1. The American Homestead Act of 2012, by Richard Elder [Basic Outline of the Idea]2. Local Complimentary Currency Model, by Aki Järvinen [Detailed Overview of the Idea], [Video Presentations (in Finnish with English subtitles)] 3. State-Owned Grain and Flour Mills, by Tom Gibbs [Link to History of ND Mills]
And, now, on to today’s main course, which is a generous portion that has been prepared and served to us by Nathan Carey. Bon appetit!
The Revitalization of Rural Economies
Profiling Small-Scale Agriculture
The Historical Trade-Off Between Efficiency and Resiliency
For several generations people have been tearing up their country roots and planting themselves in urban centers. It is one of the strongest and most ubiquitous migrations of this century across the world – the migration from rural areas to urban cities. In fact, “rural areas” have simply become the space between departure and arrival. They’re just exits off of the freeway that you have no reason to take. The reason for leaving is quite clear, though. Starved of jobs and opportunities for socioeconomic “mobility”, our rural towns are dying painfully slow deaths. This process is evident traveling through almost any small town two hours away from any urban center in North America. We see empty storefronts with yellowing “For Rent” signs, empty cracked streets with faded paint, empty crumbling grain silos and empty tilting barns. In the last few years, poverty has only gotten worse in America, and especially the rural portions that are largely ignored.
But, as our economy and the society it supports simplifies from the myriad of pressures bearing down on it, human populations will have to leave their energy and import hungry cities to once again fill the ‘empty’ spaces with life and labor. I believe there's a great way to revitalize and prepare these empty places now, while we still have the means to maneuver. Small-scale, resilient agriculture is a way to transform the rural landscape into the kind of place people want to visit and live in. The starkness of these places became viscerally evident to me when I moved from my boyhood suburbs of Toronto to rural Ontario. My wife and I bought fifty acres of fertile soil that we fostered into a farm business. After many years of interning, living in trailers and seeking out farming know-how, we felt we were finally up for the challenge of running our own farm business and got started. Our vision of agriculture is small and diversified. We run a winter vegetable CSA where our members pay us in advance for vegetables that we dole out throughout the long Ontario winter. We also raise and sell various kinds of meat: lamb, pork, chicken, turkey and soon, beef. Neither of us come from farm backgrounds and we represent many in the ‘new farmer’ movement – young, educated, practical and willing to put the hard work in to transform the ideas floating around in our brains into reality. The kind of farming we are practicing is based on resiliency. It is in direct contrast to industrial farming whose underlying strategy is efficiency. We don't plant one type of crop; we plant thirty. We don't have one income stream; we have several – including teaching and telecommuting employment from Toronto. We don't have one customer; as many wholesale producers do, we have hundreds. But while we are resilient we also suffer some lack of efficiency. Our larger, more conventional neighbors can take an acre and turn it from sod to seed bed in less than an hour. It would take us a full ten hour day to do the same with our small walk-behind tractor. I think it's helpful to see these two strategies, resiliency and efficiency, as opposing points on a continuum of system building. To be too far towards one or the other is detrimental to the system's health. Too efficient and you “find the straightest road to hell” (a quote from James H. Kunstler via Nicole Foss). If you are mired in resiliency, then you'll never really get anything accomplished. Resiliency is supple and adaptive. Efficiency is hard and effective. Too supple and you have no form. Too hard, though, and you become brittle and break. Our modern economy which has made a god of efficiency is ultra-efficient and ultra-brittle. Small-scale agriculture is attempting to move back to the middle but hedging much closer to resiliency than efficiency – a hedge based on our uncertain future. What does resiliency look like? On our farm we have five different types of animals that all produce manure. This assures we are not dependent on outside sources for the garden’s fertility needs. We have been careful to scale our operation to be largely manageable by hand or with small tools. This precaution assures that, while we can and do use diesel driven implements to help us, we are not completely reliant on them. Your average CSA market garden is going to have fifty different crops usually with a few varieties of each: 3 varieties of carrot, 5 squash, 8 tomato varieties, etc. This variety means that a single disease doesn’t wipe out a whole season’s worth of work. It may only wipe out one row. There must be a balance with efficiency though. If local food systems are to feed whole regions, then they must also be of a scale to accomplish that. This balance is going to take many years and many kinds of farming to discover. The rural landscape is far ahead of the global economic turmoil we see crashing in slow-motion around us. It found it's 'bottom' and has been living there a long time. Most people living in small towns didn't go into debt to flip a 'fixer upper' on the housing market. Maybe that’s because there was no housing market where they were, and there still isn't. Or maybe they can't get credit because of their low wage or lack of employment. The story of most rural towns is the same: its bottom arrived at the end of a short, straight road paved by a single, large employer. Maybe it was a textile-mill, a mining outfit, a car manufacturer, a power-station.
