Slow Money to Support Local Food

Carol Peppe Hewitt speaking at Sarasota County's 8th annual Sustainable Communities Workshop.

Carol Peppe Hewitt speaking at Sarasota County's 8th annual Sustainable Communities Workshop.

When Transition Sarasota Executive Director Don Hall first heard the theme of Sarasota County's 2013 Sustainable Communities Workshop - "Investing in Our Future" - he thought, "Bingo."

In March, Hall and Transition hosted a talk by Woody Tasch, the founder of a network known as Slow Money, which seeks to connect investors with local food growers and producers and restaurants that pledge to buy local ingredients. The idea being: You can shop at farmers' markets all you want, but why not take your commitment to local food to the next level and actually help an aspiring business succeed?

So when Hall heard about the county's workshop, he knew exactly who to call to make a dynamite keynote speech: Carol Peppe Hewitt, the cofounder of Slow Money NC and the author of "Financing Our Foodshed: Growing Local Food with Slow Money."

Hewitt grew up in northwestern Connecticut, where her passion for local food grew out of visits her father, a veterinarian, would make to nearby farms. "In my lifetime, I watched all those small farms disappear," she says. While Hewitt never became a farmer herself, she stayed passionate about increasing access to locally grown food.

In 2010, Tasch visited Hewitt's town: Pittsboro, N.C. His idea, of communities forming organizations to help local food producers find investment capital, made perfect sense. "A few of us met out in the hall after Woody's talk and said, 'Let's do this,'" Hewitt remembers.

Their first deal involved Hewitt and another investor making a loan to the owner of a nearby Greek restaurant, Angelina's Kitchen. The owner had financed an expansion using credit cards. Her Slow Money deal allowed her to refinance that debt at a much lower interest rate. "Within two years, she paid us off completely," Hewitt says.

Slow Money itself doesn't make any loans, Hewitt emphasizes. "We're simply creating the mechanism, the space, where lenders and borrowers can meet." Hewitt screens potential borrowers to make sure their goals align with Slow Money's mission, but the ultimate decision to invest or not rests solely with the investor. To date, Slow Money NC has helped facilitate more than 100 loans throughout North Carolina.

Could something like Slow Money succeed in Southwest Florida? Hewitt says Sarasota already has one advantage. "You have in Sarasota, which only exists in a few places around the country, an intelligent, skilled individual" - Don Hall. "You have someone who's interested in doing this and facilitating these loans and in leading a local network."

Hall had originally hoped to spark the idea for a Slow Money network here, not to lead it himself, but the idea fizzled. Now he's crafted a more aggressive plan, and has already scheduled three meetings to introduce the idea. The first gathering takes place Wed., Jan. 29. He says right now interest is higher on the lender side than the borrower side. "I think that most of the farmers and restaurants, they're not aware that this is available for them yet," Hall says. "So we're trying to get the word out in whatever way we can."

It won't be simple to build an investment network from the ground up, but as Hewitt's example makes clear, it can be done.

Local Heroes

Left photo by Don Guy. Right photo by Kim Longstreet.

Left photo by Don Guy. Right photo by Kim Longstreet.

They are the torch carriers of the local food movement - business owners, chefs, farmers, and humanitarians who are devoted to enriching the Southwest Florida economy with sound ethics and scrumptious cuisine. At the Edible Institute’s Annual Publishers Meeting in Santa Barbara, California, in mid-March, our Local Hero Awards were announced, and here they are. Congratulations to all! What a delicious quintet.

Farm/Farmer: Jessica’s Organic Farm Stand - Bill and Pam Pischer

Jessica’s emerged as one of the original organic growers in the Sunshine State back in 1979, and owners Bill and Pam Pischer have been dedicated to sustainability ever since. At their five-acre plot on 47th Street in Sarasota, they sell only 100 percent certified organic produce, never using genetically modified organisms, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. There are no antibiotics in their dairy products, and all of their eggs are from grass-fed, free-range, Amish-raised hens. Patrons drop by Friday through Sunday for crops such as arugula, Swiss chard, wheatgrass, fennel, endive, pistachios, macadamia nuts, goat gouda cheese, and local wildflower honey. “We harvest what we sell right onsite, and some of our customers have been coming here for over 20 years,” says Bill Pischer, whose land was initially a U-pick strawberry farm before it evolved into its current in-demand destination. “It’s a great place for people who are interested in a more sustainable lifestyle.”

