The challenges facing small farmers are many and varied and usually involve money. As large agribusiness farms consolidate and control a bigger part of the industry, small farms have less access to capital, are producing fewer crops, and have seen their financial risks increase, according to a 2021 report from St. Louis Public Radio.
A potential solution is to change how financing is provided to farmers so that the proper funding gets to the right kinds of farms. That’s the mission of a pair of new entities that aim to help small farms access capital without jumping through the usual hoops.
One of them is Beetcoin, a platform that aggregates small donations from a grassroots community to seed new local lending groups that then make zero-interest farm loans. The donations are aggregated and deployed by the Slow Money Institute and other advisors.
As of October 2022, Beetcoin had six local loan groups — four in Colorado, one in Virginia, and one in Israel. Combined, the groups have loaned about $2 million to more than 60 farms. Members make an annual contribution of at least $25 for farmers and then vote on which enterprises the group will support. The groups meet several times a year to review loans and listen to farmers who seek funding.
Another player in the farm lending movement is Walden Mutual Bank, a Concord, New Hampshire-based bank that provides loans tailored to local food and farm businesses. Walden’s mission is to support a more sustainable and equitable local food ecosystem through loans to farms and other food/ag businesses.
In early October Walden received full approval from both the FDIC and New Hampshire State Banking Department and also announced that it had built a lending pipeline of more than $50 million. The bank’s loan values range from $50,000 to $4 million or more and go toward everything from equipment financing and real estate to working capital.
Although Beetcoin and Walden come at farm lending from different perspectives, they both have the same goal: to provide ready access to capital for local farms that operate sustainably and equitably.
Woody Tasch, a pioneer in the patient capital movement, launched Beetcoin. “Patient capital” basically means providing long-term loans or investments in which investors are prepared to wait anywhere from three to 15 years before seeing any financial returns. Tasch founded Slow Money in 2010 to raise low-interest, long-term loans for farms and food enterprises. Since then, the group has made over $80 million in loans to 800-plus ventures.
Tasch got the idea to add an online platform during the COVID-19 pandemic. That led to the launch of Beetcoin in 2022. After Beetcoin donations are made online, a small group of advisors distributes the money to local groups that then use it to lend to organic farms and local food businesses. When the loans are paid back, the funds go back into the system to support more funding.
Charlie Cummings founded Walden Mutual Bank to help customers in New England and New York grow their savings while supporting local farms and food businesses.
Mutual banks don’t have shareholders but instead are governed by their communities. Walden Mutual – a name inspired by Henry David Thoreau – claims to be the country’s first new mutual bank in 50 years. Its initial funding raised $24 million from more than 230 community investors, allowing it to be mutually owned while reaching modern capital requirements for new banks.
Walden customers can open “Grow Local” accounts that earn interest like savings accounts but also let customers use debit cards and write checks. In addition, consumer depositors can access a “Summer Farm Dividend” that can be spent at local farms, farmers’ markets, and other food vendors.