During this pandemic consumers have been trying to shop from local farms more than ever. And yet these farms — small, family-owned operations — are having a tough time scaling up and pivoting to serve increased demand from new sales channels.
One thing that might help is if they had easier access to funding. An online platform called Steward is trying to help sustainable farms attract more capital. Steward lets individuals invest in pre-vetted local farms via its website. The company also recently launched new software to allow farmers to sell directly to consumers and even raise funds for projects, like building a new barn or expanding CSAs.
Dan Miller, the CEO and founder of Steward, told me over the phone recently that he got the idea for his company after he heard from lots of individuals who wanted to support sustainable local food systems, but weren’t sure exactly how. “There were way too many intermediaries,” he said.
Steward funded its first farm, an urban farm in Detroit, in 2017. Since then they’ve funded 15 more farms with a total of $3 million. Over 50 farms also use Steward’s software for their own fundraising ventures.
“Funding is hard to come by,” said Miller. “Traditional [investment] sources are focused on big commodity farmers, and sustainable farmers are often dismissed as not serious enterprises.” The reality, he argues, is that if farmers get access to the capital they need they can grow enormously.
On the flip side, it’s also hard for individuals to figure out how to invest in farms. Miller said that the business is “heavily regulated,” and that Steward simplifies the process. He told me that the majority of their investors are individuals who go in for a few hundred to thousand dollars.
Right now, individuals have two ways to invest through Steward. They can either invest in the Steward Farm Trust, which is a portfolio of loans picked by the Steward team. They receive interest payments from the loans of 8 to 10 percent. People can also look through the farms on Steward’s platform and invest individually, but Miller said that’s trickier because it involves regulatory hurdles (read: is probably not for the casual investor).
Steward makes money by charging farmers a 2 percent origination fee for investment, and collecting a 1 percent servicing fee yearly from investors. They also make money from the SaaS side of the business, which costs $95 per month. Thus far Steward is self-funded.
COVID is upending the entire food system and prompting consumers to examine where their food comes from in a way they might not have pre-pandemic. According to Miller, sustainable farms are benefiting from this emphasis on transparency. “We’ve seen boosted sales on all of the farms that we support,” he said.
To adapt to this spike in sales, small farmers are facing new challenges. They need to set up e-commerce sites to fulfill new demand, and figure out how to sell produce now that restaurant sales are down.
“They need capital to up their production,” Miller told me. He hopes that Steward will be able to provide some of that capital to help sustainable farms continue to grow, in COVID and beyond.