Want to be Part of a Million Dollar Fund? FarmLink Investment Notes Might be the Answer.

A farmer and FarmLink staff member walking down a dirt lane at Riverhill Farm. To be a part of FarmLink's fund, farmers participate in site visits
You can help farms like Riverhill Farm to continue their good work by supporting FarmLink’s revolving fund. (photo used with permission)

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. ~African Proverb.

Most entrepreneurs looking for money from a venture fund won’t find it.

In fact, only a very small number of entrepreneurs find success with a capital raise. If you’re a woman or a person of color, the numbers fall from there.

Community money and ethical investors are one answer.

However, on our own, even working with broad investment themes and strong communities, ethical investors may never be able to provide entrepreneurs all the capital they need.

So, you can imagine my surprise when a farmer recently shared his frustration over Slow Money, opining that to be successful, the Southern California Slow Money network needed to have access to many millions of dollars.

First I felt surprised.

And then uncomfortable.  

Humbled

I realized my discomfort carried with it some humility.

As well as some guilt.

Humility for the proposals I’d offered around community investment.

Humility tinged with guilt because I’d failed to make a real difference despite knowing many entrepreneurs helped by the Slow Money community.

The Demands of a Two Sided Marketplace

To be honest, I know the early Slow Money vision for a two sided marketplace asks the most from our local small business owners.

Community investment demands Slow Money minded, sustainable food entrepreneurs stay engaged with the community. Entrepreneurs need to continuously show up and give their valuable time and talents while struggling to build their businesses.

Whether or not they get any money.

As you may remember from my earlier post, it’s been difficult in Southern California to meet the investor side of the equation.

Respectfully, I realize with all the demands on their time, it’s difficult for the entrepreneurs to continue to support our Slow Money work.

I always try to be gracious about our entrepreneurs’ time and realize their commitment.

But for Slow Money or a Slow Money mindedness to develop in Southern California and throughout the nation, we need both committed entrepreneurs and inspired investors to create a healthy ecosystem where we can give our financial resources.

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Amazed

As the humility waned, I realized I was amazed at my friend’s audacity.

I understood the success rate of entrepreneurs asking for money was dismal.

And, that went for all entrepreneurs…

For sustainable food entrepreneurs and farmers, the national numbers look even more upsetting.

My belief in the need for farmland dedicated to small and medium farms committed to sustainability helped to balance my reaction to my farmer friend’s daring.

But I understood the huge gap between need and fulfillment of that need.

Community Stakeholders and a Million Dollar Fund

Thinking about it, I remembered the genesis for Slow Money.

During his days leading early ethical investors in Investors Circle (recently renamed, Social Venture Circle), Woody Tasch observed that impact investors interested in meeting a market rate return couldn’t make food business financials work and as a result wouldn’t make the investments.

Over time, Woody grasped the answer might lie with community member stakeholders instead of accredited investors.

Woody appreciated that community investors might want:

  • a nuanced return in their quality of life (artisan bakery vs. another franchised fast food place)
  • an investment that offered an environmentally affirming improved health of the soil
  • a small financial return on their capital

He hoped a less than market rate return coupled with the social benefits might satisfy these local investors in ways a simple ROI never could.  

Such were the beginnings of Slow Money.

To date we’ve made progress while affirming Woody’s vision:

Today, Slow Money celebrates nearly $66M in investment for nearly 700 small and medium size food enterprise throughout the United States.

Slow Money investments might be for farms or food artisans.

Regardless, all the investments work with a supply chain to honor the Slow Money trifecta investment thesis: food, farms, and fertility ( the health of the soil).

Yet despite the amazing work and the numbers, Slow Money dollars fall far short of my farmer friend’s need for millions of dollars dedicated to farmland in California.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Quick division suggests an average of ~$100k per Slow Money investment. Though the reality of the investment numbers is more about a mean than an average.

In truth, Slow Money investments go to many, much smaller project investments.

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A few larger investments bring up the average.

Regardless, the jump to a million or millions for a single or even several land-based projects, as my friend wants, is hard to find from Slow Money investors.

