Ecological Stewardship

What Would Nature Do? – Part II

August 26, 2014

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Click here for Part I

KatherineCollins#1CREDITMiranda Loudby Katherine Collins

As an investor, I have similar questions. What if some of my investments have non-dollar-based paybacks? What if I had as much information about real environmental outcomes and the value they represent, as I do about security prices? How could I create an investment portfolio where growth is a result of strong development and real value created in the world, not an aim in and of itself? Like many investors, I’m moving through the spectrum of these “what if” scenarios, though the answers are not simple, and are ever-evolving.

Another principle of biomimicry is to adapt to changing conditions: natural systems thrive in context, demonstrating flexibility over different spans of time and across different operating conditions. Here again, there is helpful wisdom for a small ranch owner. Which expenses (whether time, money, or other resources) are seasonal in nature? Which might grow or shrink over time as the work progresses, with healthier land and changing herds? Choosing a static, one-size-fits-all financial tool (like a lump-sum conventional loan) would leave big gaps in different seasons and different circumstances; clearly something more adaptable (like a line of credit, or a series of smaller financial supports) might be a better match.

Again, as an investor, this concept of adaptability raises parallel questions. How can I embrace an adaptable investment approach, without feeling a constant sense of churning? How can I consider my own changing context, as my life, family, and community continue to evolve?

Alignment with the principles of natural systems is a serious and vital challenge for investors and investees alike. But, underneath all of the discussions of structure and mechanics there is a deeper layer of alignment that is essential. When we look to nature as model, mentor, measure, and muse, we first need to reconnect our own lives to the natural world around us. This reconnection is a simple idea, but not easy to implement, even for those of us who are deeply devoted to our natural environment. I believe that this deeper reconnection involves three central imperatives: reframe, refrain, and reclaim.

First, we need to reframe our own position with respect to the natural world. Humans are a delightful, unique, and relatively small part of the natural world, though our impact upon it might be outsized. Reorienting as citizens of the natural world, a small subset, rather than rulers of our environment, is essential.

Second, we need to refrain from our never-ending doing. To really learn from nature, we need to quiet our own cleverness. We need to sit in stillness and to observe without desperately seeking immediate answers or insights, just as is practiced in many contemplative practices. For those of us who have been trained since birth to be as quick and clever as humanly possible, this can be an uphill battle – but it is a worthy and necessary endeavor.

Once those first two conditions are met, we have the chance to reclaim. To realign investing with the real world, the world it was originally intended to serve. To develop new approaches that match multi-dimensional, relational, long-term goals. To seek true profit, fair profit, rather than a fleeting positive number on today’s trading reports. To practice investing as vocation, as profession – not just a business.

Nature is not just a place to escape our professional lives; it is the source of deep wisdom that can improve our designs and decision-making. With biomimicry-based approaches, we need not choose between environmental and financial stewardship. Both are part of a healthy investing ecosystem, and both can be supported through life’s principles.   This is investing in its most fundamental form: resilient, regenerative, and reconnected. This is the true nature of investing.

Katherine Collins is author of The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies Through Biomimicry. She is also Founder and CEO of Honeybee Capital, a research firm dedicated to the pursuit of optimal investment decision-making. Katherine has previously served in numerous capacities at Fidelity Management and Research Company. After a career in traditional equity management, she set out to re-integrate her investment philosophy with the broader world, traveling as a pilgrim and volunteer, earning her MTS degree at Harvard Divinity School, and studying the natural world as guide for investing in a valuable and integrated way, beneficial to our communities and world.

What Would Nature Do? – Part I

August 22, 2014

This article was originally published in the Summer 2014 RSF Quarterly.

KatherineCollins#1CREDITMiranda Loudby Katherine Collins

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting an investment-seeking rancher, who enlightened me about the glories of ranch life. Turns out, like any valuable endeavor, ranching is full of joy and challenge, reward and risk, hard work and…more hard work. What this endeavor was not full of, at least not in the beginning, was cash flow. This is not a criticism: we discussed his long-term plans for sustainable – maybe even regenerative – ranching practices, and the tangible, trackable benefits to the soil, the broader ecosystem, and the surrounding community. In the early years, the returns from this work would be seen in the growth of microorganisms, the health of cattle, and the strengthening of community. Later on, as some of those benefits took hold, the path towards solid cash flow became visible and compelling.

