Invest in Food, Reverse Climate Change

group harvest; people holding crops
Source: Main Street Project

Socially responsible investing is a way your money can change the world. You can do it by moving your money from Wall Street banks to community development banks, screening the worst companies out of your portfolio, or using shareholder advocacy to push corporate management to change.

Direct investing or impact investing is another socially responsible strategy in which people invest directly in companies and projects making change, like to support sustainable, organic, and regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming that puts the focus on soil health, which has the added benefit of also drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. Regenerative agriculture has the power to reverse climate change.

When Soil Health is Wealth

Joshua Humphreys is an analyst who studies how financial products can solve sustainability and social justice issues, including a strong emphasis on climate. In his role as president and senior fellow at the Croatan Institute, a think tank that specializes in these topics, Humphreys recently worked on a report called “Soil Wealth,” which investigated the demand for products to finance regenerative agriculture across the country and the world.

The report found $321 billion in investment opportunities to support sustainable agriculture and $47.5 billion in investment for regenerative agriculture specifically, suggesting that investors have a growing interest in it. According to Croatan Institute’s modeling based on data from Project Drawdown, those investments could have big returns: a shift to climate-friendly farming could mitigate 170 GtCO2e (i.e. 170 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent), while generating nearly $10 trillion in net financial returns.

Humphreys says growing numbers of institutional investors are seeing what a good investment regenerative agriculture is. It’s more resilient—the report shows that regenerative land recovers two weeks sooner than conventional farms in the same area, as shown by farmland near the Missouri River after flooding last year. Humphreys says that regenerative farms clustered in “organic hotspots” are also seeing socio-economic benefits.

Investing in Land, Building Resilience

One example of a company that gives investors a chance to finance sustainable agriculture is the Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT. Since its inception in 2007, the company has provided secure land access to farmers who were committed to at least USDA Organic practices—though some farmers go further—aiming for Bee Better Certification, Savory Hub distinction, and other up-and-coming sustainable certifications.

“Practices like no-till and permaculture can be used within USDA Organic systems,” Claire Mesesan, communications director of Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT, says. “In fact, we work with many farmers practicing reduced or no till. We have two farms that use permaculture practices and others that draw inspiration from the system.”

Iroquois Valley caters to investors with quite a bit of money to invest—at least $10,000—which means most of its investors are family-run foundations, NGOs, and businesses, though the company says its investor base is about 32 percent individual investors.

Mesesan explains the high cost of entry to Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT investment is because as a small business buying property that costs on average $1 million per plot, it is cost-prohibitive to pursue small investments.

Today, Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT is invested in about 60 farms comprised of more than 12,000 acres, across 14 states.

One of those farms is Main Street Project, a nonprofit in Dakota County, Minnesota, on 100 acres of transitioning farmland. Its transition is to a regenerative system that uses chickens alongside perennial and annual agriculture crops along with trees to create a biodiverse and functional farm.

Main Street Project, a participant in Green America’s Regenerative Supply Network, has an added mission of supporting rural Latinx immigrant communities by providing bilingual jobs and training for people who are often victims of the conventional agriculture system. The nonprofit aims to provide a “path to economic stability, wealth creation, and empowerment for aspiring immigrant farmers.”

“Main Street Project exists to innovate a path toward a more just and resilient food system for all people. Our 100-acre farm serves as a safe space to share land, knowledge, food and stories—a sanctuary for community building,” says Rocky Casillas Aguirre, communications manager at Main Street Project. “Having nonprofit organizations and farms like ours that put people first is absolutely paramount, especially in the times we are facing as a country and global society. Together is the only way forward.”

CDFIs are Making Sustainable Attainable

When it comes to making big impact for small sustainable businesses, Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) have outsized impact. CDFI is a federal designation for a variety of financial institutions that serve economically marginalized communities. They have low account minimums so more people can use their services and support their work.

CDFIs can provide products based on their clientele and membership—often at a smaller scale than would be feasible for big banks. CDFIs can also have community priorities, as Self-Help Credit Union sees the importance of sustainable food systems in local communities. For example, Happy Dirt is a farmer- and staff-owned organic wholesale produce distributor based in Durham, North Carolina. Over the years, Self-Help has provided Happy Dirt with loans for a building purchase, renovation, and equipment, so the small business can grow.

Philip Otienoburu is the food system financing sector leader at Self Help. He explains that conventional banks see small businesses as a bigger risk—they may have limited collateral, especially when they are owned by entrepreneurs of color who are historically under-banked and often lack the financial infrastructure to support their businesses.

“We believe that the food that goes to communities needs to be wholesome— healthy for consumers and good for the planet,” says Otienoburu. “We are not just doing it for the sake of feeding people, but also promoting sustainable development in a socially responsible way by building community wealth around these businesses.”

One credit union has introduced a new strategy. Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union is making waves in the financial world just as it does for farmers in Maine. Croatan Institute’s report highlights Maine Harvest’s approach, as it’s the first financial institution in the country completely focused on supporting local food and its producers.

It carries out its mission by providing business loans to farmers and food producers in Maine to foster the local food movement. By making deposits or investing in certificates of deposit at Maine Harvest Federal Credit Union, anyone can support Maine farmers. How You Can Join the Movement In addition to using direct investing or community development options to invest in farmers and regenerative agriculture, there are many ways to you can use your dollars to support sustainable and local farmers.

  • Buy from a CSA. Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) is like a farmer’s market, but instead of buying piecemeal every week, you buy shares at the beginning of the season, which gives local farmers much-needed cash and get produce on a schedule. Check for CSA options—you can even see what CSAs use organic or regenerative practices.

  • Shop from farmers. If CSAs’ upfront buy-in isn’t affordable, you still have the option of going to a farmer’s market as needed. Ask sellers there what types of sustainable practices they use. Find examples of what to ask here.

  • Keep money in a CDFI, which may be making business loans to farmers in your community (you can ask!). Use our Get a Better Bank database to find CDFIs in your area.

  • If you have more to invest, speak to your financial advisor about getting involved with these financial products pushing the envelope and making big impacts.

From Green American Magazine Issue