Business

Her goal is to connect farmers, food businesses to people with money to lend

Carol Peppe Hewitt helps small farmers and other food-oriented businesses find loans among interested community members as founder of Slow Money NC. She is pictured at her home in Pittsboro.
Carol Peppe Hewitt helps small farmers and other food-oriented businesses find loans among interested community members as founder of Slow Money NC. She is pictured at her home in Pittsboro. cliddy@newsobserver.com

As a child, Carol Peppe Hewitt often traveled with her father, a small-town veterinarian, to farms across rural Connecticut.

It’s a treasured memory. By the time she left home for college, she says, most of those farms had been bought up by New Yorkers for second homes. When she moved to North Carolina, she watched more small farms give way to subdivisions.

So when she heard about a way for local people to support farmers and other food businesses with small, direct loans, she was immediately interested. The “slow money” movement urges individuals to make small loans to socially responsible businesses instead of large-scale investing.

Within weeks of meeting the movement’s founder in 2010, Hewitt and two friends had each made their first loans, and Slow Money NC was born. Since then, the organization has helped connect nearly 100 farmers, restaurateurs and other food business owners with lenders who have provided nearly $3 million in loans.

Hewitt still leads the organization, has made more than a dozen loans herself, and has written a book detailing how the loans have helped farmers and the community overall. The book offers a blueprint for others – one she’s promoted in countless appearances at conferences and other events, including a nationwide online food summit she will speak for in August.

Earlier this month, Slow Money launched a new initiative, called a SOIL fund, made up of small donations. The first three loans from that fund were made in mid-July.

There can be a lot of distance and a lack of connection between people these days, and Carol is working to connect people on a really personal level.

Kim Hunter, owner of Kimbap Cafe in Raleigh

Hewitt is a “superstar” of the national slow money movement, says Michael Bartner, vice president of the Slow Money Institute. Her nonprofit is one of the most successful in a nationwide network of such ventures, and she’s served on the national steering committee.

“She’s been an important voice in the movement,” Bartner says. “She doesn’t come at it from a finance background. She’s just passionate and kind of like ‘Let’s do this.’ She’s about action.”

Kim Hunter, owner of Raleigh’s Kimbap Cafe, recently paid off a $5,000 slow money loan that helped her young business get on firm financial footing. She says the group is helping unite people who are passionate about local food.

“Food is one small yet really significant grassroots way that we can come together,” says Hunter, who buys half to three-fourths of her produce from local farmers. “There can be a lot of distance and a lack of connection between people these days, and Carol is working to connect people on a really personal level.”

An early business career

If her impact has been significant, her role is largely informal. Hewitt scouts out people who need loans, and people who are interested in making them, and introduces them. Slow Money NC also holds events where farmers and business owners can share their needs with interested parties.

She says she’s naturally the type of person who connects people to one another – introducing people with similar interests, finding them jobs, and now, loans.

“I don’t know how not to be that way,” she says. “It was a natural fit.”

The organization offers sample paperwork and some technical assistance, but the details are up to the people making and receiving the loans, which are typically for $5,000 or less at interest rates of 2 to 3 percent.

Hewitt came to Slow Money from a varied career background. She went to college for counseling, and her first career was a social worker. She later worked as a corporate trainer and managed relocations for Nortel.

When she married her husband, well-known potter David Hewitt, she made managing the business end of his work her job. It was similar to the work she did for her father, a veterinarian, from an early age.

“By the time I left for college, I knew how to run a business,” she says.

Her small-business experience also made her more empathetic to the challenges farmers and others in the food business face, she says.

The slow money loans help with improvements or purchases that larger banks likely wouldn’t finance, from used tractors to walk-in coolers to a few pigs.

“Access to capital is a huge challenge for all small businesses,” she says. “Our financial system is not set up to support them. These are loans that banks aren’t interested in because they’re too small.”

This is so much more meaningful than a stock portfolio – seeing farmers succeed, seeing more and more local food in restaurants and schools, getting local food into food deserts, seeing food waste reduced.

Carol Peppe Hewitt, co-founder and network leader of Slow Money NC

Her first loan was to a local restaurant owner who wanted to expand her dining area. Another loan was given to an entrepreneur launching a frozen food business that gives a percentage of its receipts to fight hunger. Others have been made to bakers and people who raise everything from mushrooms to sheep.

Beyond North Carolina, she’s active in helping the movement take root in other places, including Hawaii, Virginia and Jamaica.

Locally, Hewitt has long been involved with the Shakori Hills music festival and helped the local organization raise money to buy the land where the festival is held. She’s also active in her local cooperative, Chatham Marketplace, and has worked to keep it financially viable.

She’s made many of the loans herself, in some cases using the same money to make another loan once the first is paid off.

“It’s basically a personal revolving loan fund,” she says. “This is so much more meaningful than a stock portfolio – seeing farmers succeed, seeing more and more local food in restaurants and schools, getting local food into food deserts, seeing food waste reduced.”

She notes that while the loss of farms continues, the trend appears to be reversing. In her native Connecticut and near her Pittsboro home, small farms and farmer’s markets are cropping up at an impressive rate, and Slow Money is helping support that trend.

She’s not deterred by the critique that such tiny loans can’t make a difference.

“You can say we’re not helping that many,” she says, “but to the ones who we do help, it matters a lot.”

Carol Peppe Hewitt

Born: January 1953, Connecticut

Residence: Pittsboro

Career: Co-founder and network leader, Slow Money NC

Awards: Jim Goodmon Award for Economic Development, Leadership Triangle, 2013

Education: B.A. psychology, University of New Hampshire; M.Ed. counseling psychology, University of Arizona

Family: Husband Mark; daughters Meg and Emma

Get Involved: Slow Money NC is accepting donations for the SOIL NC revolving loan fund. The group is seeking lenders and food producers in need of loans. Learn more at slowmoneync.org.

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