This large employer came, created jobs, created industry, created a community around them and then, just when life was being taken for granted, it all fell apart. Maybe a large company bought the local company out and moved it off-shore. Maybe the resources being extracted were no longer worth extracting. Maybe government regulation drove costs beyond the breaking point.
The Basic Drivers Underlying Small-Scale Agriculture
Whatever the specific details, most rural areas seem to have charted a familiar story all over the continent. I think it can be said that formerly resilient rural economies swung hard towards efficiency and then broke at an unexpected shock. Really, it's the story of the twentieth century writ small on town after town. So why should small-scale agriculture become the hero of this developing story about a North American Continent centered on local communities? That’s a big question to answer, but we can start with a few of the following reasons. 1. Filling a Non-Negotiable Gap – We must anticipate the demise of industrial food production as the complexity of society breaks down and liquid fuel prices rise becomes less affordable. Therefore, we need to work on an alternative, regardless of the specific scale of the crisis. Once complex, fragile chains of food production and distribution spanning the world begin to break, it will be our duty to make sure that our families and communities can still eat! 2. Human Scale – Small-scale agriculture is capable of being implemented by normal people in normal circumstances, without extraordinary infrastructure, technologies or budgets. It is a grass-roots revolution powered by the people for the people. While many people may hope for technology to save them, they would might do better to unclasp their wringing hands and put them to work turning compost. 3. Provides Meaningful Employment – Small-scale agriculture generally requires a lot of different types of human labor. Once the use of energy-hungry machines becomes too expensive unavailable for farming, people will also have to step back in to complete the necessary tasks themselves. And, yes, some of it is “back-breaking” and some of it is repetitive, but much of it is also joyful, soulful, and fun. All of the work is skillful and rewarding. 4. Crucible for Innovation – While the latest app for telling a person his/her horoscope is added to the latest iProduct, we are reinventing the process of growing food. Small-scale farmers must not only re-discover lost knowledge but adapt it to current circumstances. This includes a variety of innovative practices, such as creating new hand-tools, bicycle powered root washers, specialized tractor equipment, online customer checkout systems specifically designed for CSA farms, new seed varieties, new rotations, and efficient, natural ways of fighting plant diseases and weeds. 5. Uplifting and Empowering – Many people feel dis-empowered by a global financial system that has left their expectations in tatters. Learning and practicing the skills that provide for your basic needs brings pride and security. 6. No Externalizations – Unlike the industries of the past that sprouted up, inflated to unsustainable proportions and then crashed, devastating the towns built around them, small-scale agriculture is diffuse and resilient. It simply relies on the soil, the weather and the sun, and it is not nearly as affected by the vagaries of distant markets. I'm sure there's easily another solid twelve reasons why small-scale agriculture is such a positive force for change. How to revitalize a rural economy through small-scale agriculture is a much harder question to answer. Asking for the revitalization of rural economies through the use of small-scale agriculture is nothing short of a call for a revolution in our food production and distribution systems.
The Precedent Has Been Set in Hardwick, VT
The best way to conceive of this revolution is by illustrating a place where the challenge of rebuilding our food systems from the soil up has begun in earnest – Hardwick, Vermont (pop. 3000). The town had its best days in the 1920s, as it was a primary source for granite. When Granite was replaced by concrete as a building material, the industry collapsed. Therefore, the town has been in a sort of stasis for generations.
According to the US Census Report in 2000, the per capita income for the town was $14,813 per year, and about 10.5% of families and 14.0% of the population were living below the poverty line. The town's current unemployment is 40 higher than the state average in Vermont and its average median income is 25% lower. Like most American towns, the supermarket is peoples’ main connection to the industrial food system. However, there's a growing and well publicized movement happening in Vermont that could provide some clues to the rest of us on how to proceed in a systemic process of revitalizing rural economies. There are many small and medium sized agricultural businesses in Hardwick that popped up within a short time frame and have been growing and making their positive influence felt. The New York Times wrote an article featuring this movement back in 2008, and, despite the worsening financial meltdown that is tearing many communities apart, it still remains a viable and thriving model for Hardwick.
These businesses include names like “High-Mowing Seeds”, “Clair's Restaurant”, “The Vermont Soy Company”, “Jasper Hill Farm”, “Pete's Greens” and “Highfield's Center for Composting”. All of these companies and more describe the beginnings of how we take back our food systems and our rural economies in the process. They all carry important lessons for us to take notice of and adopt in our rural communities throughout the upcoming years of both industrial collapse and alternative agricultural opportunities.
