Guest Blog: Jan Joannides, Renewing the Countryside

Nearly $100,000 raised for the Grow a Farmer Fund

My grandparents were berry farmers in western Pennsylvania. Visiting their farm was a highlight of my childhood and part of the reason I do the work I do. I want a future for my kids (and their kids—and everyone's kids) that includes shelling and eating peas, husking and roasting fresh corn, and picking plump berries; I want there to be family farms and farms that people can visit with their children. I love good, fresh food. I also love the cultural richness tied to food—like making fresh strawberry pies with my Aunt Ruth or stuffed zucchini with my Greek YiaYia.

I want a future for my kids (and their kids—and everyone's kids) that includes shelling and eating peas, husking and roasting fresh corn, and picking plump berries; I want there to be family farms and farms that people can visit with their children.

In Minnesota, those of us working with farmers have seen the challenges and risks faced by those growing fruits and vegetables, raising grass-fed livestock, and producing honey, maple syrup, and other "specialty crops." These farmers often have difficulty accessing traditional sources of capital. We know young farm families and new immigrant farm families are raring to grow healthy local food, but they need access to smart financing in order to grow their businesses.

It is these issues, and a desire to give good food citizens a way to invest in the kind of farms they want to see more of that led us to form the Slow Money Minnesota network and link up with the FEAST Local Foods Network to launch the Grow a Farmer Fund.

The Grow a Farmer Fund is a pilot project launched in May 2016 that involves raising $100,000 from community members, establishing policies and procedures for the fund, taking applications from small-scale sustainable farmers, and providing low-interest loans and technical assistance that will help these farmers improve their operations and increase their bottom lines.

As of November 28, we have raised $96,900 and are working to secure the final $3,100 so we can open the fund to farmers by the end of this year.  Will you please contribute? Read on for some backstory!

While the plan seemed reasonable, the reality of raising $100,000 was a challenge for a group of folks more experienced writing grants than getting individuals to make donations. But we pooled our experience and put together a plan that has been successful!

The highlights include:

  • An initial contribution from the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation of $25,000 to seed the fund.
  • Launching and introducing the fund at our second annual Slow Money Minnesota event, where we invited people to contribute to the fund at the $500 level. We raised over $6,000 from ten people!
  • The wonderful St. Paul food co-op, Mississippi Market, selected Grow a Farmer as their Positive Change recipient for the month of August. By asking customers to round up, they raised nearly $10,000 for the fund.

In September, we launched a Barnraiser campaign to raise the next $25,000. (Barnraiser is very similar to Kickstarter, but supports projects that align with these values: ...Food should be good for you.  ...Products should respect the environment  ...People make things special.  ...Every bite counts to change how we eat & live.) 

People told us that this sort of campaign was a lot of work —and it was. It took a team of us stepping outside of our comfort zones and asking our families, friends, colleagues, and networks to contribute to the fund. We had a great set of photos and testimonials to help tell the stories; an anonymous family foundation offered to match all donations during the first 10 days up to $10,000; and a group of chefs, farmers, city officials, and nonprofit staff stepped up to get a bucket of mud dumped on their heads as a way to draw attention to the campaign. We reached our goal a few hours before the deadline, which was crucial because this was an all or nothing campaign.

We also were completely astounded when another family foundation stepped forward to double our Barnraiser achievement with a $25,000 donation through the Minneapolis Foundation Anonymous Grants Fund.

Then, in October, over 50 people came to a fundraising house party in Minneapolis and, in addition to meeting local farmers, eating delicious farm-fresh food, and sipping local craft brews and wines, they pitched in and raised another $5,000 for the fund.

We’re still working out some of the particulars, but we have settled on the following: The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation (SMIF), a well-respected community foundation that serves the twenty counties of southeast and south-central Minnesota, will manage the fund, with input from Slow Money Minnesota and the FEAST Local Foods Network. The first loans will be in SMIF’s region and will be up to $15,000. Interest rates will be low, repayment terms will be determined on a case-by-case basis, and the process will be straight-forward and transparent.

The Grow a Farmer Fund will allow us to support small farmers right away, while also helping us better understand the needs and challenges both to farmers and in managing this type of fund. It will serve as a “proof of concept” for broader Slow Money Minnesota initiatives, and we believe this donation-based fund will create more pathways for good food citizens to support the kinds of farms and food businesses that we all want to see flourish.

Jan Joannides is the Executive Director and co-founder of Renewing the Countryside. For the past  fifteen years, she has been an advocate and organizer for rural communities and citizens who are  working to stimulate economic growth and enhance their communities through sustainable uses of  their landscapes and resources. Jan also holds an appointment as Senior Fellow at the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. Prior to her work with Renewing the Countryside, Jan coordinated  the Community Assistantship Program at the University of Minnesota and helped found and directed  the Center for Integrated Natural Resources and Agricultural Management. Jan holds a master's  degree in natural resources from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Zumbro Falls, Minnesota with her husband Brett, daughter Olivia, and son Axel.