After 11 years of helping farms and other food-related businesses grow, Slow Money Maine has announced the networking group will shut down Sunday.

Bonnie Rukin, founder and longtime coordinator of the group, said the leadership of Slow Money Maine has reviewed the organization’s role over the past few years and determined that needs have changed, the food system landscape has changed, and many more resources are available today to food entrepreneurs than there were 11 years ago. “It just seemed time,” she said.

“We’re not leaving a wasteland, which would have been the case if we’d stopped after three or five years,” Rukin said. “We’ve really gotten the plant solidly in the ground, and the pandemic was the test of that because many of the businesses that we worked with over the years would not have withstood the barrage of the pandemic 10 or 11 years ago. But this year they were able to because they were solidly established. They had to pivot and make some changes, but they were able to hold their own and not only survive, but in some cases thrive.”

Slow Money Maine is an offshoot of the national Slow Money Institute, based in Colorado. The Slow Money philosophy of socially-conscious investing mirrors that of the much older Slow Food movement, which focuses on the importance of eating unprocessed, local foods and supporting the businesses that make them. Slow Money groups feed capital into local food economies by connecting investors with small food businesses that need their financial assistance and guidance.

Nationally since 2010, according to the Slow Money Institute, 27 local groups have invested more than $79 million in 806 farms and food businesses. Maine is home to three affiliates of the national group: Slow Money Maine; Maine Organic Lenders, which provides low-cost loans of $5,000 to $25,000 to farmers, food processors and distributors in the midcoast region; and Portland-based No Small Potatoes, a private investment club that offers small loans to established farms, fisheries and food businesses to help them improve infrastructure and become more profitable.

Rukin estimates that more than 150 Maine businesses received help from the group finding funding, mentors and technical assistance. Among the businesses that got their start with Slow Money’s services are Heiwa Tofu in Rockport, Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales, Atlantic Sea Farms (formerly Ocean Approved) in Saco, and VitaminSea Seaweed in Buxton.

Amber Lambke, co-founder and CEO of Maine Grains in Skowhegan, recalls getting a phone call from Rukin out of the blue, about a decade ago. Rukin wanted to hear more about the plans Lambke and her business partner had to turn an old county jail into a grist mill. Lambke was one of the first people invited to give a presentation to the Slow Money Maine network. Today, the grains milled at the former jail are sold all over the state and used by bakeries, breweries and restaurants throughout the Northeast.

“Within that (Slow Money Maine) network, I met mentors who would help me, some of whom are still involved,” Lambke said. “I met foundation officers who were interested in making investments in farms and food as a way of exercising their mission. I met people who were interested in just making personal loans to help us buy equipment under very patient terms. It was really a pivotal organization for us. We would not exist if it were not for Bonnie and Slow Money Maine and the network she created.”

The Roth family owns VitaminSea Seaweed in Buxton and had been in business for about five years when they gave a presentation to Slow Money Maine in 2012. Kelly Roth said the organization put them in touch with angel investors who helped them raise about $150,000.

“They really helped us with getting focused on how we need to run our business,” she said. “We were very small back then, and they gave us a lot of direction. They gave us a lot of contacts – people in advertising, people in finance, people in social media.”

Roth said she was sorry to hear the organization is dissolving. “It’s too bad because they really kept us local people going and a lot of the programs out there aren’t so much for locals anymore.”

Rukin said that Slow Money’s steering committee members now have their own food projects they’d like to concentrate on, so “we’re all going to stay engaged in food system work in some way or other. There’s no question.”

Rukin wants to continue her work with new Mainers who are farming in the state, she said. Steering committee member Sam May will continue his work with the Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union, which serves the agricultural sector, Rukin said. Eleanor Kinney began as a Slow Money Maine investor and now owns her own farm-to-table restaurant, the River House in Damariscotta.

“She’s now able to work with all the farmers she helped to support through the years,” Rukin said, “and now she’s ordering from them to fill her customer demand. So that’s a full-circle piece.”

Lambke said her early work with Slow Money Maine led to the development of new financial vehicles to help other small food businesses, which have been replicated around the state.

“For example, you need to be a nonprofit to receive philanthropic, tax-deductible contributions,” she said. “We were not a nonprofit. We were an LLC (limited liability company) at the time, and yet we were creating jobs and using the natural resources of the area to create economic opportunity. We were revitalizing a jail, which alleviated some blight in our community. All of those things were mission-related activities aligned with the (goals of) economic development agencies in our communities.”

Working with an attorney and the Somerset Economic Development Corporation, the Slow Money network created a pathway for food businesses to partner with economic development agencies. The agencies get the grants, then pass them on to food and farm operations.

Thanks to Slow Money Maine, food businesses are now viewed as viable economic drivers in the state, Lambke said.

“All things have their day,” she said. “Slow Money Maine has largely been reliant on the volunteer organizing of a small few, and they’ve been extremely successful in mobilizing capital and forming a network and creating relationships, and those things don’t go away. While lead organizers want to spend their time doing other things now, the network lives on.”


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