Food & Agriculture
What Does It Mean to Be an Ecosystem Lender?
When we say we’re a bank for “everyone who eats, makes, grows, cooks, or just loves our local food” farms are often the first thing that comes to mind.
As an “ecosystem lender” we’re as interested in how food comes out of the [ground/water/tree/field] as how it moves through our community. Beyond the farm, it’s often a series of unseen partners working in tandem who harvest, process, transport and market our food. Right here, there are plenty of bottlenecks that keep small farms and food businesses from growing… and plenty of businesses growing to fill those roles.
One example can be seen in packaging. At the onset of Covid-19, when hotels, schools, restaurants, and other wholesale buyers closed, it became unfortunately clear that we had prioritized efficiency above all else in our industrialized food system. Farms and processors with specialized, high volume operations designed to deliver bulk products were unable to suddenly pivot to filling gallon jugs or 2lb retail bags, something they were never designed to do. This left many farms no choice but to compost their crops or dump their milk… while in many places grocery store shelves sat empty.
The pandemic created an extreme example of the mismatches in our food system - where losing one link has the power to create ripple effects across the supply chain and leave businesses stranded. Many entrepreneurs are raising their hands to create alternatives.
Across New England and New York, we’re seeing a renaissance in the craft beverage industry. There are great breweries and cideries tucked into rural towns and turning industrial buildings into pedestrian hotspots. They’re so local that more than 78% of adults across the U.S. live within 10 miles of a brewery (in fact, our office is just 20 steps away from one). Many of these small producers are selling cans to go, something that was far rarer just 10 years ago. This is noteworthy, considering canning machinery alone can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars - along with the additional costs of the cans, insurance, space, and more.
The key here is mobile canning companies. These businesses specialize in logistics and operations, bringing a high-quality machine - and the people who run it - to local producers. Even for breweries who could purchase the machinery themselves, working with mobile operators allows for freedom to ramp up production when needed and free up space and capital when demand is low. When Trillium in Massachusetts began canning, they had a mobile canning line parked semi-permanently at their brewery due to the 12-month lead times to buy one themselves. Here in New Hampshire, we’re neighbors to Iron Heart Canning Company. As Roger Kissling, VP of Sales and Customer Management puts it, they began with “one guy and a truck… and a canning line” and now support over 750 businesses across 25 states.
Supply chain connections such as these are often invisible to the end buyer, but without them it’s easy to end up with shortages and surpluses even within the same community. Packaging is one example, but these same dynamics can be seen in refrigeration, meat processing, upcycling, and more - all areas where there is severe need and significant opportunity for bridges to be built.
The power of an ecosystem lies in connectivity - relationships of various shapes and sizes, which yield the resources to adapt in the face of change. Last week, we were able to connect an organic grain grower to a local buyer, through our lending relationship with a local bakery. Separately, we were able to connect a farm to a local solar developer to potentially diversify their future income. When we introduced one farm to others growing similar crops they were able to share best practices to improve yields in an organic setting. These are businesses - and innovators - we work with and who will see very direct impact from deposits in our bank accounts. In many cases, there are already people here ready to fill these gaps, yet lacking the funds to do so. Let’s get to work!
Photography: Christina Johantgen