“This town’s granite companies shut down years ago and even the rowdy bars and porno theater that once inspired the nickname “Little Chicago” have gone.Facing a Main Street dotted with vacant stores, residents of this hardscrabble community of 3,000 are reaching into its past to secure its future, betting on farming to make Hardwick the town that was saved by food. With the fervor of Internet pioneers, young artisans and agricultural entrepreneurs are expanding aggressively, reaching out to investors and working together to create a collective strength never before seen in this seedbed of Yankee individualism. [..] Rian Fried, an owner of Clean Yield Asset Management in nearby Greensboro, which has invested with local agricultural entrepreneurs, said he’s never seen such cooperative effort. “Across the country a lot of people are doing it individually but it’s rare when you see the kind of collective they are pursuing,” said Mr. Fried, whose firm considers social and environmental issues when investing.” The bottom line is they are providing jobs and making it possible for others to have their own business.”
Tom Stearns, Vermont local, is the owner and entrepreneur behind one of the few commercial organic seed producers in the country and one of the even fewer focusing on heritage or heirloom varieties. Heirloom varieties tend to pre-date the industrialization of our food supply. They are selected for flavor and nutrition, and adapted to local conditions instead of being selected to fit into a neat, efficient process. Mr. Stearns epitomizes the transition that is occurring in Hardwick, and its emphasis on cooperation and sharing.NY Times (article linked above):High-Mowing started out as a hobby for Stearns, who had a lifelong love of seeds, but soon it became a business. It's a $2 million/year concern that employs 30 people at reasonable wages. Besides providing employment, the business of growing seeds really gets to the heart of what it means to be resilient. Seeds and soil are obviously the basic foundations of agriculture and cannot be taken for granted, as most Americans tend to do. The seed supply has become as inefficient and brittle as our money system and we risk more than we know by concentrating the breeding, growing and distribution of seed into the hands of a few. With men like Stearns at the forefront, who is more than willing to cooperate with other businesses in the community, the movement is in excellent hands. We enthusiastically buy our own seed from High-Mowing for some of our gardens.
“All of us have realized that by working together we will be more successful as businesses,” said Tom Stearns, owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds. “At the same time we will advance our mission to help rebuild the food system, conserve farmland and make it economically viable to farm in a sustainable way.”Cooperation takes many forms. Vermont Soy stores and cleans its beans at High Mowing, which also lends tractors to High Fields, a local composting company. Byproducts of High Mowing’s operation — pumpkins and squash that have been smashed to extract seeds — are now being purchased by Pete’s Greens and turned into soup. Along with 40,000 pounds of squash and pumpkin, Pete’s bought 2,000 pounds of High Mowing’s cucumbers this year and turned them into pickles.”
Claire's Restaurant (Community Supported Restaurant)
CSRs are an adaptation of my farm's business model – Community Supported Agriculture. A group of five people started the restaurant and the funding model is as unique as the dishes you will find there. A holding company was created who bought the lease for the restaurant's building twelve years in advance. It turns out that pre-paying your lease for twelve years is a great way to negotiate a sweetheart rate!NY Times:The equipment that is needed to run a restaurant, and typically put a heavy burden on start-up capital, was purchased by the same holding company for use by the restaurant and any future food business that would take the place of Claire's Restaurant, should it fail. In this atmosphere of financial and social support, the chef, Steven Obranovich, is able to focus on cooking and, perhaps more importantly, the sourcing of ingredients. That focus has led him to source an unheard of 80% of these ingredients from local farmers and businesses (it’s not just the garnish that is local). Here is both an outlet for the food being produced locally but also a place where people can meet, talk and spend time becoming ensconced in the spirit and vitality of eating food grown close to their homes.
“Mr. Tasch is having a meeting in nearby Grafton next month with investors, entrepreneurs, nonprofit groups, philanthropists and officials to discuss investing in Vermont agriculture. Here in Hardwick, Claire’s restaurant, sort of a clubhouse for farmers, began with investments from its neighbors. It is a Community Supported Restaurant. Fifty investors who put in $1,000 each will have the money repaid through discounted meals at the restaurant over four years.“Local ingredients, open to the world,” is the motto on restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling windows. “There’s Charlie who made the bread tonight,” Kristina Michelsen, one of four partners, said in a running commentary one night, identifying farmers and producers at various tables. “That’s Pete from Pete’s Greens. You’re eating his tomatoes.”
Highfield's Center for Composting
This company provides a necessary service for any agrarian community. Good quality compost is in short supply and for many reason most new farmers take on market gardening as their initial venture into the world of agriculture. Without on farm fertility gardeners need a good non-chemical source of nutrients for their gardens. Thomas Gilbert, executive director and founder, is a composting guru and has a deep respect for what compost and fertility can mean to an agricultural community.