Unfortunately, traditional bank financing for this ranch project (if available at all) would only recognize return of dollars – not return of nematodes, or grasslands, or community. And the bankers needed to see those dollars starting on day one — not because they were greedy or thoughtless, but because that is what their financial tools required. A plain old loan requires plain old repayments, simple as that. It’s as if we are trying to sculpt a glorious 3-D universe out of granite, using nothing but a surgeon’s scalpel. The scalpel might be a fine tool in other contexts, but it is no match for the task at hand.

Here we were faced with a central dilemma of sustainable finance: often the multidimensional, sustainable enterprises that we want to support are still constructed with the assumptions of linear, short term tools and mechanisms of finance. Due to this mismatch, it sometimes seems impossible to be a responsible environmental steward and a responsible financial steward simultaneously.

In situations like this ranching enterprise, we spend a lot of time thinking about ways to invest differently IN nature. What if we also considered ways to invest AS nature, matching form to function? What if our investment tools and processes included more elements that we see in healthy natural systems — options that are relational, adaptive, and long-term in orientation, instead of being transactional, rigid, and short-term?

Biomimicry can help to create the tools of regenerative finance. Nature has adapted and thrived for 3.8 billion years – the most compelling track record around. We can learn from the principles that guide these systems, and orient towards approaches that are robust and resilient. The six major principles of biomimicry established by Janine Benyus and Dayna Baumeister, Life’s Principles, aren’t just clever buzzwords. These concepts describe how the world around us actually functions.

Biomimicry asks us to pause before we create a product, reorganize a team, or allocate investments to ask, WWND? (What Would Nature Do?). This deceptively simple question leads to decisions that are effective instead of merely efficient, simple instead of synthetic, mindful instead of mechanical. Biomimicry aims to embrace nature’s wisdom, rather than harvesting nature’s stuff.

For example, one of life’s principles is to integrate development with growth, much as a tree develops root structure in sync with its expanding canopy. For my rancher friend, this idea leads to some interesting questions about forms of investment and types of investors. What if in the early years the rancher could start with a small pool of funding from friends and family, who would be just as happy to be paid in grass-fed beef as in dollars? Later on, when cash flow improved, they could take on more traditional loans if needed, with the confidence that dollar-based resources would be available for repayments.

Click here for Part II

Katherine Collins is author of The Nature of Investing: Resilient Investment Strategies Through Biomimicry. She is also Founder and CEO of Honeybee Capital, a research firm dedicated to the pursuit of optimal investment decision-making. Katherine has previously served in numerous capacities at Fidelity Management and Research Company. After a career in traditional equity management, she set out to re-integrate her investment philosophy with the broader world, traveling as a pilgrim and volunteer, earning her MTS degree at Harvard Divinity School, and studying the natural world as guide for investing in a valuable and integrated way, beneficial to our communities and world.

Uncle Matt’s Organic Revolutionizes Florida’s Citrus Groves

July 31, 2014

With its subtropical climate and rich pest population, Florida has been slow to embrace the organic movement: fewer than 8,000 of its 541,328 acres of citrus groves are organic. Matt McLean has made it his mission to change that. As the founder and CEO of Uncle Matt’s Organic—the largest and oldest organic orange juice company in the U.S.—McLean not only sells delicious juices, he’s making it easy for other small Florida citrus growers to transition to organic.

noelle mcleanUncle Matt’s sells a huge quantity of organic orange and apple juices, lemonade and whole fruits to retailers such as Whole Foods and Publix each year. But its most innovative initiative is its agricultural management company. Uncle Matt’s Ag provides “one-stop shopping” for grove owners who want to go organic. The company actively recruits conventional farmers, handles all the paperwork for them throughout the transition and certification process, creates a full farm plan and oversees every aspect of caretaking, from riding the tractor to tamping down the weeds. Uncle Matt’s then markets all the grower’s fruit at top dollar, ensuring that organic farming is economically viable.

It’s a model that—with the help of a credit line from RSF—has fueled both consistent sales growth and positive changes in Florida agriculture.

Inspiration

McLean didn’t set out to be an organic grower. A fourth-generation Florida citrus grower, he grew up working in the groves, and escaped to college as soon as he could to get away from “manual labor in Florida’s summer heat.” After earning a business degree from the University of Florida, he started an import-export company, selling juice to companies in Europe. When one of his clients asked for biologic white grapefruit juice, he consulted his father and grandfather.