Jessica’s Organic Farm: 4180 47th St, Sarasota; 941- 993-2064; jessicasorganicfarm.com

Chef/Restaurant: Indigenous - Chef Steve Phelps

When locavores think of true-to-the-region cuisine, one adjective comes to mind: indigenous. The brainchild of restaurateur/chef Steve Phelps, Indigenous opened in September 2011 in Sarasota’s Towles Court Artist Colony, and it continues to woo food connoisseurs countrywide. Phelps’ menu of seasonal American fare changes all year, depending on peak produce availability.

Diners might be treated to such delicacies as Mote Marine sturgeon in citrus honey balsamic marinade; caramelized eggplant and wild mushrooms with Lundberg rice risotto; “hook-to-fork” Gulf and Atlantic species; or pork belly with fig and balsamic glaze, bleu cheese mousse and wontons. “Indigenous has gone above and beyond what I expected. We just had a vision to have this little restaurant that served the best fish in town from captains throughout the Suncoast,” Phelps says. “For the quality of food we’ve been putting out, and because of our knowledgeable servers, we’ve become kind of an educational restaurant experience. There is such honesty here in what we serve, and I think that’s something Sarasota really wanted.”

Indigenous: 239 S. Links Ave, Sarasota; 941-706-4740; indigenoussarasota.com

Left photo by Angela Jenkins. Right photo by Maria Lyle.

Left photo by Angela Jenkins. Right photo by Maria Lyle.

Food Shop: TransAtlantic Sausage Company - Jim and Maureen Urbaniak

Peddling the kielbasa and poppy-seed pastries your grandmother used to make, Jim and Maureen Urbaniak of TransAtlantic Sausage Company have offered ethnic eats to Sarasota since June 2010. The couple learned artisan sausage craftsmanship from a Hungarian master who had been casing meats for 50 years, and then collected a trove of global recipes and bought a storefront. In their inventory are smoked kielbasa, bratwurst, English bangers, Italian sweet and spicy sausages, Mexican chorizo, Vermont maple-cured bacon, orangewood smoked bacon, pulled pork, marinated flank steak, corned beef, and jalapeño and cranberry-honey mustards. On the bakery front are Dutch apple strudels, hamantashen, and nut rolls. “We’re a unique combination in that we’re a bakery as well as a sausage producer,” Jim Urbaniak says. “We sell Old-World, artisan, handcrafted foods with no preservatives. The way it used to be done in Europe, it was very common for the butcher and baker to be near each other, and people seem to love that, especially because Sarasota is so ethnically diverse.”

TransAtlantic Sausage Company: 6620 Gateway Ave, Sarasota; 941-921-2253; transatlanticsausage.com

Photo by Michael Short.

Photo by Michael Short.

Nonprofit: Transition Sarasota - Don Hall

Champions of green living and local agriculture, Transition Sarasota is a nonprofit organization that has brought Eat Local Week and a slew of related, community-driven events to Sarasota. Founded by Don Hall in 2010, the organization is part of the global Transition Movement, which is dedicated to rebuilding cities and promoting self-reliance as a response to climate changes and economic crises. By sponsoring educational programs and encouraging dialogue, Transition Sarasota hopes to help the city reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and strengthen its economy. Gatherings such as field-and-stream dinners, sustainability conferences and the aforementioned Eat Local Week (an annual celebration in March of the best local foods and farmers in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte, and DeSoto counties) feed into Transition Sarasota’s mission. “I think we’re putting forth a different vision of where Sarasota can go in the future—a vision of a more sustainable, vibrant, self-reliant, creative community, where our homes and businesses are powered by renewable energy,” Hall says. “There’s a renaissance of local food and farming going on in the Sarasota area, and we are making a difference in that.”

Transition Sarasota: 941-408-3374; transitionsrq.org

Food/Beverage Artisan: Heavenly Cupcakes - Becky Schultes

From her decadent whoopie pies to her gluten- free pastries, entrepreneur Becky Schultes at Heavenly Cupcakes covers the entire sweets spectrum. Schultes bought the commercial bakery in August, after it had been under previous ownership since 2008, and tweaked the menu to cater to patrons with varying dietary restrictions. Because she is a certified level one CrossFit trainer, Schultes incorporates aspects of the Paleolithic diet into her recipes. She now makes “Paleo bread” and “Paleo granola bars,” along with more traditional confections such as wedding cakes and, of course, cupcakes. Her two shops are located in Sarasota’s Gulf Gate district and on Siesta Key, and her shelves are stocked with flavors such as Cuckoo for Coconut and Peanut Butter in Paradise. “We have the best icing around, and I try to use a lot of local vendors for my ingredients when I can,” Schultes says. “Most of the CrossFit athletes I know follow the Paleo diet, so there is that niche market, and Sarasota has responded really well to that. Also, people love coming in for Whoopie Pie Wednesdays (buy three pies and get one free) and Thirsty Thursdays for $1 icing shots. We have a lot of fun here.”

