The Friendly Shark Tank: How Slow Money Assists Local Food Entrepreneurs

Each year at the Cider Gallery in the Warehouse Arts District in East Lawrence, a handful of food entrepreneurs gather to make their dreams come true. The rustic backdrop of wood beams and exposed brick fits naturally with the event objective — to bring money back down to earth. As potential agriculture moguls make their rounds in the room of investors, one might think, This is the friendliest Shark Tank I’ve ever seen.

“I am now a farmer in the fashion world,” said Jacqueline Smith to a group of budding presenters at a prep meeting in January. Smith is one of Slow Money’s success stories, having expanded her small local loan of $5,000 into $300,000 in loans thanks to connections she fostered from her Lawrence presentation. Her high-welfare sheep farming business, Central Grazing Company is now trailblazing the zero-waste agro-industry in many ways, including a venture into Anna Wintour’s fashion world with leather handbags and small goods.

Jacqueline Smith (right) and her family/

Nurturing a niche market

It begins with an idea. Small-scale businesspeople get the opportunity through Slow Money events to present their vision to investors. “We’re like matchmakers in a way,” explained Nancy Thellman, one of the leaders of the state chapter. “We are trying to connect local farmers, ranchers, and food entrepreneurs with like-minded, like-hearted investors.” The goal is that if a community invests in practices that positively affect the food system, the economy will transition from consumption to preservation, therefore enhancing food safety. But despite poetic ambitions, the unkind reality is that small farms tend to be high-risk for banks. “You can’t collateralize chickens,” Thellman explained. “But an investor who understands that it’s worth it if it helps a young farmer get their first tractor, their first piece of land or just seeds to help them do their work, then that’s a good investment.”

Investing in the future

Slow Money comes from the term “slow food” which seeks to inspire communities to create food that is good, clean, and fair for all — a unique concept in a fast-paced world. But innovation doesn’t come without complication. Because organic farmers typically use practices that are not widespread, it can be difficult to find financial backing. That’s where Slow Money comes in. “What we’re talking about is bringing two different kinds of community within the same community together,” said Rick Duggan, McGrew Real Estate agent and Slow Money volunteer. “[An entrepreneur] might have one piece of it, but they don’t have the other that helps them bring it to the market.” Duggan says that Slow Money allows investors to see how their investment directly affects the local food system: “They are not only bringing their money back to the local market, but they are able to go out to the farm and basically touch their money. They can experience what their investment in that entrepreneur is all about.”

Slow Money NE Kansas/ Facebook

A different kind of loan

Since its inception in 2014, Slow Money Northeast Kansas has helped entrepreneurs obtain over $800,000 in loans. The annual showcase is crucial for that success.

“We don’t act as financial advisors,” Thellman said. “We’re not telling people that they’re going to profit off of this. It’s all based on people meeting each other and establishing a friendly relationship.”

Loans that stem from the night at the Cider Gallery are not facilitated by the Slow Money volunteers and are typically low-interest to the farmer.

“This brings them together,” Duggan said. “It gives them an opportunity to increase their business because they have someone to partner with financially and in an advising way. It keeps the money local.”

Photo by Kate Trysh on Unsplash
Photo by Luke Syres on Unsplash
Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash

The Entrepreneur Showcase is a no-pressure event that is free and open to the public. Whether you are a prospective investor or just curious about the local food system, it’s an educational experience all around.

“It’s exciting,” said Duggan’s wife, Karen. “Being able to buy food locally is important. I want to support that local system.”

Thellman invites anyone who is interested to stop by and listen to the presentations: “That’s the lovely thing. If folks can have just a little bit of help in the beginning and if their practices are such that you can really embrace what they’re doing, people want to put their money there. One little loan has led to many steps along the way to some very substantial businesses now.”

The showcase is scheduled for Thursday, February 21 at 7 p.m. For more information about Slow Money Northeast Kansas, click here.

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