His grandfather, who had used organic methods in the past, insisted that “not only could we grow that way, we should be growing that way,” McLean says. “We are too focused on single-factor analysis—if you have a pest, then you’re told to find a pesticide. Instead, we should think holistically: why is that pest attracted and how can we help the trees’ immune systems defend against it through better soil and plant health? This is an organic farmer’s way of thinking.”

UMO

Innovation

McLean started Uncle Matt’s Organic in 1999 with just five acres. As the company grew, it needed more fruit, which meant it also needed more organic farms. But farmers were hesitant, even afraid, to go organic—despite the fact that prices for organic fruit are consistently higher—and McLean knew he had to make the process as easy as possible. Thus Uncle Matt’s Ag was born in 2002.

One of the biggest challenges in persuading grove owners to grow organically was—and is—the threat of citrus greening disease, or Huanglongbing (HLB), a bacterial infection spread by gnat-size psyllids that can wipe out groves. It hit Florida in 2005 and has killed millions of citrus plants in the southeastern U.S. While Uncle Matt’s groves have not fully escaped the disease, several groves have proved 100 percent resistant—an anomaly the University of Florida is studying. Uncle Matt’s Ag is experimenting with nourishing root and soil health to keep disease at bay, and unleashing parasitic wasps into groves to keep the psyllids’ population under control.

With its innovative approaches to grove management and increasing consumer demand for organics, Uncle Matt’s has grown continually. But like many food and beverage companies, Uncle Matt’s faces a cash flow gap between the time when it pays farmers for the harvest and when the juice hits grocery stores and starts generating a profit. By 2011, McLean needed more financing.

The company had a line of credit with a local community bank, “but it was post real-estate bubble in Florida, and the banks were very risk-averse,” he says. So Uncle Matt’s hired McLean’s friend Aubrey Hornsby, a manager of the Conscious Capital Fund, to help it find additional funding. “Aubrey introduced us to RSF in September 2011,” says McLean, “and at that point a lot of things came together.”

Several members of the RSF lending team visited Florida, where they toured the groves, packinghouse and storage facility and closely examined Uncle Matt’s business model. “They understood our business right away,” says McLean, “and they really had a passion for our space and our mission.”

Based on this, RSF provided a $1.2 million line of credit that Uncle Matt’s uses to finance the juice inventory from season to season—and keep growing.

Impact

For the past three years, Uncle Matt’s sales have grown 20 to 30 percent annually. The company has also introduced two new juice blends, orange-mango and orange-tangerine, and has expanded to new retailers including Safeway, Kroger, Fred Meyer and Walmart Neighborhood Markets.

But the greatest proof of success is in the groves: In the last 12 years, Uncle Matt’s has converted more than 1,500 acres in Florida’s Lake, Highlands and Polk counties to organic cultivation.

“I started Uncle Matt’s as a business challenge,” says McLean. “But my grandfather’s passion just kept me thinking, ‘Hey, this is a better way to farm and we need to be a leader.’”

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Interdependence in Ecological and Economic Systems

July 30, 2014

This CEO letter was originally published in the Summer 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Dear Friends,

The word economy comes from the Greek oikonomia, meaning household management. When thinking of our economy, now on a global scale, how should we define that household? Our current financial system (a subset of economic life) favors a narrow view focusing on the individual and more specifically, the individual with resources. But if we open our perspective, we can see that view expand—the household is our homes, our communities, and the planet that houses us all.

Indigenous wisdom has always been ahead of the dominant paradigm in this regard. Indigenous knowledge evolved from observation of and participation with the natural world. This wisdom holds that humankind meets needs by working with nature and honoring the earth and its systems. This approach recognizes something that has been lost in our economic life—the idea that all is interrelated. People and planet. Earth and economy. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t make sense to have a zero sum game in which some win (at the expense of others) and the rest lose.

Here is an example of the opposite: We recently made a grant to The Pollination Project, which makes $1,000 seed grants to individual change-makers. Grants to for-profit ventures are made as zero-interest pay-it-forward loans. Recipients are expected to pay loans back in 24 months, and payment is received in the form of a new loan to another qualified Pollination Project applicant, chosen by the original borrower. This pay-it-forward model is a practical example of working with money in a way that honors interdependence, community, and trust and that values mutual benefit—when one wins, so can all.

