Insights from the First WTF2 Meet-Up

Earlier this week, RFSI held the first Women Transforming Food & Finance meet-up in Boulder, Colorado, in partnership with Robyn O’Brien of Montcalm. The goal was to bring women working in all corners of the agriculture, food and finance systems in the region together to learn, build community, and elevate solutions.

In unsurprising fashion, this room full of female investors, farmers, entrepreneurs and food systems builders, covered a lot of ground in a relatively short 2.5 hour period. The program kicked off with networking and then some opening words from Robyn O’Brien who beautifully articulated why we bring women together. We gather so that we can serve as each other’s’ “scaffolding” – the type of support that is innate for men in business but that women haven’t always had access to. When women support each other – they are empowered to be “boldly brave” in their leadership and to make even stronger contributions to the sector as a whole, something that Robyn speaks to in her new book, Seeding Innovation. With this inspiring framing, the program proceeded to dig into the topic of investment in healthy future food systems with panelists Jessamine Fitzpatrick of Alder Point Capital, Devon Klatell of The Rockefeller Foundation, and Kristy Quinn of Quinn Snacks. Here are some of the highlights as we navigated through the large and complex topic of how investment capital can transform food systems to prioritize health, inclusion, sustainability, resilience, climate and more.


Visions for Future Food Systems

After a brief framing of the capital ecosystem, the panel was asked to explain their unique visions for food systems they want to see in the future and how the work they do today ties into that. Coming at the space from different angles, we heard from Jessamine, a Managing Director at a real asset investment fund with a biology background, that she wants to see a system that regenerates at all levels – from soil biology to entire landscapes. Her work aims to build a model for bringing capital to this transition to regenerative that can be replicated for greater impact. Devon, who is Vice President of Food for the US arm of The Rockefeller Foundation, explained her vision simply: “a food system that makes more than it takes.” Today’s predominant food systems do the opposite and her work focuses grant making that will support efforts to expand research, improve policy, and build the systems that are needed to move toward a regenerative rather than degenerative system. Kristy, founder of the 14-year-old Quinn Snacks, explained her vision is for a system that is resilient, noting that a large part of that means building out  supply chains for farmers to sell into – something she spends a lot of time supporting in her work at with Quinn’s farmer partners.

Later in the program, an attendee brought us back to this question of vision and asked who is doing the work to create the vision for the entire food system for 100 years from now? – which prompted an insightful conversation and got some wheels turning about what this process could look like, accounting for the complexity of systems, regionality, and differing views.


Funding the Middle

Kristy’s mention of her work on farmer resilience in her supply chain spurred an insightful conversation about how to fund the necessary processing and infrastructure for regenerative and other unconventional products. Top of mind for Kristy and some of the attendees was how to get funding for on-farm vertical integration. Infrastructure on the farm can be transformational for farmers who don’t have other reliable options in their region and/or who want to bring some more value to the farm operation, rather than disperse it among different parties in the supply chain.

However, today, accessing the funding needed for such on-farm projects is not as simple as it might seem. The investment in infrastructure could be as little as $10,000 or over $1 million, depending on the operation and what is needed. Someone rightfully pointed out this is not a lot of money for some larger philanthropic funders and other investors. So what’s the catch?

There are several obstacles that come down to matching the right type and scale of capital with the right project. These include that:

  • Infrastructure can be a risky investment – with several external market factors helping determine success – and without the potential for high returns. This eliminates as potential investors, some types of capital that expect high returns for risky projects.
  • While the projects may be small in check size, they take a lot of work to diligence and therefore can be relatively costly from a time and resource perspective.
  • Related to this, the scale of impact (local and regional) may not align with larger funders’ need for  scaled – sometimes even global – impact.

There is certainly an increasing amount of attention being given to this space – Transformational Investing in Food Systems will continue a series of talks on this very topic at this year’s RFSI Forum – but it does beg the question what else can be done? There seems to be continued opportunity to build more organizational and resource infrastructure and capacity in the space to make it easier to facilitate such deals.


The Role of Lobbying

Today, no conversation on food systems transformation is complete without addressing policy. This indeed was touched on in this week’s gathering with three memorable points brought up.

There is a tremendous and growing struggle between the large-scale industrial systems of agriculture and food and the emerging sustainable and regenerative systems. As such, the topic of power – and political power in particular – was top of mind.

Robyn O’Brien explained that if one wants to understand a company’s true intentions, we need to look into what she calls their “Scope 0”, or the amount of and where the company spends lobbying dollars.

Industrial agriculture and food companies are showing up on Capitol Hill with their lobbying dollars but those working for new systems are not at nearly the same rate (although we know this is improving and there are great organizations working toward this).

Devon offered a call to action on this front: those that have C4 dollars – referring to 501(c)(4) money that can be used for lobbying – put them to work and show up on Capitol Hill!

And a final note on policy that was brought up: the outcome of elections in the U.S. this November will have an impact on capital funding that goes toward transitioning the agriculture and food systems toward climate smart, resilient, and regenerative. This does not necessarily have to be positioned as a partisan issue (and probably shouldn’t) but the reality of what two different outcomes could mean for the momentum in government funding needs to be talked about. One of the ways to do that – make sure we get nature on the balance sheet! Economics often serves as a universally understood language – advancing understanding of what a vote one way or the other can mean for farm economics, funding for transition, and other key economic factors can be critical not only for the election but for the advancement of food systems transformation in general.

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