Welcome to the new Propagate Investment website and our first ever blog! I appreciate anyone who takes some of the most precious thing they possess in this world – their time – to read through the random musings of just another person. Thank you!
I figured it appropriate for a first blog post to share Propagate’s journey and why we believe we are just scratching the surface of doing some good in this world. Propagate was formally established about two years ago but the journey beings a bit further back than that. I was blessed with the opportunity to have some excess capital to deploy but struggled to find a way deploy this capital in a way which wasn’t simply jumping on the same old investment hamster wheel the vast majority of people spin around on to this day. You see, I’d spent the last 15 years of my executive career in the worlds of financial services and technology as a risk management and regulatory compliance professional. I’d seen “how the sausage was made” and wasn’t satisfied with putting my wealth into the same markets that provided me a nice standard 8% return without considering how my investment decisions impacted the larger us and the world we lived in.
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Marco Vangelisti and his Towards Aware and No Harm Investing course. Marco’s work – which I highly recommend checking out and taking his course – allowed me to crystalize my personal investment philosophy and provided the impetus to create Propagate Investment.
In concept, Propagate was going to be a simple endeavor. A legal entity formed to channel a portion of my family’s net worth to do good in the world instead of, let’s just say, maybe something “other-than-good” in the world. Having a personal connection around small agricultural producers and a strong passion for systems-based thinking and techniques working with nature rather than against it, the natural investment choice was to move in the direction of funding regenerative agriculture businesses. So, I started leading deals and making direct investments to small producers engaged in regenerative agriculture. Should be simple and straight-forward task, right?
Not so. While future blog posts will cover much of this in more detail, capital wasn’t the only thing needed in this space. What I observed were small regenerative producers and food system businesses working passionately in a system set up to crush them into little, tiny rocks. No, not rocks – fine dust, the stuff that gets all caught up in your sinuses. And I’m not blaming the system here either. The industrial agricultural system is a well-oiled machine doing exactly what it was set up to do – produce food as efficiently and effectively as possible. The system wasn’t set up for anything other than what it does very well today. We can’t blame it for transgressions, nor the corporations and commodity exchanges which have brought it to market maturity, nor governments who spend billions of dollars annually here and globally to shore up its cyclical nature with subsidies. No, ladies and gentlemen, we merely need to look in the mirror if we want to blame anyone for our industrial agricultural system. It is what your great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and, yes, even you have demanded of it. Cheap food, right now. Well, you got what you wished for as well as the baggage that comes with it.
I digress. So, Propagate has started to deploy capital to regenerative agricultural companies. However, it is painfully apparent there are larger cultural and economic contexts swirling around the regenerative producers (and enablers of these producers) which cannot be ignored by anyone that cares about what this space is trying to do. We’re talking serious headwinds. As a result of this emerging awareness, I engaged with my portfolio companies and had a series of conversations around the challenges of working to bring nutritionally dense food to their communities while working with natural cycles as management technique. What emerged from these conversations was a sense that my proprietors had what I’ll call an “agrarian identity” but lacked community of agrarian support to help them develop their vocations. They were in many cases boats floating in a sea of conventional agriculture with no safe harbor to call home. Historically, an agrarian community was built into our culture (and our democracy) but the efficiency of the production system and global market economies had effectively wiped that out (and perhaps democracy as well – more on that in another post).
It became clear to me Propagate could not deploy capital to its best end without considering how to create some sort of analogue or “stand-in” for the agrarian philosophical support farmers, ranchers, and food systems businesses once found in their communities. Definitions help to drive the point here. Paul Thompson states in From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone,
“Agrarian philosophy contends that the food system, including the characteristic organization of farm production, is fundamental to the functional integrity of a civilization or way of life. Farming and foodways are imbricated within the patterns of practice that reinforce cultural norms or organizational institutions that hold the society together.” (p. 180)
Farmers and ranchers and those involved in the production of our food are inherently important to our communities, culture, and democratic society. I certainly couldn’t re-create the ethos an agrarian community, but I might propagate a spirit of support that, combined with capital, supported agrarian citizens with the respect they deserved.
Unfortunately, I feel our current agricultural support services suffer from the same malaise our industrial systems do. Effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery means specialization. Specialization means multiple service providers – banks and lenders, technical support firms, non-profits, etc. – that treat the farmer or rancher or small businessperson as a cog in a wheel of economic production. “Sure, you need help, take a number and a specialist will be with you shortly.” This isn’t the support a community provides, this is 800 number customer support, a series of specialists that are called in when needed to “diagnosis and fix” so you can again be an efficient and effective means of production. Again, like my previous thoughts around our industrial agriculture system, I don’t blame service providers for this approach. These are fabulous human beings trying to help. I just think we as are missing a larger opportunity to understand how we can best support and respect one another. Often, I feel we believe the best way to support another is to be a problem-solver. However, what we may need first is to be a confidant and listen deeply to what others are really asking for our assistance with. That starts with an inherent respect for the people doing this work and what that work contributes to our culture and society, not just our economy.
Based on this understanding, I felt Propagate could make the most immediately impact to the larger set of issues by simply and genuinely being there for our partners. Take time with them. Deeply listen to them and their needs. Taking an approach I learned as an Integral Coach, we create space for our partners to work, first, on their own development with what I like to call the Agrarian Enablement Approach. From there, we move outward with a holistic approach to solving challenges and growing successful businesses together, including capital investment, technical support, and coordination with non-profit organizations. Propagate just becomes an analogue for the neighbors and associates that once provided similar support in an agrarian community setting that included trust, respect, and an understanding that place is important.
I firmly believe these small acts of love and support can set in motion a cascading series of events and perhaps even a renaissance in agrarian philosophy. Critics of my approach have said this will never work because it isn’t scalable. Maybe so, but that’s industrial, utilitarian thinking and lacks the imagination and faith in what we can achieve together when we are seen as people and respected for who we are and what we bring to our communities. What Propagate does doesn’t need to be is scalable -- just repeatable. Because in repeating these caring, respectful relationships with our partners over and over again, there can be no limit to what they in turn achieve. Perhaps we change a system of agriculture. Perhaps we revitalize rural communities. Perhaps we even influence our consumer culture to understand what they have sacrificed in order to have the cheap and consistent food.
I look forward to working within this community of support and see what the universe will bring us as we work together moving forward.