Interdependence and community are inherent to how we approach finance at RSF. We have a vested stake in the success of all our stakeholders and we recognize that success for all of us is contingent upon regenerating and preserving the earth’s ecosystems. Financing organizations that are a part of the regenerative cycle is also a part of regenerating the economy that holds the human being as the center. This is one more reflection of what it means to transform the way the world works with money.

All my best,

Don Shaffer

President & CEO

Ethical Fashion Event at Cavallo Point

July 14, 2014

This is a guest post by INDIGENOUS

Cavallo Point – August 22, 2014:

It only takes one look to know that Cavallo Point is an extraordinary place. The warm ambiance and charmed location make Cavallo Point Mercantile the perfect place to shop for elegant, sustainably made clothing, jewelry and accessories. Join us there on August 22nd to celebrate an innovative partnership. You’re invited to preview the future of fashion with CAVALLO POINT MERCANTILE, INDIGENOUS and RSF SOCIAL FINANCE.

Cavallo-Point-Mercantile-Event-with RSF logo

Want to do more than change fashion trends? Clothing brands linked to charitable works and fair trade initiatives not only improve working conditions and alleviate poverty, they’re also successful! Ethical fashion companies, both large and small, are raising awareness about the realities of “fast fashion” and leading the way to a more sustainable business model.

The human cost behind $5 t-shirts and the fast fashion cycle were made abundantly clear—this time on a global stage—with the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. In April of 2013, over 1,110 garment workers—most of them young women—senselessly lost their lives. Now, more than ever, shoppers are aware of the impact every purchase makes. The world is ready for change. It’s time that we use business as a force for good, solving social and environmental challenges.

Be a part of the change. Attend this exciting event and meet INDIGENOUS co-founder and President, Matt Reynolds, who will share how INDIGENOUS is revolutionizing the future of fashion. How can fashion have a positive impact? Join the discussion and let your voice be heard.

SPECIAL DRAWING, PRIZES, and GIVE BACK PROGRAM:

  • Cavallo Point drawing for a free Spa Treatment
  • INDIGENOUS drawing for free artisan hand made fashions
  • 10% discount offered to anyone that mentions “Artisan Made”
  • Cavallo Point will be generously contributing 5% of every purchase back to a Fair Values Fund, managed by RSF Social Finance. The Fair Values Fund invests in skills, technical assistance and equipment to benefit artisans, schools and organic farms.

Event Information:

August 22, 5:00 – 7:00pm
Cavallo Point Mercantile
601 Murray Circle
Sausalito, CA 94965

RSF Summer Quarterly: What Kind of Stewards do we Want to be?

July 7, 2014

Our role in stewardship is top of mind in the latest issue of the RSF Quarterly. Katherine Collins, founder and CEO of Honeybee Capital, explores how investing can be realigned with the natural world through biomimicry. In Clients and Conversation, Tim Brownell of Eureka Recycling, an RSF borrower, and investor Ben Gordon discuss how social transformation is at the core of the environmental change they seek. Also, learn how RSF grantee Tamalpais Trust is building the capacity of indigenous-led organizations to promote a culturally sensitive approach to environmental stewardship.

To download an electronic copy of the Quarterly, click here.

Summer-2014-Newsletter

Announcing the 2014 RSF Seed Fund Grantees!

May 29, 2014

by Ellie Lanphier

Every spring, RSF provides small gifts to seed new initiatives that offer innovative solutions in the field of social finance, or address issues in one of our three focus areas. Thank you to all of our individual investors, donors, and staff members who make the RSF Seed Fund possible!

2014 RSF Seed Fund Grantees:

Malama Kaua’i, founded in 2006, focuses on advocating, education, and driving action towards a sustainable Kaua’i. Their core programs include Kaua`i School Garden Network, Community Garden, and Food Forest agroforestry project (which hosts the largest collection of banana species in the state). New programs this year include SNAP/EBT processing at farmers’ markets, Island-wide Organic Gardening Training, Native Hawaiian Charter School Food Program, and the Roots of Kaua`i Green Careers Certificate training. The Seed Fund grant of $2,500 will support the Roots of Kaua`i Green Careers Certificate Program, a free 10-week training program focused on delivering environmental, career development, and soft skills education to Kaua`i at-risk youth, aged 18 to 30, during summer 2014.

