Slow Money group playing matchmaker for small food growers, investors

Douglas County Commissioner Nancy Thellman.

How different would a community be if the people who can afford to invest a little extra kept some of their investments local? That’s a question Nancy Thellman intends to answer.

The Douglas County Commissioner has introduced to the Lawrence area a national movement that involves matching small, local food entrepreneurs with investors. Over the last year she helped form Slow Money Northeast Kansas, one of more than a dozen regional chapters of a national nonprofit called Slow Money.

The Slow Money movement takes its name from the Slow Food movement and is based on the theory that people should invest in small, organic growers and local food.

The goal of Slow Money and its subsidiaries is to find ways to pipe investments into local food enterprises. And although Thellman’s young organization is still something of a fawn learning to walk, it’s already played matchmaker to one local enterprise and is helping another — led by an Old German Baptist “rockstar” — try to take home big winnings at the Slow Money National Gathering in mid-November.

“I felt like (the Slow Money idea) was ripe for our region because it’s based on… investing locally in any farm or food enterprise,” Thellman said. “We have so much of that going on.”

Slow Money began in 2010 and has invested about $38 million in over 350 small food operations since, according to its website. After attending its 2013 national gathering, Thellman sought an audience with the organization’s founder, Woody Tasch, when he came to Lawrence later in the year to speak at the Mother Earth News Fair.

Thellman expressed an interest in setting up a local stake for the organization, and after Tasch finished his speech he singled her out in the crowd as an opportunity for signing up and getting involved.

Slow Money only establishes “gentle” guidelines on how regional chapters should function, Tasch said, so Thellman and others were largely on their own. But by the following spring, in 2014, the group began convening. And by the summer the group successfully paired some investors with the Purple Carrot, a food truck formerly known as the Blissful Bite.

“We only have local networks when someone like Nancy steps forward,” Tasch said. “We don’t plant people or recruit people, so it’s completely dependent on strong local leadership.”

As things picked up speed over the past year, members of Slow Money Northeast Kansas began searching for potential applicants for a competition held at the Slow Money National Gathering, held this year in Louisville, Ky., Nov. 10-12.

At this year’s event, 20 small food entrepreneurs will present in front of several hundred investors, as they and anyone else with an Internet connection donate at least $25 for the right to vote on the presenters. The winnings come in the form of a zero-percent loan, however, so the funds can be recycled and grow as the years go by, Tasch said.

By the time votes are counted, Tasch hopes to see $100,000 raised, to be split 80-20 by first and second place winners. As of Friday, nearly $33,000 had been raised.

With some help from Thellman and the Northeast Kansas group, an in-state operation got on the bill. Rosanna Bauman, the “rockstar,” is the manager of her family’s farm in Garnett, where they produce pastured poultry, eggs and beef by using non-GMO grains as feed.

Bauman, who has known Thellman for several years, said placing at the national gathering would help her operation become a feed hub, a place where non-GMO grains could be processed for other farms in the region. She said many nearby farmers already use the Bauman’s U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified poultry processing system.

“If this was just for the benefit of my farm I would have chickened out a long time ago,” the 26-year-old Bauman said, referring to her imminent six-minute sales pitch to hundreds of investors. “This is the shortest and best route for us to be able to get a feed hub.”

“They’ve identified a real gap they’re willing to fill,” Thellman said of the feed hub idea.

Should Bauman not receive a top-two finish in the voting, she still might not leave Louisville empty handed. Part of the idea of speaking in front of hundreds of investors is that some of them will contribute to a certain cause no matter how the voting goes.

If Bauman comes away with something, it’ll be another score for a group that’s still “getting our legs under us,” as Thellman put it.

“They’ve got a really great start from what I can tell,” Tasch said.