A little open-air coffee shop in the back bay of Los Osos does on occasion, as so many such venues are wont to do, serve as office space for half a dozen local professionals on a sunny morning. Look around and keep your ears open and something interesting might float by. It’s also not a bad landmark for arranged meetings.
On a brisk February morning with rain in the forecast, Jeff Wade, local director for Slow Money SLO waits with a file folder under his arm for a tardy journalist. The folder, and Wade himself after a decaf cup of joe, explain that Slow Money SLO (or simply SLO Money), a San Luis Obispo County-based offshoot of the nationwide nonprofit Slow Money food and supply chain business network, is branching out into direct work with local farmers.
After more than six years focusing on providing peer-to-peer loans and business networking services for the “value added” side of food production—i.e. peanut butter from peanuts, tortillas from cornflower, jams, jellies and the like—the organization is putting their efforts into Farm SLO. That’s an initiative to offer small farmers support in getting things off the ground, as it were, as well as maintaining connections with each other across the region.
Wade’s materials are enough to frame local ventures for a civilian not in the know about the state of the farm real estate economy, commodities or the exact daily challenges of running an agriculture business. But he starts off, “I don’t claim to have all of the answers. I’m not even sure I’ve got all the right questions.” That’s why they’re kicking off the Farm SLO program with a farmer-led team coming in with fresh brainstorms on the challenges and needs of the community. And they’ve already launched a connected Google email group to put questions and concerns out among the widest network possible without posting everything in public.
While SLO Money is known for facilitating peer-to-peer lending, with the SLO Natural Foods Co-op among the success stories, paying off their seed loan in 2015, funding is not the primary driver behind Farm SLO.
“Ag businesses have a lot of venues before they come to us for a loan,” Wade said, pointing to an upcoming slate of Farmer to Farmer mixers and events, a needs assessment survey, and conference attendee sponsorship they’d arranged for two local farmers to attend the ECOFarm seminars in Pacific Grove. Funding for some of these efforts came from a (relatively) modest grant of $2,500 from the Community Foundation of SLO County to be used in getting Farm SLO running, but it’s also getting more serious about the farm part of a food and farm servicing organization.
Established in 2012, SLO Money began as a group of locals interested in following the “Slow Money Principles,” established by the book, Slow Money, Investing as if Food, Farms and Fertility Mattered. As Wade explained in an interview given back in the days when “Occupy Wall Street” was a popular political refrain,
“The idea [was], simply to take money out of Wall Street and to use it directly with local investment in food and farming,” but their interventions have always been practical and business oriented, he explained at a function in 2016, “We scrutinize the operation extensively and assess what their needs are going to be before we decide to make a recommendation.”
In the here and now, Farm SLO is focusing more on the networking between the 100 farmers on their contact list for upcoming events in North SLO County—invite only but head to www.slomoney.org to get on a list—than on making recommendations.
“We’re having great success in reaching out but I don’t want to be seen as coming in to tell farmers what to do,” he said. “We’re here with small business coaching and business coaching and networking if they’ll tell us what we can do to help.”
More information on program specifics and the Wilhelm Farm Fund established with local donor support to offset peer-to-peer loans in the next phase of their effort should be available on a Farm SLO website domain launching this month.