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Mar. 9 2010 - 8:34 am | 465 views | 0 recommendations | 11 comments

Venture capitalists meet with local, organic farmers to revolutionize food

Farm auction, Derby, Conn. (LOC)

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

David Wilhelm, the venture capitalist who managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, will meet with local and organic farmers in Chicago on Thursday. So will venture capitalists from the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, professors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Woody Tasch, who has channeled $130 million to sustainable projects through a non-profit organization called Slow Money.

From skyscraper and prairie, in suits or overalls, they’ll gather at the fencepost in hopes of building profitable networks to deliver local food to restaurants, grocers and consumers in Chicago, and to build a model, perhaps, for the local-food movement nationwide.

“The first thing we want is to build some relations between these farms and food businesses and money,” said Jim Slama, organizer of Thursday’s Financing Farm to Fork Conference. “The movement needs to build its capacity on multiple levels, and financing is definitely a major need.”

Local farmers have drifted away from local markets in part because of the influence of California, with its three growing seasons and its domination of the nation’s food delivery infrastructure.

Slama hopes to reestablish the ancient and intuitive connection between local farmers and local markets in three ways: by introducing major financiers to local farmers and food businesses, by bringing value added business to farms (like jarring local preserves, for example), and by helping farms take advantage of their potentially lucrative ability to sequester carbon (with guidance from Mike Walsh, executive vice president of the Chicago Climate Exchange cap and trade market).

The conference will be held Thursday at the University of Illinois, Chicago Forum. It serves as the opening act for the weekend Family Farmed Expo, an annual event that draws local celebrity farmers, like Bill Kurtis, local celebrity chefs, like Rick Bayless, and thousands of Chicagoans to a local food festival and trade show. This year the expo has drawn Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture who helped author the nation’s organic-food standards.


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  1. collapse expand

    This sounds great, but will it make organic food and “slow food” really affordable (I’m talking about food that families making under $50K/year can purchase regularly)?

    • collapse expand

      Good question, Scott. I’m not an economist, but I play one on my blog, and I’m going to say yes, if these people succeed in building local distribution networks. Organic food is expensive at least in part because of its special handing, compared to the massive intestine through which flows the food of the masses. But see, for example, Safeway’s O Organics generic brand. Cheaper because, for Safeway at least, it’s within their system. And a local system, if we had one, should automatically have lower transportation costs as well as lower environmental impacts. One of the farms participating in this meeting with the venture capitalists is 35 minutes from the Loop, but for some reason when I buy a tomato, it’s from Chile or Mexico or California. When I interviewed Jim Slama we met at Nightwood, a new organic restaurant on the South Side. We had a salad of local hothouse greens. It wasn’t any more expensive than a salad at any restaurant of that caliber, but it was so much better than the wilty imported greens we usually get here in The Chi. If anything happens, the price should come down further.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        O.k. I guess it’s all about a question of structure at this point. I’ve got friends who are crazy about Trader Joe’s (confession: I’ve never been to one). But from what they tell me, this sounds like kind of conduit that could be adapted even further to deliver inexpensive better foods.

        Until Kraft buys them out.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Another part of the problem is we’ve been trained to be the consumers large agri-business needs, expecting whatever we want all year long and buying in small quantities. But by buying what’s available during harvest season and then “putting up” the bounty it’s possible to eat local, sustainable foods year-round that are economical. We’re now through our second winter in which we’ve used the supermarket only for foods like olive oil and pepper, along with the occasional bag of onions or citrus fruit. It’s not a pure “100-mile diet”–or some other culinary stunt–but it is psychologically sustainable and has saved a ton of money.

      I guess I’m saying that connecting local foods to local markets will only work when all the eaters are taken into consideration.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    My friend and colleague Rebecca Kosick offers some worthy cautions about the perils of bringing venture capital into the local-foods movement at her blog, “Meals; for Moderns”


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    Environmental reporting recruited me 25 years ago—on my first day as a reporter for my college newspaper, when I discovered my college was discarding radioactive waste in the regular city trash. Since then I've written hard news for dailies, including the Arizona Republic, and slanty news for alternative weeklies, including Newcity. I've written a column for New Times, stories on the Web for Forecast Earth, essays for PEN International and other magazines. I lived in an idyllic California village nestled among volcanoes and vineyards until my batteries were full of sunshine, and then I returned to my origins on the South Side of Chicago, where hope persists with no illusions about the struggle ahead. I cross the asphalt jungle by bicycle and el, mostly to get to the University of Chicago, where I teach journalism. But what matters more than any of this is a lifelong love for the natural world. We are all born with it, I believe, but some turn away.

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