Heavenly Cupcakes: 6538 Gateway Ave, Sarasota; 941-922-0024. 5212 Ocean Blvd, Sarasota; 941-346-0024; myheavenlycupcakes.com

10 People Behind Local Food

Laney Poire (with Robert Kluson).

Laney Poire (with Robert Kluson).

I've been writing my Eat Near column since April, and I can tell you the part I like best with no hesitation: meeting the impressive and interesting people who are driving the Suncoast's locavore conversation.

So when I look back on 2012, while I'm tempted to name my favorite local food products, it's the folks out there milking the goats and hosting neighborhood meetings that really stand out.

With that in mind, here are 10 local food heroes, each one worthy of your respect and admiration.

(And, it should go without saying, this list is in no particular order.)

Peter Burkard

You probably know Burkard even if you've never met him. He's the guy at the downtown farmers' market with the sign advertising his legacy as the only original vendor left. Burkard has been doing his local thing for decades, and, among other things, sells unctuous fresh eggs.

Don Hall

The executive director of Transition Sarasota, an organization dedicated to fostering local "resilience and self-reliance," Hall has been a major voice for local food since moving back here from Colorado, and helped put on this year's Eat Local Week, starring the inimitable Joel Salatin. Transition Sarasota's website is a great resource for anyone looking to explore our area's edible bounty.

Laney Poire

In just over two years, Poire has led a revitalization of Crowley Museum and Nature Center, turning the pioneer property into an experimental hub for local agriculture. She also spearheaded this month's Sugarcane Harvest, which blew minds with its vintage sugarcane-grinding demonstration, taffy-pulling and more.

Steve Phelps

Being a locavore isn't just about searching out the best products from your area, it's also about transforming those products into something you want to eat. And that's where top flight chefs like Indigenous' Steve Phelps come in. Phelps' homage to Southwest Florida food opened to rave reviews in 2011, and has only grown in stature since. Zagat recognized the restaurant this fall, and Florida Trend gave it a Golden Spoon.

John Matthews

So you grow some amazing produce - how do you get that in the hands of the best local restaurants? That's where Matthews and the Suncoast Food Alliance come in, connecting area farmers and the region's best chefs. Matthews has also been a strong bridge between our foodie community and Tampa Bay's.

Ben and Shelby King

I'm cheating by including two people in one spot (sue me) and really, this award should go to the whole King clan, which cranks out superb veggies on its eastern Bradenton farm. The farm also played host to this fall's Food Day celebration - a relaxed, friendly powwow featuring local food vendors and activists. King Family Farm is a testament to growing food the right way.

Robert Kluson

In addition to his tireless work researching local agriculture as Sarasota County's U.F. Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension agent, Kluson has also played a role in the Crowley rethink, serving as the property's board chair. I've also seen the man dance, and I'm telling you, he can cut a rug.

Eva and Chris Worden

Worden Farm may be located all the way down in Punta Gorda, but don't think for a minute that the Wordens don't deserve a spot on this list (and yes, I'm cheating again by including two people). In addition to serving as advisers and helpers for a whole host of up-and-coming ag entrepreneurs, the Wordens offer the most consistently excellent goods at each Saturday's downtown farmers' market.

Jono Miller

Since 2009, Miller and the organization he helped found - Sarasota CLUCK (Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping) - have worked hard to convince local governments to loosen up restrictions on keeping backyard chickens. And while CLUCK won within Sarasota's city limits, the group has now focused its attention on getting the county to change its ways.

Barry Estabrook

Estabrook's no local, but his book "Tomatoland" (out now in paperback) should be required reading for anyone who remotely cares about the role agriculture plays in Southwest Florida. He documents the flavor-killing practices of industrial agriculture, as well as the human misery so endemic to Florida agribusiness - including slavery. Yes, slavery.