How to Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Sprout Lenders logoHigh-tech and medical device companies aren’t the only start-ups sprouting in the Boston area, hungry for capital to grow their businesses. Six exciting, innovative food-related businesses and nonprofits presented their concepts at a recent Slow Money Entrepreneurial Showcase in Cambridge, Mass., hoping to find the type of investors willing to put their money into concepts that are practically guaranteed not to make a large or fast return.

Fortunately, not only are there lots of great local ventures worthy of investment, but a growing number of individuals and group funders want to put their money where their mouths are to support local food.

Slow Money logoSlow Money is an organization dedicated to supporting small food enterprises. The movement was inspired by Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing As If Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered, a 2009 book by Woody Tasch. According to Tasch, “Investing in local food systems is a way to begin fixing our economy and our culture from the ground up.” The organization has 2400 members and 14 chapters, including 60 members in the Boston-area chapter.

No Small Potatoes logoThe April 24 Cambridge meeting also announced the creation of a new investment club, called Sprout Lenders, which was launched “to support a vibrant and healthy local food system by making small loans to farmers, producers, and food system entrepreneurs that serve the greater Boston area.” Inspired by the No Small Potatoes Investment Club in Maine, which has already made 11 microloans totaling $50,000, Sprout Lenders has 15 members who are entrepreneurs and professionals from banking, food, the nonprofit sector, and beyond.

Sprout Lenders is currently accepting applications for their first round of lending, with typical loan amounts projected to be around $5,000 each. Their website states: “By investing in our local food system, we hope to strengthen our community economically, nutritionally, socially and environmentally.”

Befitting their presence in the tech-savvy greater Boston area, all of the showcase presenters are making adept use of technology to streamline or promote their enterprises.

The presenters included two composting companies. Black Earth Hauler picks up material for composting from companies and nonprofits, such as restaurants, hospitals, colleges, and golf courses.  They’re creating a system for composting inside a container. Founder Conor Miller stated that the Mass. Dept. of Environmental Protection is considering making it mandatory for large businesses to compost by 2014, which will be good for business as well as the planet.

Bootstrap LogoAt the other end of the spectrum, Bootstrap Compost picks up kitchen scraps from over 260 residents who subscribe to this service; 30 percent of their pickups are via bicycle. Bootstrap is making effective use of social media to promote the business and is acquiring an average of four new customers a week. They need a larger workspace.

A third company, Recover Green Roofs, creates rooftop gardens and living walls for home and businesses in New England, New York and Philadelphia, including Casa B and The Ledge restaurants. All three of these businesses are experiencing rapid growth.

The three other businesses were more directly food related. Jared Auerback from Red’s Best already runs a technology-based wholesale seafood and distribution company using QR codes to trade the fish from boat to dock to delivered product. He hopes to deliver the fish that he buys direct from local fisherman to local Boston residents.

NH Farm Fresh

New Hampshire Farm Fresh Director Suzanne Brown demonstrates their "killer app" for ordering food.

NH Farm Fresh…Direct! is a nonprofit that seeks to enable Boston-area shoppers to order food from New Hampshire farmers, fishermen and producers to be delivered to their homes. Executive Director Suzanne Brown described herself as “the uncontested geekiest farmer in all of New Hampshire” and said she’s building a “killer app” to facilitate ordering.

And City Growers seeks to incubate self-sustaining urban farms.  City Growers has both a for-profit and non-profit branch. “There are 600 acres of vacant land in Boston, the demand for fresh local food exceeds the supply, we have the technology to produce a high yield, and there are people who need the work,” co-founder Glynn Lloyd stated. “Our biggest challenge is securing the land at an affordable rate,” he said.

While those who are able and willing to invest in enterprises like the ones that presented at the meeting will never get rich from their investments, they’ll probably be very well fed. And that’s putting their money where their mouths are.

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