Malama Kauai

 

Willamette Farm & Food Coalition, located in Lane County, Oregon, was founded in 2000 to support the development of a secure and sustainable regional food system. The organization promotes locally grown and raised foods, educates consumers, and connects households, businesses, and institutions directly to Lane County farms. The Seed Fund grant of $2,500 will support a website redesign for Eugene Local Foods, a year-round online farmers’ market that makes shopping from local farms convenient for consumers and farmers alike.

Eugene Local Foods

 

Veterans to FarmersVeterans to Farmers (VTF) was started in 2011 by US Marine Corps Veteran Buck Adams to ensure that veterans are able to establish new careers in greenhouse farming, while engaging the residential community in creating a healthier, local food system in Denver, Colorado. The clean, healthy food grown at the Training Center Greenhouse will be sold directly to the community within a 3-mile radius, currently considered a food desert. VTF will accept SNAP benefits and sell a percentage of the food on a sliding scale to ensure access, regardless of income. The $1,500 Seed Fund grant supports outreach to the surrounding Denver community, advertising SNAP benefit use to purchase VTF produce and educating consumers on the environmental and nutritional benefits of buying local.

The produce is grown using aeroponic, vertical growing towers, which use 90% less water and land than traditional agriculture, while growing 10 times the yield. Each 10,000 sq. ft. greenhouse will grow roughly 150,000 pounds of produce each year that will be accessible year-round.

 

REDCOREDCO, the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, is a non-profit, tribally chartered entity of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (Rosebud Sioux Tribe) working to improve the lives of the tribe’s 32,000 members by promoting economic development and self-sufficiency on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. REDCO’s recently launched Keya Wakpala Food Sovereignty Project aims to increase tribal access to healthy, fresh, and locally grown food. They received a $2,500 Seed Fund grant to support the establishment of the Keya Wakpala Farmers’ Market, a weekly seasonal farmers’ market where locally grown organic produce will be planted, tended, harvested, and sold by tribal members. The market will open in July 2014 and will operate through the end of September or October; it will accept SNAP benefits from inception.

 

Indian Land Tenure Foundation, based in Little Canada, Minnesota, was formed to address the crisis of reservation land loss. The non-profit supports the return of the buffalo to the lands, culture, diets, and economies of Native American communities through their work with the Tanka Fund and in collaboration with Native American Natural Foods (NANF). NANF created the Tanka Bar, the first nationally distributed food product from an Indigenous community. The Tanka Bar is made from an ancient Native recipe of preserving bison with fruit and is sold in more than 5,000 stores nation-wide. NANF would like to buy all the buffalo meat it needs from Native American buffalo producers, but there aren’t enough Native buffalo ranchers to make this possible. Project goals over the next 10 years include converting one million acres of land to buffalo production, expanding retail markets, and building awareness. The $2,500 Seed Fund grant will support the creation of educational materials on the health, environmental, and economic benefits of buffalo restoration.

Indian Land Tenure Foundation

 

Dane County TimebankDane County Timebank was established in 2005 to build self-sufficiency and interdependence through timebanking. The organization received a $2,500 grant to support the design and communications for Mutual Aid Networks, a new form of cooperative where members collectively manage timebanking, community savings and investment pools (of the dominant currency, plus goods and in-kind resources), and other forms of community sharing and exchange. These are applied to this mission: to create means for everyone to discover and succeed in the work they want to do, supported by their community. Measurable goals include having three Mutual Aid Networks established, incorporated and functioning by end of 2014, with communication tools, training materials, and template agreements for new Mutual Aid Networks to adopt.

 

Green Meadow Waldorf School (GMWS)received a $1,000 Seed Fund grant to support Open Saturdays, a free tutoring program brought by GMWS faculty, staff, parents and students to children in struggling local public schools during the 2014-15 school year. GMWS is located in Chestnut Ridge, New York in the East Ramapo School District where more than 48 percent of students are eligible for free school lunches, and an additional 14 percent are eligible for reduced price meals. The district has faced significant budget deficits in recent years, exceeding $7 million in the 2012-13 school year and resulting in extensive cuts to programming. Last spring, more than 80 district teachers and staff members were laid off, including arts faculty, librarians, and security personnel, and full-day kindergarten has been eliminated district-wide, as has music and art, athletics, and AP and ESL coursework.

