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From Food To Finance: Walden Mutual Bank, Based In Concord, N.H., Lends To Farmers

Charley Cummings.JPG
Peter Biello/NHPR
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Charley Cummings, CEO of Walden Mutual.

A new bank is coming to Concord, and it was born out of a business that supplies grass-fed beef and other locally sourced food products to customers around New England.

Walden Mutual will focus on financing farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs, and it will be the first mutual bank established in New Hampshire in 99 years.

All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Charley Cummings, the CEO of Walden Mutual, about the new bank's goals. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Julie at the Egg Washer.jpg
Courtesy
One of the first New Hampshire farm businesses Walden Mutual is working with is Julie's Happy Hens.

Peter Biello: So, Charley, you moved from the food world with your company Walden Local, to the financial world. Tell us a little bit about how Walden Mutual came to be.

Charley Cummings: Sure, so it was very much borne out of some of the experiences we had in building Walden Local. So on the supply chain, we saw a lot of gaps in the existing lending infrastructure to small farms and food related businesses sort of up and down the value chain. We saw a lot of non-bank lenders in the space offering interest rates that I felt were higher than justified based on the underlying business. And then on the deposit side of the bank, in building Walden Local, we saw a lot of people that were eager to invest in the company and alongside us in building a more sustainable food supply chain and sort of participating in the local food movement. And I didn't see an existing bank in the market today that had that sort of local tangible impact associated with deposit dollars.

Peter Biello: So what is it about a mutual bank, that type of bank, that makes it the right choice for this kind of endeavor?

Charley Cummings: I'm so glad you asked me that question. So the mutual form is an interesting one for a few different reasons. One, it really gives your impact model teeth. So we really mean what we say in terms of investing in sustainable food and agriculture businesses that I think drive a disproportionate impact in the region in terms of environmental, economic, cultural outcomes and the vitality of the the region. And so aligning your governance model with that impact-based mission, I think, is really important. It also gives our employees a really solid answer to the question "Who do you work for?" There's a really single unambiguous answer, and that's our depositors. There's no other stakeholders in the equation.

Peter Biello: So just so I'm clear on the mutual kind of banking, it's almost like a cooperative in the sense that depositors have more of a say in the bank's policies and who gets loans and who doesn't.

Charley Cummings: Precisely. It is in fact a cooperative structure which, in the agricultural world, is a structure that farmers are well familiar with. There's many different cooperatives on the purchasing side of the equation for farmers and it's a structure they're comfortable with. And I think it's also a structure consumers are increasingly open to, again, in wanting to be associated with purpose-driven, impact-driven brands. To know that there is real teeth behind that I think is really powerful.

Peter Biello: You've said that you want Walden Mutual to be the kind of Patagonia of mutual banks in the sense that they have an environmental mission. So how would you describe the mission of Walden Mutual in that sense?

Charley Cummings: So our ethos is "Grow Your Change," which aside from having a number of double entendres, I like because it reflects what we're trying to accomplish in a really simple way, and that is, we're trying to deliver both financial returns and non-financial returns to our partner depositors, both in the form of interest and ultimately year end dividends, but also in the form of social impact, which again, when that impact is local, tangible and specific, I think it's really meaningful.

Peter Biello: You're already working with some farmers in New Hampshire, correct?

Charley Cummings: Yes. Yep. So we're doing some initial lending out of our seed capital. Our first loan is to an egg producer here in New Hampshire called Julie's Happy Hens. They've been a longtime partner of ours, a long time relationship, and we're excited to support them. To me, that's the really exciting part about this work is meeting other operators that are having all the same challenges we did at Walden Local in terms of building the supply chain and the operational complexities and the technical requirements of operating a food-based business. You know, I think every industry likes to think of themselves as unique. Food has a particular claim to that. It's perishable. The nature of perishable inventory, the health and safety requirements, the regulatory oversight make the food business really different. And maybe even more important than that, there's a shared philosophical understanding for everybody in the food business, whether they're on the farm side or they're in processing or distribution or even consumer brands where when you're making a product that ultimately goes into people's bodies and feeds families, there's something really inherently meaningful to that. And so we're bringing a lot of experience from the industry, both on our board and our management team of folks that really understand that dynamic. And so I think that will serve us well in, you know, building a lending pipeline because you've got a set of people that really understand those unique dynamics of the industry.

Peter Biello: Well, Charley Cummings, CEO of Walden Mutual. Thank you so much for speaking with me.

Charley Cummings: Thanks so much, Peter. I really appreciate it.