Venture capitalists meet with local, organic farmers to revolutionize food

David Wilhelm, the venture capitalist who managed Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, will meet with local and organic farmers in Chicago on Thursday. So will venture capitalists from the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, professors from the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Woody Tasch, who has channeled $130 million to sustainable projects through a non-profit organization called Slow Money.
From skyscraper and prairie, in suits or overalls, they’ll gather at the fencepost in hopes of building profitable networks to deliver local food to restaurants, grocers and consumers in Chicago, and to build a model, perhaps, for the local-food movement nationwide.
“The first thing we want is to build some relations between these farms and food businesses and money,” said Jim Slama, organizer of Thursday’s Financing Farm to Fork Conference. “The movement needs to build its capacity on multiple levels, and financing is definitely a major need.”
Local farmers have drifted away from local markets in part because of the influence of California, with its three growing seasons and its domination of the nation’s food delivery infrastructure.
Slama hopes to reestablish the ancient and intuitive connection between local farmers and local markets in three ways: by introducing major financiers to local farmers and food businesses, by bringing value added business to farms (like jarring local preserves, for example), and by helping farms take advantage of their potentially lucrative ability to sequester carbon (with guidance from Mike Walsh, executive vice president of the Chicago Climate Exchange cap and trade market).
The conference will be held Thursday at the University of Illinois, Chicago Forum. It serves as the opening act for the weekend Family Farmed Expo, an annual event that draws local celebrity farmers, like Bill Kurtis, local celebrity chefs, like Rick Bayless, and thousands of Chicagoans to a local food festival and trade show. This year the expo has drawn Kathleen Merrigan, the deputy secretary of agriculture who helped author the nation’s organic-food standards.

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