Open Saturdays is a way for Green Meadow to reach out to students in this severely under-resourced school district. The principal outcomes are learning improvements by students, but GMWS also hopes that the program will promote a culture of service in their community and support an overarching goal to build bridges between their school and the larger community while providing tangible, meaningful services to their neighbors.

Green Meadow Waldorf School

 

Refugee and Immigrant Fund (RIF) of Queens, New York, was established in 2007 to provide a safe space and opportunities for refugees to rebuild new lives in the United States. RIF has served over 600 refugees through legal and psychosocial assistance. They received a Seed Fund grant of $2,500 to support the growth of the Urban Farm Project through expanded reach and stronger, more comprehensive program development, implementation, and evaluation. The Urban Farm Project began as an additional therapeutic tool to help refugees recover from trauma. While providing a soothing natural environment for psychological recovery, the project also offers several benefits, including job readiness skills development, English language immersion, immigrant integration, and green job training. RIF made the strategic decision to fully focus its resources on the Urban Farm Recovery Project from 2014 on, expanding it from a therapeutic intervention to a comprehensive immigrant integration program using urban agriculture training as a catalyst for integrating newcomers in New York.

Refugee and Immigrant Fund

 

Cooperative FermentationCooperative Fermentation seeks to democratize our food system through the creation of cooperatives in food and farming in Maine and beyond by incubating new co-ops, providing popular education and presentations, producing food, facilitating community meetings, and supporting cooperative transition of existing food and farm businesses. The $2,500 Seed Fund grant will support cooperative consulting, co-op economic development workshops, and research and implementation of new economic models including: barter, sliding scale, alternative currency, hour exchanges, community investment, and multi-stakeholder co-ops. Cooperative Fermentation hopes to reach a variety of people through these programs, while maintaining a focus on younger farmers and food producers in Southern, Central, and Midcoast Maine.

Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate, Philanthropic Services.

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Catskill Mountainkeeper

May 15, 2014

by Ellie Lanphier

Catskill Mountainkeeper_landscapeCatskill Mountainkeeper takes on the important and often difficult role of striving to be the best advocate for sustainable growth and resource preservation in the seven-county Catskill region of New York. Through innovative programs and partnerships, Catskill Mountainkeeper has mapped and made available all the trails of Sullivan County, facilitates the region’s movement towards renewable energy, and is growing the next generation of food entrepreneurs. In 2013, Catskill Mountainkeeper received a grant from the RSF Seed Fund to support the pilot launch of the Capital Access Loan Program, designed to help regional farmers expand their businesses and boost the local economy.

The Capital Access Loan Program grew out of two studies commissioned by Mountainkeeper, “A Western Catskill Region Foodshed Research & Analysis,” and “Ground Up,” which demonstrated an immense opportunity within the region to grow the local agricultural economy. Catskill Mountainkeeper:

The report found that agriculture has the lowest start-up infrastructure cost of any land use for economic growth and an average economic multiple of 2.5 (for every dollar earned by a farmer 2.5 dollars are pumped into the regional economy). Coupled with our region’s abundance of accessible clean water, the lowest land costs within 100 miles of New York City and access to the thriving New York metro market, the Catskills is a prime area for agriculture. The New York metro market with its population of over 20 million is currently experiencing a strong trend towards the purchase and consumption of food that is grown within 100 miles. The demand clearly exceeds the supply available and this trend will continue to grow.

Working with business consultants and a well-established bank co-founded by farmers, Catskill Mountainkeeper vets organizations that apply for business expansion loans from $15,000 to $40,000 at low interest rates, and seeks to provide long payback periods and grace periods when needed. (For more details on who qualifies: Capital Access Program Inquiry Form) With every loan comes help with business planning services, an important piece to the model’s efficacy and to the success of the farmer.

Catskill Mountainkeeper_group shot 2

The Seed Fund grant supported this business planning component specifically. “The Seed Fund provides small grants – but this one had a big impact,” says Catskill Mountainkeeper’s Development Director Jennifer Edwards. “Most of the funds we raised for this program are restricted to the capital loan.  It is more difficult to raise funding for the necessary staff and consultant time to implement the program. This grant allowed us to develop a highly conceptualized business plan and we expect to see long-term and far-reaching successful outcomes from this work.”

