Slow Money Boston showcased another exciting crop of food-related entrepreneurs in Cambridge on April 29, 2014. As always, the entrepreneurs seeking funds were an eclectic bunch, including two farmers, a fermented beverages coop, a grass-fed beef jerky producer, a compost company, and a group building a meat processing facility.
Slow Money Boston is a chapter of the national Slow Money, an organization that encourages people to invest in local food enterprises. The Boston group, which is run by four volunteer leaders, is raising funds to hire a part-time intern to help them build up their community base and partnerships and research grants.
The event began with a report back from an alumni of a previous showcase, Josh Trautwein from Fresh Truck, a mobile healthy food market that sells out of a retrofitted school bus. After a successful pilot program last year, Fresh Truck is planning to convert from a Benefit Corporation to a nonprofit, streamline and diversify their supply chain, and source more local food, Trautwein told us.
Using creative organizational structures, including nonprofits and coops, was a common thread for several of the entrepreneurs. Farmer Bill Braun, of Bill’s Seed Project, hopes to become a nonprofit. He’s sustainably farming vegetables and saving seeds on four acres in Westport, Mass. He’s practicing seed stewardship because 90 percent of our plant varieties have been lost in the last 100 years. Braun is trying to raise $40,000 for a barn for storing seeds and root vegetables.
The Southeastern Mass. Livestock Association, already a nonprofit, is building a local, state-of-the-art, USDA-certified meat processing/slaughter facility using humane animal welfare standards and practices. “This facility has the potential to change the landscape for food production in southeastern Mass,” according to the Association. It will cost $3.7 million to build the facility and they don’t expect it to provide a market rate return. However, the Association plans to lease it to an operator, with the option to purchase. Using a nonprofit to fund what will become a commercial venture is a creative way to make it viable.
The Artisan Beverage Cooperative in Greenfield, Mass. is a worker-owned cooperative that makes local, raw honey wines (mead), Ginger Libation, and Katalyst Kombucha fermented teas. Their business is growing at an average of 42 percent a year and showed its first profit last year. “Conventional investors think work coops are very complicated,” their spokesperson, Gareth Shaneyfelt, said, “but we have a variety of stock options.” (On a culinary note, I’m not normally a fan of fermented beverages, but I thought their Ginger Libation, a Caribbean-style alcoholic ginger beer, was wonderfully gingery and refreshing.) They’re raising $500,000 to expand production, renovate their facility, and increase capacity.
I wouldn’t normally expect a beef jerky producer to be at a local food gathering, but Slantshack Jerky is made from 100% grassfed local beef, using organic spices and non-GMO presevative-free marinades. Many of their competitors in the $4 billion beef jerky market bill themselves as all natural, but according to Slantshack Jerky, they’re filled with corn syrup. Slantshack Jerky is primarily sold in specialty stores, but they’re seeking $250,000 to help them market their products to a mainstream audience in, you guessed it, airports, gas stations and truck stops, as well as grocery stores. (As a pescovegetarian, I wasn’t tempted to try their product, but I did overhead people saying it was amazing.)
I can’t pretend to be objective about Jim Buckle of Buckle Farm, because he was instrumental in helping to get Egleston Farmers Market, my local market, off the ground, and I admire his drive and commitment. Originally based in Dighton, Mass., Buckle couldn’t afford to stay on his land in pricey Massachusetts, so he relocated to Unity, Maine, where he started his farming career. Noting that there’s a surplus of local food in Maine but nowhere for farmers to sell it, Buckle is going to aggregate product from his fellow farmers and bring it down to the Boston area to sell to restaurants, farmers markets and CSA members. “We’re going to be Robin Hood, charging some people a little more so we can sell at lower costs to low-income communities,” Buckle said. He’s looking funds for refrigerated transportation and increased acreage and equipment.
The last entrepreneur who spoke, The Compost Plant, is seeking to build the first full-service industrial-scale compost facility in Rhode Island. Unlike Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Vermont, Rhode Island doesn’t yet ban commercial food waste disposal, but the company is confident that restaurants and schools will pay for them to collect food waste. Producing compost in a compact state like Rhode Island is their greatest challenge, because there’s no rural open space, but they’re confident they’ll be able to control the odor and capture the heat. They’re seeking to raise $50,000 for their pilot, $650,000 for their production facility.
As always, it was inspiring to hear the entrepreneurs present and the prospective investors and funders pepper them with questions. New England is fortunate to have so many creative food entrepreneurs, and Boston is fortunate to have a resource like Slow Money to nurture them.