Slow Living Summit participants talk politics and profits

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When Gardener's Supply Company founder Will Raap agreed to speak at this weekend's Slow Living Summit, he hoped to come and congratulate the state Legislature for legalizing marijuana, a step he has promoted as a member of the Vermont Cannabis Collaborative.

Lawmakers haven't done that, however, and a scheduled House of Representatives vote Monday is expected to bring more animosity than approval. But Raap could find consolation in the summit's larger message: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

The sixth annual event, which drew 150 people to downtown Brattleboro Thursday through Saturday, sought, according to one presenter, "Sustainable, Local, Organic and Wise" solutions to worldwide social, economic and energy problems.

This being an election year, participants also could shake hands with state senator and lieutenant governor candidate David Zuckerman and listen to Google executive turned gubernatorial aspirant Matt Dunne.

"Vermont has the potential in the internet age to emerge as the slow living capital," Dunne said. "We have a creativity that is somehow in our bones to be able to figure out how to do this work."

The summit, featuring the theme "Food & Ag Entrepreneurship: How to Succeed in Business by Slowing Down," focused on Vermont production, processing and distribution that annually generate $4 billion and 13 percent of all jobs. But its 50 speakers also told stories of failure that ultimately led to big payoffs.

Ben & Jerry's, for example, annually sells $500 million of such flavors as Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia in 35 countries ranging from Australia, Brazil and the Czech Republic to Singapore, Turkey and the United Kingdom.

But former CEO Fred "Chico" Lager rewound back to 1978, when founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, completing a $5 correspondence course in ice cream-making from Penn State, scraped together $12,000 and turned an abandoned Burlington gas station into their first storefront.

Hole in the roof aside, something about the location fueled sales — so much so, the friends opened a factory in South Burlington in 1981, only to immediately find it too small for their growing business.

Their challenge: Revenue in 1984 totaled $1.8 million, but a new plant would cost $3.5 million and, as Lager recalled, "our balance sheet was a mess." In response, the company sold stock to Vermonters, starting at $126 for 12 shares.

"It was without precedent," Lager said, "and everyone thought we were nuts."

In two months and with only a few pre-internet newspaper ads, the offer sold out. The resulting Waterbury factory is now the hub of United States operations and the top tourist attraction in Vermont.

Lager, noting current controversy over misappropriated EB-5 investment money in the Northeast Kingdom, said such a plan would be nearly impossible to replicate today. But locals who bought a dozen shares for $126 three decades ago saw the value soar to nearly $5,000 when the multi-billion-dollar British/Dutch conglomerate Unilever bought Ben & Jerry's for $326 million in 2000.

"Something," Lager said, "which even Bernie Madoff would be proud of."

Such stories were meant to inspire summit participants such as Raap, who used his speech on "Plant-Based Medicines: Can Vermont and Our Farms Be a Leader?" to promote what he believes to be a $200 million state marijuana market.

"I want to find the new tomato in terms of motivating people to garden," he said. "The biggest herbal remedy we have right now in Vermont is cannabis. I like to call this the gateway drug to more gardening."

Raap isn't optimistic the Legislature will approve legalization this week but is open to the idea of a nonbinding voter referendum in November.

"This will be hundreds of thousands of people answering the question," Raap said, "so the Legislature will have a clearer understanding of what the population thinks."

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer contributor and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com.


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