One lucky applicant to receive funding in the past year is Jonah Shaw of Catskill Food Company, a farm-based, artisanal handcrafted foods enterprise using ingredients farmed almost exclusively in New York. Shaw, who has made a career in many facets of the food industry with a mind for sustainability, creates his sausages from heritage pigs and all processing takes place within the state, featuring seasonal ingredients when available. Catskill Mountainkeeper chose Catskill Food Company as a great example of how a viable local food system can create jobs and meet the desire for local food in the region.

Catskill Mountainkeeper’s work is greatly influenced by their perspective that their region has come to a crossroads, and that what develops now will determine their future for many years to come. They have chosen to promote their natural resources, natural beauty, local talent pool and fortuitous location and hope to lead the region to a sustainable and profitable future.

Catskill Mountainkeeper_group shot

To learn more about the Seed Fund, or to donate, please visit our website.

Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate of Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

RSF Makes a New Loan to Eureka Recycling

February 19, 2014

RSF Social Finance (RSF) is pleased to announce a new loan to Eureka Recycling, a non-profit recycler specializing in zero-waste. RSF financing will be used to purchase new recycling equipment which will help the company transform its operations, reducing operating costs and improving service to its clients.

Truck Side AngleBased in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Eureka Recycling provides curbside recycling services to the Twin Cities of Saint Paul/Minneapolis and the metro area. Eureka Recycling is one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the United States and is a leader in demonstrating the best waste reduction and recycling practices not only for the Twin Cities metro area, but for the nation.

Eureka Recycling puts into practice a model of resource management rather than waste management, a model that assumes waste is preventable, not inevitable. As a mission-driven non-profit organization, Eureka Recycling looks beyond the bottom line to provide the best practices for recycling and consider the optimum balance of cost, personal convenience, and environmental benefit.

“We are not like many traditional non-profit environmental organizations because we have a large operation in which we manifest our mission each day,” says Tim Brownell, CEO of Eureka Recycling. “We believe that it is most powerful to advocate from a place in which we have rolled-up our sleeves to do the work and know that what we are of others is doable and will get the job done.”

marcela 001All of Eureka Recycling’s efforts are designed to help individuals, organizations, and communities understand the significance of zero-waste and to achieve their own zero-waste goals. This includes activities beyond recycling such as encouraging reuse through the Twin Cities Free Market, a web-based program that connects community members to share durable goods that might otherwise end up in the landfill; composting services for restaurants, grocery stores, and other food businesses; and education and advocacy programs to promote community responsibility for waste-reduction.

“Eureka is much more than a recycling company,” says Mike Gabriel, lending manager at RSF. “This organization has deep roots in the community. And, with the breadth of services they provide, they’re really helping to build a vibrant and resilient local economy in the St. Paul area.”

The support and financing from RSF will also allow Eureka Recycling to launch their ‘Zero-Waste Lab,’ an education tool, feedback loop, and measurement device for governments, corporations, and communities.  “Now that zero-waste efforts are becoming more mainstream, there are many claims regarding policies, collection and processing designs, and packaging changes that are supposed to reduce or eliminate the growing waste stream,” explains Bryan Ukena, Business Development Director at Eureka Recycling. “Eureka’s Zero Waste Lab will actually help to distinguish those that are just talk from those that show true results.”

 staff photo_web

About Eureka Recycling

Based in Saint Paul, Eureka Recycling is one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the United States and the only organization in Minnesota that specializes in zero-waste. Eureka Recycling provides curbside recycling services to Saint Paul’s homes and apartments with a mission to demonstrate that waste is preventable, not inevitable. In addition, Eureka Recycling is a leader in waste reduction education, programs, and advocacy.

www.eurekarecycling.org

Small Grain, Big Change

November 19, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

by Jillian McCoy

In 1993, Caryl Levine and Ken Lee decided they wanted to start a business together. They took a market research trip to China and while visiting rural farmers, they found their calling. Caryl and Ken were introduced to the culture of rice and some of the issues connected to it: an astounding loss of rice biodiversity, the plight of farmers at the base of the pyramid, and unsustainable agriculture practices. “The most unique rice widely available in US supermarkets at that time was Basmati. It was shocking to learn that thousands of varieties were going extinct because there was no market,” says Levine. “When we started to think about the larger economic and environmental impacts, we knew we had a great opportunity in front of us.”

