The Revitalization of Rural Economies


From NATHAN CAREY
The Automatic Earth

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.

Uniting Around Food to Save an Ailing Town

“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.”

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.


High-Mowing Seeds

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):

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.”

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.


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:

“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.”

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.


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.

These are just three of the business’s that make up the incredible, unfolding story in Hardwick. Each enterprise is exciting on it’s own but having so many agricultural business’s so close together both in proximity and mission has the makings of big time change. As the NY Times article makes clear, the unprecedented level of cooperation between these businesses provides an atmosphere of economic stability and social cohesion.

NY Times:

“For the past two years, many of these farmers and businessmen have met informally once a month to share experiences for business planning and marketing or pass on information about, say, a graphic designer who did good work on promotional materials or government officials who’ve been particularly helpful. They promote one another’s products at trade fairs and buy equipment at auctions that they know their colleagues need.

More important, they share capital. They’ve lent each other about $300,000 in short-term loans. When investors visited Mr. Stearns over the summer, he took them on a tour of his neighbors’ farms and businesses.”


Center for an Agricultural Economy

The recently started Center for an Agricultural Economy is another organization in our community that will give shape and push this vision forward in a more organized and transparent way. Since the NYT article was written, this organization has remained strong and committed to Hardwick’s revitalization through small-scale agriculture, and the town’s residents, from farmers to business people to students, have benefited greatly as a result.

NY Times:

“To expand these enterprises further, the Center for an Agricultural Economy recently bought a 15-acre property to start a center for agricultural education. There will also be a year-round farmers’ market (from what began about 20 years ago as one farmer selling from the trunk of his car on Main Street) and a community garden, which started with one plot and now has 22, with a greenhouse and a paid gardening specialist.

Last month the center signed an agreement with the University of Vermont for faculty and students to work with farmers and food producers on marketing, research, even transportation problems. Already, Mr. Meyer has licensed a university patent to make his Vermont Natural Coatings, an environmentally friendly wood finish, from whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking.”

Hardwick’s access to local food is unparalleled. It is likely that Hardwick could feed itself and the surrounding environs without any outside input. And while that may seem like a small thing, as all of us have become so used to the ubiquity of food, it bears remembering how incredible brittle our long food supply chains are. Most cities have about four days worth of food on hand at a time without constant delivery. A food system based on resilient parts – i.e. people and businesses – will itself be resilient as a whole.


Some Thoughts For You to Take Home
Agriculture is, of course, a primary industry, since it takes seed and soil and produces something of intrinsic value – food. This food, in turn, can result in a thousand secondary off-shoot industries. Think about a canning factory, a distillery, a community delivery service, or a candle manufacturer from Bee’s wax? The possibilities boggle the mind, and every community will be different based on the needs and desires of its residents.

Small farms trade back the destructive relationship between fossil fuels and efficiency for the creative relationship between human labor and resiliency. Farms need year-round labor, and if you’re not riding the wave of a commodity grain, that means job stability.  Stability means a stable local economy, but also stable families and households.  There are as many opportunities in or around small-scale agriculture as you and your neighbors have energy for.

What does all of the above mean for you right this moment? Well, it certainly adds a lot of weight to the phrase, “buy local”. The idea of buying local has allegedly been accepted and embraced by mainstream commentators, but they use it as little more than a catchy slogan. Instead, it should be understood as something radical and revolutionary! Resilient food producers out there are challenging the food system on all fronts.

So you’re not just reducing your carbon footprint and enjoying the tastiest, most nutritionally dense food, but you’re also -and perhaps most important of all- ensuring the long-term viability of your own community.  If you’re an investor, then why not put your money into a small-agricultural business or related industry?  One of the largest barriers for new farm businesses is start-up capital.  Banking institutions generally don’t understand the benefits of this kind of resilient endeavor, because they see no immediate profits to be gained.

The bottom line may look decent, but the return on investment (ROI) is very long-term and the interest might come in the form of hams, lettuce mix and soup stock instead of cash.  But if you’re a frequent reader of The Automatic Earth, then you probably understand why nutritional food is a much better ROI.  Instead of looking for a quick monetary profit, we can be satisfied settling for delicious food security.

It is obviously important to learn the proper skills and gain experience. There are certainly a lot of folks out there trying to farm without the proper business sense or agricultural knowledge to succeed. With access to online or community resources, though, it is never too late for people to get started on their rural revitalization education. The cities of our nations are where we have focused our attention, but I believe it’s in the “empty spaces” where the room for creativity and reinvention of a more equitable and prosperous society will find its roots.

Innovation at the “human scale” is happening at the end of hoes and around micro-brews in a small town watering hole. Food is a basic need, it is non-negotiable and come rain, shine, deflation or inflation, we must eat! As the uncertain future looms large over all our lives, we need to be prepared both to survive and to thrive. For now, it is clear that people in some rural economies are feeling hopeful about agriculture for the first time in a generation.

The fault lines are shifting, as the fastest growing segment among farmers is young women! What better statistic to reflect change from the “traditional farmer” in our culture’s iconography, and the agricultural landscape in general. “Eating is an agricultural act,” Wendel Berry famously said, and we are all engaged in this agricultural act every single day. Whether those acts benefit a few multi-national corporate networks or our next door neighbors is entirely in our hands.

To end this discussion, then, I will turn to the extremely informative and insightful book, The Town That Food Saved, written about Hardwick by Ben Hewitt.

The Atlantic Magazine interviewed Mr. Hewitt about the book last year, and he made clear that none of the things happening in Hardwick came without great patience and effort from the people and businesses of the community.

It is not easy to revitalize our rural economies after decades and decades of mis-allocation and mismanagement of resources. Still, with enough effort and imagination, Hardwick proves that this revitalization can be done.

In Rural Vermont, From Famine to Fork

“In the course of researching The Town That Food Saved, Hewitt found that the issue of food systems was far more complex than he had first thought. “I wanted to ask what it really means to create a localized food system,” he told me over coffee, one of the few items on his daily menu he does not produce. “It’s hard—culturally, economically, and in terms of people’s habits. Readers looking for empirical answers should look elsewhere. In a way, this book is more about questions than answers.”

Still, Hewitt comes away feeling that Hardwick’s recent history may be providing a template for a food system that could save all of us. “The fact is that our nation’s food supply has never been more vulnerable. And we, as consumers of food, share that vulnerability, having slowly, inexorably relinquished control over the very thing that’s critical to our survival,” Hewitt writes. What is at risk, he contends, is the entire model of the way we nourish ourselves. Fixing this broken model is a matter of national urgency.

Should our industrial food system collapse, the Hewitt family (which includes his wife and two young boys) will have far less to worry about than most of us. They raise 80 percent of the food they eat: in addition to all their vegetables, they produce milk, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, eggs, blueberries, raspberries, apples, and maple syrup. Their house, which they built with help from friends, gets its electricity from solar panels and its heat from wood stoves.

Where does that leave the rest of us? “For 100 years food production has been headed in one direction,” Hewitt told me. “The people I profile [in Hardwick] are all articulating steps to get us going in a different direction.”

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