BELMONT, Maine ― When Mike and Christa Bahner, of Bahner Farm in Belmont, had a hoop house collapse under the weight of snow a couple of winters ago, the couple didn’t have time to go through the red tape process of getting a traditional bank loan to fund the replacement.

They needed to get their order placed with the manufacturer in time to have a new hoop house up and ready for spring growing.

Luckily for the Bahners, they were familiar with the group Slow Money Maine, an organization that brings together investors and local food businesses to create a large network of people interested in bolstering Maine’s food system through a variety of avenues, financial or otherwise.

Through one of the organization’s affiliated investment clubs, Maine Organic Lenders, the Bahners were able to connect with investors who shared their passion for Maine’s local food system, apply for a loan with the group and receive working capital quickly with a doable pay-back schedule and interest rate.

“No matter how wonderful a bank or a government organization is, it’s so much more pleasant to work with an organization like [Slow Money Maine],” Christa Bahner said. “It’s really powerful that [the organization is] there, [and] to know that all those people care so much about small food businesses like ours succeeding.”

Slow Money Maine is just one of about 20 groups across the country sponsored fiscally by the Slow Money Institute, a national nonprofit organization. This umbrella structure allows the group to have a broad mission of supporting Maine’s food system by bringing together anyone who is interested in it. The result is a network of individual investors, investment clubs, technical assistance specialists, mentors and community organizers that Slow Money Maine can connect food businesses or producers with when they need the support.

Christa Bahner describes her and her husband’s experience with Slow Money Maine as “faster and friendlier” than reaching out to traditional lending or assistance programs. When meeting the woman who founded Maine’s network of the national Slow Money Institute, it’s easy to see how that would be the case.

On a recent muddy, late winter day, Slow Money Maine coordinator Bonnie Rukin sat down with the Bahners on their farm over a lunch of fresh greens from their greenhouse and a medley of roasted vegetables that Rukin, a former organic farmer herself, brought.

When Rukin arrived, it was as though she was catching up with old friends, asking the Bahners’ how their business was going through the winter and discussing with Mike Bahner the benefits of his mother’s impending move closer to the family.

Her genuine interest and curiosity about food matters ― and the people behind them ― knows no bounds, an ethos that is reflected in the way Slow Money Maine seeks to constantly grow its network of food system players conversation by conversation.

“What I love about a food system is that food is a common denominator, and it crosses social, economic, cultural lines of all sorts and is inclusive by nature, literally and figuratively by nature,” Rukin said. “The fact that we can talk with anybody interested in how food matters to them personally and in their communities, can be an educational experience and an expansive one and a collaborative one, in ways that may be familiar or new.”

‘There’s a place for everyone’

In 2009, after attending the first national Slow Money Institute gathering in New Mexico, Rukin was inspired by the 600 plus people who came together from a variety of sectors to talk about the idea of reinvigorating local food systems.

Having lived in Maine for 30 years, with a background in organic farming, experience working for nonprofit organizations and once serving as a the chair of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association’s board, Rukin has developed a rich network of connections that she said bode well for forming a network around the local food movement. In 2010, the Maine chapter of Slow Money was formed.

In the time since its founding, Slow Money Maine has helped to infuse about $13 million into Maine’s food economy through loans, grants and equity investments made through its network of partnerships, Rukin said. The food producers the group works with include those that are working on land and sea in Maine, as well as food infrastructure businesses that are critical to the processing and distribution of food in a localized food system.

But in recognizing that it takes much more than simply money to make a food system work, Slow Money Maine has expanded its network to include players who can provide worthwhile investments that don’t necessarily involve financial commitments.

“We’ve expanded the focus, which was typically to find investors to meet the needs of food producers, but we’ve expanded it to bring together all sectors in Maine that are interested in building local healthy food systems,” Rukin said. “Investing can take many forms beyond money to help grow our local food system and make it viable.”

Since food is a common denominator, Rukin says they’re encouraging inclusivity and diversity by welcoming any person or group who is interested in participating with the network, whether they’re a consumer, government organization, educator or community activist.

Providing technical assistance is one way someone can invest in a food system if investing financially is not an option. Slow Money Maine has a network of over two dozen technical assistance mentors who can help farmers and food producers with a host of endeavors ranging from developing marketing strategies to forming business plans.

This spring, the Bahners needed assistance writing a grant application because they did not have the time to do so themselves. In reaching out to Slow Money Maine, they were able to get in touch with a grant writer who they are now contracting to do that work.

Even helping farmers bag or sell vegetables at farmers’ markets is a way to involve yourself in bolstering the food system, Rukin says.

“There’s a place for everyone,” she said.

While the Slow Money Maine network exists outside of a formal organization structure, throughout the year the group hosts several half day gatherings — and one day-long gathering — for existing network members and prospective members to attend. The gatherings feature an array of presenters, who discuss topics related to Maine’s food system. This past year’s annual gathering focused on how small food businesses can scale up without selling out.

Rukin said the gatherings also serve as a networking experience for folks to forge personal connections than could turn into financial investments or other types of assistance. One such gathering is being held Wednesday in Gardiner.

Being involved in the Slow Money Maine network is a resource that the Bahners say is invaluable for a small farmer.

“It’s like having this wealth of knowledge and expertise available to use whenever we need it. It’s hard to imagine farming in a community that didn’t have that kind of support system,” Christa Bahner said. “It’s made a huge difference for us.”

Investments in the local food system are critical to its sustainability. And while there has been substantial growth in Maine’s local food sector in recent years, the Bahners said it’s going to take a larger cultural shift towards more people buying their food locally to make sure these investments last well into the future.

Slow Money Maine is setting out to do its part in aiding this cultural change by providing an opportunity for those impacted by food ― which is everyone, Rukin argues ― to do their part in helping hold up their local food system.

“We’re in a pioneering set of endeavors, all of these people trying to build local food systems. We used to have them, but as we’ve moved into an industrialized and increasingly corporate-driven food world, locally and nationally, we’ve lost that,” Rukin said. “We need to revive that, but it takes everybody.”