turn to the person next to you, shake hands and say:

“Welcome, fellow foodishiary! Let the affection begin!”

Reprinted with permission from Staring the Pig in the Face, by Woody Tasch, and published by Slow Food, 2014.