These economic and environmental impacts are of no small measure. Nearly half the world’s population relies on rice as its dietary staple and about 75% of that supply is generated by small-scale, irrigated production—simply put, small farmers. This type of production consumes up to one-third of the Earth’s annual freshwater supply, depletes soils, and after cattle, is the second leading cause of man-made methane production (a major contributor to climate change).

Two years after that trip, Levine and Lee co-founded Lotus Foods, Inc. with a mission to support sustainable global agriculture by promoting production of traditional heirloom rice varieties, some of which may otherwise have become extinct, while enabling small family rice farmers to earn an honorable living. Lotus Foods works with in-country partners to source rice from Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Italy, and Madagascar, and distributes it in natural food and specialty grocery stores in the US and Canada.

When Lotus Foods was founded, distributing fair-trade heirloom rice varieties from farmers in developing countries to North American consumers was new ground. “We were totally winging it,” says Levine. “We had to take a crash-course on rice, farming, and the whole industry.”

In addition, Levine and Lee faced a challenging supply chain. On one side, they were working with farmers to improve quality assurance (for US markets), and helping to educate them on the long-term impacts of sustainable practices versus the short-term economic rewards touted by conventional distributors. On the other side—distributors, retailers, and consumers—needed education on the value of diverse rice varieties and fair-trade pricing. But their passion for their mission was always there, and, slowly but surely, the company gained traction.

Group shot

Ken and Caryl with farmers from the Ramnagar Project in the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand, who are growing traditional basmati rice organically using System of Intensification methods

In 2005, Lotus Foods developed a game-changing partnership. They were contacted by staff at Cornell University who were involved in promoting research and awareness about a sustainable rice-growing methodology called System of Rice Intensification (SRI). The SRI methodology uses significantly less water than the conventional flooding methods used to grow rice, and results in higher yields and the need for fewer inputs (seed, synthetic fertilizer and pesticide, and often labor). Furthermore, whereas the water-logged soil of conventional rice paddies is ideal for methane production, SRI fields with drier soils and healthier plants are not.

SRI improves global food security, empowers poor households, conserves water resources, and promotes human and environmental health. Today, SRI is enabling some of the world’s most marginalized farmers to double their yields (or more) using 50% less water, 80-90% less seed, and no agrochemicals. Over 2.5 million farmers in 50 countries have recorded successful adoption.

Despite this success, SRI has experienced some resistance. “True of any great development, it always meets initial skepticism,” says Lee. “This approach is the exact opposite of input-driven agribusiness. It’s very farmer friendly and you don’t have to buy any inputs like seeds or fertilizers.”

As for resistance from the scientific community, “Farmers know best how to make this work on their land. It’s a methodology not a technology,” says Lee. “Researchers are challenging this because they can’t replicate it in their labs. As long as farmers are seeing it work in their fields, I don’t really care what the dissenters are saying.  And consumers and the food industry have been very supportive of our efforts to create market incentives for SRI farmers.”

Lotus Foods now helps their current farmers transition to SRI growing methods, and partners with existing communities of SRI farmers to bring their rice to market. Sustainability and economic empowerment remain at the heart of their efforts. “New farmers must produce enough for themselves and their community before exporting even becomes a possibility,” says Lee.

As farmers flourish, so does Lotus Foods. In recent years, the company made significant investment in rebranding their line, building their management team, and solidifying their commitment to SRI. Despite some losses during the recession, the company is now poised for growth and has been profitable for the past two quarters.

Lotus Foods recently developed a new partnership with Whole Foods which is now distributing a new value-added product line. The company is continuing to develop new products and distributes via other major retailers like Safeway and Costco. In January 2013, RSF financed a line of credit to support this growth.

Working with RSF was a natural fit for Lotus Foods. “We’ve always valued working with a mission-aligned financial partner,” says Lee. “A financing relationship is one of the most important for any business owner.”

As the company grows, Levine and Lee are still focused on what inspired them in the first place: social and environmental impact. When it comes to the company’s success, they aren’t concerned with growth simply for the sake of profit. “What we really want is to expand the market for our product, so that more farmers have an opportunity to grow this way,” says Lee. “Global warming, water resources, food sovereignty, poverty alleviation—major issues worldwide—these can all be positively affected just by changing how rice is grown.”

Jillian McCoy is Senior Associate of Communications at RSF Social Finance

Ecological Stewardship

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