We’ve raised a year of operating capital to launch The Watershed Fund, which offers zero interest loans to local farmers serving our farm to table sector in Asheville.
The connections and reciprocity within our food systems are already proving to be one of the surprising benefits.
This initiative relies on venture philanthropy, long an accepted tool to enable people to give to invest, but the non profit gets the return, for example. Long neglected in the United States, though common in Asia and Europe, Venture philanthropy is the missing catalytic capital that makes important things get over the hump and on to success. Giving to invest means the gift keeps coming back and is recycled into the next loan in your community.
The loans are zero interest, and farmers have a year’s grace period before they have to start paying them back, then have three years to pay. Eagle Market Streets, a local community development corporation (CDC) is doing the due diligence and underwriting. The concept is to do a lot of $10,000 loans rather than larger loans to start out in order to socialize the concept of this new source of capital and see the idea spread broadly. By contrast, $20,000 loans at Mountain Biz Works, our excellent local CDFI that loans to mission related businesses, are 8.75 % annual interest. We are following the model of Beetcoin, which grew out of Slow Money with the zero interest loans
The plan is to launch the program through benefit dinners at restaurants that feature farms on their menu. And we will also do benefit dinners at a local farm for farmers who don’t serve the restaurants. The $10,000 loans work for farmers with sufficient social capital to draw a grateful crowd. The people who come to the benefit dinners want to help the people growing our food in our community succeed and be more economically viable.
The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, known as ASAP, the non-profit that serves the local farms, says that one of the biggest needs for the loans will be mid-season loans for emergencies. For example, two weeks ago, ASAP was talking to a farmer whose gravel road washed out, so she couldn’t get her goods to market. A quick emergency loan for repairing that could have enabled the farmer to get those goods to market before the produce ruins and return her on the road to economic viability with the farm she’s created, and with her friends and allies and customers.
Along with ASAP, the fund is getting connected to a broad range of local partners and stakeholders
With the farm loans, for example, when the $10,000 raised at a dinner is paid back, that gift goes out again as another loan. Giving to invest can be a more powerful form of giving, but it does not replace giving; the market, even with patient capital with no interest loans, does not solve every problem.
The gift that comes back to be given again gives donors another opportunity to see their money work, doubling down on their positive impact each go round, making sure that their local food systems are sustainable and preparing for a time when shipping food no longer makes sense. The money continuing to come back after every loan makes it easier to work on long term, infrastructure level problems with some of the money, perhaps.
Donors to the farm loans will be taking strong local action on climate change and keeping good food at the table, and their gifts will keep recycling again and again. Giving to invest can be more powerful than simply giving. The money comes back and then goes out to do the work again.
The Ager family, owners of Hickory Nut Gap, the local farm -raised beef collective, have, through their family foundation, given us enough money to do two $10,00 loans.
We will add the opportunity for the diners at those monthly benefit dinners to link to a qr code on a table tent, and add a 5% donation to give healthy locally grown organic meals to people who cant afford to go to expensive restaurants. The plan is for the donation to go to Equalplates. Equal Plates buys farm to table produce at market rate and cooks it up at Southside Kitchen for delivery to the underserved. We want to do more community engagement around the loans throughout the community and also do educational presentations in schools as we have capacity.
The Watershed fund is a project of Eagle Market Streets, Community Development Corporation in cooperation with Neighborhood Economics.