In 2008 Amber Lambke and Michael Scholz of Maine Grains were starting their traditional gristmill in Skowhegan and they needed funding.
Around the same time, Bonnie Rukin was working to establish a Maine chapter of Slow Money, the national nonprofit aimed at connecting investors with local food producers and organic farms.
It was a match made in local food entrepreneurial heaven.
Lambke said they needed the money to transform the former Somerset County jailhouse into a mill for locally sourced, organic heritage grains.
“Purchasing and renovating the former county jail plus starting up a grain mill [was] a capital-intensive proposition,” Lambke said. “Slow Money Maine helped us raise more than half of the $3 million in financing we needed.”
At its core, Slow Money Maine looks to build a network of individuals, philanthropists, businesses, nonprofits and government entities focused on investing in farms, fisheries and the ecosystems that support them.
“It’s a means of growing our local food systems,” said Rukin, founder of Slow Money Maine. “I realized [Slow Money] can work here in Maine because we are blessed to have the land base, the farm base and the people who support those bases.”
At the national level, Slow Money has helped invest more than $40 million into small food enterprises in 46 states.
“In Maine we work to connect promising businesses with the necessary financing and technical assistance to be successful,” Rukin said. “We are connecting people in all sectors and regions of the state to share their passions, skills and funding abilities to build a connected food system in Maine.”
To date, Slow Money Maine has facilitated more than $13.6 million in loans and grants for farmers and local food businesses in the state.
The bulk of those funds — about three-quarters — are sourced from private investors with the remaining coming from foundations, government agencies and nonprofits.
Among those sharing his passion for locally sourced food and his skills is Chris Hallweaver of Van Buren who has served as a business mentor with a northern Maine food co-op and processor and helped found No Small Potatoes, an Aroostook County, investment club offering small loans to growing northern Maine agricultural businesses.
“I am personally concerned about our food system,” Hallweaver said. “I feel the same corporate powers that control our money — meaning Wall Street and big banks — are controlling our food sources.”
With Slow Money Maine, Hallweaver said, those small businesses and farms in Maine can secure needed financing that may not be available through larger, traditional lending institutions.
“Often times small farmers don’t have access to needed capital,” he said. “Big banks don’t like to loan to small farmers, and that’s where slow money comes in.”
That capital, according to Rukin, is more than cash.
“We work in terms of social capital, human capital and assistance to farmers in many other forms,” she said. “We have developed a network of technical assistance people who bring skills in the law, grant writing, marketing and business planning who work pro-bono to help move these food and agricultural businesses forward.”
Rukin stressed Slow Money Maine is the bridge between these businesses and funders and is not the actual source of funding.
“If someone comes to us who is at any scale or level of farming or fisheries, we will work with them to find the funding or technical assistance they need,” she said. “It can certainly be daunting but it is clearly worth it.”
Slow Money Maine, Rukin said, allows investors to have an immediate and tangible impact on food systems.
“We have something called ‘peer-to-peer’ loans,” she said. “You may call me and say, ‘I like what you are doing and I have $5,000 I’d could loan to a farmer or business’ [and] I keep this revolving rolodex of farms in my head who may be in need of funds for equipment or supplies and then match them with these interested investors.”
At Maine Grains, there is no doubt in Lambke’s mind that her business would not have gotten off the ground if not for Slow Money Maine.
“They are a critical part of our success story,” Lambke said. “They helped secure the financing and found mentors that continue to help me learn and acquire new business skills.”
Perhaps as important as funding and technical assistance, according to Lambke, is the fact Slow Money Maine facilitates that connection between those who produce Maine’s food and those who consume it.
“In many of our rural communities we know unemployment and food insecurity are real issues,” Lambke said. “Businesses like mine help address these needs by creating value added products from grains purchased from local farmers and employing members of our community in our mill”
Maine Grains has 12 full time employees in addition to work generated when the business renovated their current facility.
“It adds a vibrancey to our town,” Lambke said. “And it inspires other people to do the same.”
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