I’ve received several e-mails, phone calls, and letters in the last week from my stockholders. That’s nothing new. Most of my 55 stockholders stay in touch one way or another. There’s another “recipe book” I’d like to write some day called Stocking Up: Selling Dividends of Hope. It too would be a simplified how-to manual: Raise equity capital on a shoestring, from home!
My stockholders have supplied me with much more than money. One local stockholder sends me inspirational quotes almost every week—a big help when we lay out our magazine. Another shows up with a pot of soup or chili now and then; he’s retired from the military, spent a year here with us learning how to farm, and now has his own 3-acre organic farm. Kathryn has been infusing me with energy for six years now. I’ve decided it’s in her voice—the upbeat way she says, “Hi!” in her southern accent, her feet barely on the ground. I ran into Eric at the feed store not too long ago, and he told me all about his chickens and canning projects: pickles, juices, and corn. Paul and Karen and their two boys show up with sleeping bags; the boys love our chickens and trampoline. The last time they were here, I gave the boys some “seriously important” jobs. They picked buckets of plums for drying and gathered eggs every two hours. Several days later their plums finally dried, and I shipped several bags to them. I know they’ll taste better than any they’ve ever bought in a store. Michael has moved to Alaska and put in an order for some iris bulbs. Greg comes every Tuesday for yoga and stretching with my packaging crew. Mary moved to California to start an organic food business. Last month she wrote to say it didn’t work out but urged me to “hang in there and keep the faith.”
Over the years, whenever the business has run a fever, an investor has lent a hand. Priscilla, an agricultural economist, noted immediately the desperation in my voice when I called from the bank to say I was bouncing checks. “I’ll be right down,” she said. And then there’s Mike, a local lawyer who helped us with our public stock offering in exchange for shares, on his way now to Iraq (I hate the word deploy and I hate war); and Nick (my husband who has kept faith longer than I thought was humanly possible); Scott, Kent, and Rex, my brothers (creating in a sense our version of an Amish community). It’s survival outside the box.
I sold my first few shares of stock almost 10 years ago, and since then I’ve raised close to a million dollars by selling stock. I myself have never owned stock in any company, but when I was getting started I worked with the securities department in Idaho and Washington, dotting all my i’s and crossing all my t’s (mountains of paperwork). And I read Drew Fields’ Direct Public Offerings: The New Method for Taking Your Company Public and drier things like Securities Regulations, Fifth Edition. I’m not sure I even understand how the New York Stock Exchange works, but farming is a hard gig, and I have constantly needed money. At times, I have been sleepless for days over money.
Historically, successful small farms (few and far between, but that is changing) have always been diverse. Chemical companies (drug pushers) have lured us into mono-cropping by saying their pesticides would make farming failsafe. Like any addiction, this seems great in the beginning, but always turns out badly. Farmers found themselves on a chemical treadmill with no easy way to get off. But diversification has always been a farmer’s survival tool—good to grab when your farm needs repair. Fifty years ago it meant a little bit of corn, a pig or two, spuds one year, beans the next. For me it means garlic, flowers, strawberries, packaged bread and soup mixes, chickens, mustard oil, magazines, books, and seeds of hope (taking stock and selling shares).
I’ve been in launch mode for the past 10 years, and the company just started turning a profit a few months ago. But of all 55 stockholders, I only had one who ever brought up the subject of money … and sounded disgruntled about it. She urged me to sell out, get bigger, get smaller, anything. Because I set myself up as majority owner, I was able to say: “No. I’m not interested in diminishing the quality of my packaged products and producing greater volume in a factory. No. My goal isn’t a golden parachute for people who already have money. No. I will never needle my suppliers down in price. And yes, I believe in putting a face to food, and I will share who I am with everybody. And an even bigger YES, I would rather ‘fail’ if survival means selling out.”
For people who spend their days growing and selling food, capitalism (or whatever it is) isn’t user friendly. For perspective, read about the Populist movement at the turn of the century—farmers revolting in an attempt to stop huge corporations from dictating what farmers would grow and what they would get paid for it. At that time, farmers sent forth 40,000 trained speakers to rally support. I have a picture of a woman in a corset before a group of rural people saying, “Raise less corn and more hell.”
Even among organic farmers, the pressure to consolidate and compromise quality is intense. Something like five corporations produce more than half the organic food sold in the United States right now. Writer Michael Pollan calls it “The Organic Industrial Complex.” Every farmer, chemical user or not, has felt the ominous pressure of “get big or get out” when they sat down with their ledger at the end of the day.
But a good farmer loves a challenge. And if we can put up with hailstorms, drought, and bugs, we can figure out good food for our friends, our neighbors, and ourselves. There’s just nothing else like it—feeding people love and hope. I wouldn’t have it any other way.