When Dan Miller's chef friend spilled the saga of his struggle to procure a rare variety of chile pepper (all for hot sauce), Miller was perplexed. The Baltimore-based chef related how he had finally discovered a farmer in his area who was growing them—the peppers had all but disappeared from commercial cultivation—so he had committed to buying every last one. But, in spite of having a dedicated buyer, the farmer wasn't able to get a loan to increase production. It was a classic example of how the farm lending system favors commodity growers. And it gave Miller an idea. With a background in launching crowd-funding platforms, Miller wondered if a similar model could help small farmers.
What He Did
In 2017, Miller founded Steward, an online crowd-sourced investment company geared toward financing the growth of farms practicing regenerative agriculture—a method of farming that helps restore soil health, improve ecosystems and capture carbon. To date, Steward has invested more than $4 million into 40-plus projects— from an organic strawberry U-pick in Georgia to a biodynamic vineyard in Switzerland—and provided loans from $5,000 to more than $500,000. "We wouldn't be the full-functioning farm we are now without Steward," says Amy Eckert of Detroit's Fisheye Farms. She used part of her loan to build a barn, allowing her to move operations from the back of a Mercury Mariner SUV.
Why It's Cool
So far, 835 individual lenders from around the world have invested $100 to $250,000 in a range of sustainable agricultural projects on independent farms. The 12-person Steward team, which includes veteran farmers, determines the financial needs of each project and the best way to structure the funding based on the collateral provided, the farmer's experience and cash flow. Interest rates vary from 5 to 10%, so lenders earn a fair return. Bec Milgrom, who invested in Fisheye Farms, says she is happy to have an opportunity to align her investment dollars with her values. "Steward opened that door for me in a low-barrier way that I didn't have access to before," she says.