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September 23, 2010

Signs of a Reverse Brain Drain from Finance to Farms

Jurrien SwartsBanking on beets: Jurrien Swarts.Holton FarmsBuried in the Real Estate section in this Sunday's The New York Times was an article on the Solaire, an environmentally conscious apartment building in Manhattan's Battery Park City. One of the perks management offers is the chance to participate in a Community Supported Agriculture share (aka a veggie-box subscription) run by Holton Farms, an eighth-generation Vermont farm. But that's not what caught my eye. It turns out that this CSA program is a bit different.

Firstly, tenants who don't buy CSA shares can still buy from the farm truck when it delivers participants' produce boxes, so it's also a rolling farmers market. Second, as in most CSA plans, members pay an annual fee at the start of the season, in Holton Farms' case $250 to $1,000, to get their share of the harvest. But Jurrien Swarts, a partner in Holton Farms and the man in charge of the program, has structured it as a kind of farm charge account -- and even gave it a "premium" name: CSA Select. In his version, CSA members aren't getting a pre-selected box of produce. Instead, they spend down their "balance" by ordering รก la carte week by week from a selection of products from Holton and its 10 other farm and business partners.

If this strikes you as surprisingly market-savvy, then it might not surprise you to learn that Swarts comes out of finance; he's a former analyst with Credit Suisse, reports the Times. Swarts is also the cousin and best friend of farmer Seth Holton, says the farm's website, which explains why he ended up at this particular farm. The article doesn't mention the timing of Swarts' departure, so it's unknown if it was related to the financial crisis. Still, this kind of phenomenon could be its silver lining. Business-model innovation is desperately needed in agriculture, where most small farms still depend for survival on one spouse having off-farm income and where farmers themselves have plenty on their hands aside from their responsibilities as businesspeople. And innovative business thinkers who find themselves ejected from finance where, for all the hours they put in, they produce nothing tangible except huge bonuses for their colleagues, might enjoy working in a field where they literally can get their hands dirty.

So good for Swarts, and good for Holton, for trying out different ways of getting their produce to urban dwellers profitably.

Meanwhile, we've got one right here in Philly, Jason Ingle -- a former NYC hedge fund manager who started a non-profit network of farms in the Philadelphia region called Greener Partners. His goal is to bring food and food production closer to urban areas. Great stuff.

Originally published on Grist.org

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