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The Slow Money movement aims to provide farmers with seed funding so they can meet the exploding demand for locally grown food. ((Mike Blake/Reuters))

Combine poisonous factory-farm tomatoes with disgraced investment banker Bernard Madoff. Then throw in a stock market disaster that cost investors their life savings.

You may have the recipe for a revolution: a public spooked by the dangers of industrial food production and investors wary of risky business.

At least, that's the hope of the dreamers and doers in a seedling movement called Slow Money.

About the author

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David Gutnick is a Montreal-based documentary producer with CBC Radio's Sunday Edition. Over the past 20 years. he's worked for many CBC and Radio-Canada programs. In summer 2008, he reported from the Beijing Olympics. In 2007, he was in Mauritania, Togo and Ghana reporting on slavery.

This fall, when the only growth industry in North America seems to be farmer's markets, it might even make economic sense.

Slow Money takes its name from a culinary movement called Slow Food. For 20 years now, Slow Food proponents have advocated a lifestyle in which people take time to savour food and take pleasure in eating locally sourced products, rejecting large-scale farming and the hectic way of eating and living that damages our bodies and the world.

As it turns out, lots of people have been listening — and therein lies a problem.

There is an exploding demand for what small farms and food producers have to offer. Yet, banks see agriculture as a risky business, and brokers trade stock in agribusiness giants, not small, local operations.

Farmers need cash and a system to get it to them.

That's what Slow Money activists want to create: an investment system in which profit expectations are redefined so that big money can help small agricultural producers provide people with local, wholesome food.

Seed money needed

Twelve years ago, Tom Manley quit his telecommunications job in Montreal and moved home to Berwick, Ont., where his family had farmed since before Confederation. 

He took over the animal feed business his dad ran out of the barn and used his savings to buy an old mill. The business, Homestead Organics, flourished. There was room to grow, but Manley needed money.

A few years ago, Manley went to the local bank, which had known and trusted his family for generations. When he asked for a loan, the bank's answer was simple: great business plan, but we won't touch it with a 10-foot pole; it's an unproven market in which vast numbers of businesses fail.

Homestead Organics, however, was not among those failed businesses. Turkey, chicken and hog producers couldn't get enough of Manley's chemical-free feed. The business went from two employees to 11 and soon needed new silos and seed cleaners.

So, between cleaning stones out of soybeans and bagging feed, Manley threw a blazer over his overalls and drove door to door, seeking investors.

Sure, he found people willing to lend him a few thousand dollars at a time, but he needs about $2 million to meet his goal of doubling the business again in 10 years.

The big players, on the other hand, are looking for double-digit returns that Manley says he can't provide. "This is a basic hard-work business that provides very modest rates of return that [are] not attractive to a venture capitalist," he said.

Unless, that is, you're a renegade venture capitalist like Woody Tasch.

Slow Money's founding father

Tasch hardly looks the part. He has the same intense eyes as Groucho Marx, the same lightning-fast smile and hair that's barely in control. 

He is a poet turned financial wizard turned rebel who takes real pleasure in challenging conventional thinking about how economies work.

A Slow Money laboratory

When you ask Woody Tasch what his Slow Money dream would look like, he tells you to visit Hawthorne Valley Farm in New York state.

The farm was founded more than 35 years ago. It has a school, a grocery store, a publishing house and 150 employees.

Over the decades, the farm found innovative ways to appeal to private investors, and those investors were repaid and made modest profits.

Tasch talks about how he wants to bring money back down to Earth. Hawthorne's farm manager, Martin Ping, is the man who, his boots covered in manure, spends his days showing how it can be done. 

The farm complex, Ping says, has what he calls an "associative internal economy" in which the store buys milk from the dairy processing plant, which in turn buys it from the cattle herdsman.

Everyone understands what it takes to make the whole process work.

Until a few years ago, Tasch chaired an organization that connects investors with small businesses addressing social and environmental concerns. He was the matchmaker, funnelling more than $130 million to hundreds of new ventures.

Businesses grew, foundations fulfilled their missions to do good works and investors made profits that were close to the stock market average. Everybody was happy.

But Tasch was hungry for a more focused approach that connected health, food and capital.

People investing in big, fast-operating companies expect big and fast returns. Tasch says that the Slow Money concept he came up with promotes the idea of nurturing capital — money that supports healthy enterprise with a modest return on investment.

"We are not the only ones to have figured out that the pace of change in the modern world is destructive to certain aspects of human well-being," Tasch says. "But we are the first ones to apply it just to money and to raise the question of the speed of money."

He riffs like a jazzman when he explains why he thinks the idea's time has come. He leaps from talking about factory carbon-dioxide emissions to Wall Street's woes to the digital revolution to pesticide-polluted rivers.

"The only real prudence is in investing in things you understand," he says. "And if I make less money doing it, that is completely OK. Not only is it OK; it makes me happy."

Stockbroker turned activist

With a chick perched on her shoulder and ankle-deep in straw, it is hard to imagine Cathy Berry anywhere else but on her farm in Canterbury, N.H. But during the 1990s tech boom, Berry was a stockbroker in Philadelphia, making pots of money.

She was also raised wealthy, sitting on the board of her family's foundation and helping to direct its $40-million US investment portfolio.

But Berry's moneyed roots were only on one side of her family. On the other side were farmers who remembered foreclosures and financial desperation. A burgeoning green consciousness wormed its way into her life.

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Cathy Berry tends to the horses at her New Hampshire farm. ((David Gutnick/CBC))

While she was making big money off of big corporations, she started asking: shouldn't some of it go to supporting what I actually need?

Her first tiptoe into the "alternative-investing world" was her investment in a small Quechee, Vt., restaurant. The Farmer's Diner, which mostly serves locally grown products, recently opened a second location and is now looking to franchise across the U.S..

Then Berry went further, investing $1 million US in Vermont Smoke and Cure, an all-natural meat business. The New York Times says it just might make the finest bacon on the planet.

With her backing, the company is planning to expand, which will be good news for local cattle and hog farmers.

Berry hasn't seen much of a return on her investment yet. This is, after all, slow money. But she has deep pockets and is confident her optimism will pay off.

In the meantime, she's trying to bring other investors on board. It hasn't been easy. "I think we have got too hung up on 'It's not a good investment unless we get a 20 per cent return'," she says. "Why not think about loaning money for five per cent to your local farmer?"

A potential game changer

Small is beautiful in the world of Slow Money — but so is big.

There are more than 50,000 philanthropic foundations in the United States. Their assets total $400 billion US, most of it invested in the stock market. Needless to say, that money would be a game changer if it — or even a fraction of it — was reinvested in local agriculture.

Manley, of Homestead Organics, could certainly use some of those funds to grow his business.

"If food is important, don't take it for granted," he said. "Literally, put your money where your mouth is."