But, my friend’s math had me thinking and listening.

How could individual ethical investors bring together the kind of money my friend needed?

California FarmLink’s Investment Notes, An Answer We Need

As a matter of fact, the beginnings of an answer came a few weeks later in a presentation by Gary Peterson of California FarmLink. Gary presented to an investor education group where I am a member.

During the presentation, FarmLink shared their mission and vision with the hope of finding community investors interested in their work.

To that end, they’ve created a Direct Public Offering (DPO) they’ve named, FarmLink Investment Notes.

The dollars generated by the Investment Notes go to the FarmLink Fund.

The FarmLink Investment Notes require investors to do a minimum investment of a thousand-dollars.

Certainly, doable by community member investors.

Suddenly, I recognized FarmLink’s growing fund, a revolving fund that combines money from individual investors, community foundations and other organizations, looked like an answer to my friend’s vision of a large fund with millions of dollars!  

A Funder Dedicated to Food, Farms and The Health of the Soil

FarmLink is a California based nonprofit with a mission to link independent farmers and ranchers with the land and financing they need for a sustainable future.

Their audacious vision stands for:

  • Equitable access to economic opportunity in food and agriculture
  • Skilled farmers and ranchers able to build wealth
  • Healthy food, people, and natural resource

Most of their loans go to organic farmers.

Many of their loan products help conserve land through design.

Since they started making loans in 2011, FarmLink has given $12M in loans to 253 California farmers working with investment themes that mirror those of Slow Money.

Loan Structures that Make Sense

FarmLink loan structures, while not quite $1M, top out at $600K for individual farmers.

Like Slow Money, FarmLink also gives many smaller loans. In fact, about 80% of their loans result in amounts less than $50k.

Not every farmer needs loans as large as my friend, and FarmLink’s ability to support smaller projects is equally important to growing a healthy ecosystem of business savvy farmers running resilient and sustainable farms.

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In truth, my friend’s capital needs might even rely too heavily on the more traditional land purchase.

A close look at FarmLink suggests that they might have even better answers for land acquisition. FarmLink offers a sophisticated menu for land access that goes beyond simple transactions to relationships and shared missions.

Working with landowners interested in conservation, FarmLink makes and mediates financing through leases, land trusts as well as purchase agreements. Their greatest challenge is land tenure, but with a deep commitment, it’s a challenge they continue to meet.

FarmLink currently has 60 landowners and 300 land seekers active on the FarmLink portal.

California FarmLink

California FarmLink started lending to farmers in 2011 becoming a federally certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in 2013.

Today, they support farmers with four types of loans:

  • Operating Loans
  • Equipment Loans
  • Land Loans
  • Lines of credit and advances on receivables

Each loan type offers its own great story.

These stories are not always familiar to urban and suburban ethical investors.

Stories That Make California FarmLink’s Lending Come to Life

I love hearing the stories from our agricultural communities and connecting to my farmer neighbors.

A few of the stories for these loans:

  • Operating loans in the Monterey region pay for the fall strawberry plantings bridging the way to the revenues that come in with spring sales.
  • Farmer Mac offers FarmLink a secondary market for their long-term land loans.
    Farmer Mac is the agricultural equivalent to the Federal National Mortgage Association we call, Fannie Mae. The secondary market helps to, in effect recycle capital and allow FarmLink to balance today’s lending needs with longer-term loans.
  • In a partnership where FarmLink innovates on lines of credit by advancing money on receivables, FarmLink helps a Nevada City based co-op extend credit to their farmer vendors by sharing the risk.

DPOs

A larger FarmLink loan fund means even more opportunity for farmers stewarding our land.

FarmLink is already doing a great job bringing in institutions, community foundations, and others to support their farm friendly vision through financial resources.

Farmlink’s Investment Notes takes this a step forward by allowing community members to share in this mission. It also realizes the my farmer friends’ vision for a fund with millions of dollars.

I love the opportunity to invest with such a wise and forward-thinking group.

You can find more about California FarmLink and their DPO here.

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