Thursday, November 30, 2006

My Crazy Scheme, Part 4: Change the World?

If you've been reading the first three parts of this series, you might be thinking, "Change the world, eh? I don't get it."

So maybe my initial claims were just a tad bit grandiose. But I ask that you hear me out anyway.

If things go well with the plans described in the second and third installments of this series, we'll be producing a good bit of very good food for ourselves. Combine that with the tiny fruit trees and berry bushes already in the ground, and a few more years of experience, and we may eventually be able to generate a decent amount of surplus without a lot of extra effort. (Though I don't ever envision a surplus of grain.) In addition to a wide array of vegetables, we can hopefully turn out an excess of apples, peaches, blackberries, currants, blueberries, gooseberries, serviceberries, (the cherries didn't make it), herbs, eggs, perhaps meat, and maybe even some processed things like dairy products, preserves, or baked goods. All while living a lifestyle we enjoy.

At this point, you think I'm about to say the words, "Farmer's Market," don't you? Or maybe "Community Supported Agriculture". You're close, but not quite. Closer to CSA than Farmer's Market. But not exactly right.

What I'd love to pull off is a very small, very localized subscription-based arrangement. Print up flyers and distribute to all the houses within a mile or two of ours (and maybe a few at the office too). You pay us a fixed amount, and we bring you whatever's ripe or fresh throughout the season, once a week, or maybe every other week. Maybe eggs and greens in the spring. Maybe berries and tomatoes and peppers and eggs in the summer. Maybe sweet corn and onions and apples and eggs in the fall. Maybe meat and squash and dried goods and root veggies in the winter.

The reason I think this can work is that we live in a rural area, but its heart seems to be in the suburbs. Many of our neighbors don't garden or raise livestock (outside of horses here and there). They just have very big lawns. They wanted "the country life", but it meant something different to them than it does to us. But even in that different vision, maybe there's a place for farm-fresh fruits and vegetables and eggs. Especially if they're better than what they get in the store.

I see several benefits to the subscription model. First, you can share the risk a little bit. In a good year, you get a little more for your money. In a bad year, you get a little less. Second, there's less impulse buying and more complete distribution of produce. If I'm sitting at a Farmer's Market booth, any given person walking by may or may not buy Brussels sprouts or parsnips. They may not know what to do with them. They may think they don't like them. They may not know what they are. In a subscription model, they get what we have. Maybe it'll encourage them to get out a cookbook and try something new. Maybe they'll give them to their grandma. Maybe they'll throw them in the trash. They bought them, so hopefully they'll be compelled to find a use for them.

While I'd hope to generate a little income from this type of arrangement, I don't envision it as a business. I'm not looking for fifty customers. More like five. The primary goal in my mind is not to pay the mortgage. The goal is to solve all of those problems in Part 1, in our little neighborhood.

Build community. What better way to get to know the neighbors and establish goodwill than by giving them food. A weekly face-to-face with a basket of goodies seems like a great way to start a friendly relationship. And as Elliot Coleman is fond of saying, they'll know the first name of the person who grew their food. [And maybe I can even infiltrate their conservative minds with my crazy ideas. After all, you can't spell "conservative" without "conserve."]

Reduce resource usage. We'd be reducing food miles from the US average of 1500 miles from field to table, down to one or two. It'll encourage local eating and seasonal eating without having to put a label on it or even have awareness of it. It'll eliminate the use of some tiny fraction of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, hormones, antibiotics, groundwater, and fossil fuels. Sure we'd be taking a few bucks out of Walmart's pocket. I think they can handle it.

Cut out the middle man. I don't mean the produce distributors or retailers, though I guess that's true too. I mean the cash system. I'd happily forgo subscritpion fees for some plumbing, electrical, or mechanical help. Or trade for unused materials like cinder blocks, storm windows, hay, straw, animal manure, or any number of other things that could be used for projects around our property. Or labor. If you want to put in a few hours at harvest time, you can have the pick of the crop, and a discount to boot. Barter is almost always mutually beneficial, especially if you don't worry too much about scorekeeping.

By not treating it as a business, I eliminate the focus on dollars and cents. If I were a good businessman, barter would mess up the bottom line. If I were a good businessman, I'd be tempted to worry about financial return on investment, maximizing production, tax loopholes, hourly wages, and all sorts of other stuff that led agriculture to where it is now. As Mr. Einstein said, "The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation."

If I were a good businessman, I wouldn't ever consider giving my customers seed packets, or baby chicks, or book recommendations, or gardening tips. That would lead to lost customers, or worse yet, competitors. To me, losing a customer because they followed in our footsteps would be the about greatest compliment I could imagine. And if they branch off into nut trees or wool spinning or honeybees or whatever, all the better. Remember my concentric circle analogy? That would create another set of beneficial concentric circles around somebody else's house.

And that, my friends, is the only way I know to change the world.

Will my Crazy Scheme work exactly as envisioned? Will it fail miserably? Will it turn into some sort of black market pyramid scheme leading to Federal indictments and tabloid headlines?

I guess you'll just have to keep reading this blog to find out...

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At 12/01/2006 11:43 AM, Blogger network weasel said...

I look forward to updates on your scheme. It is not so crazy and I wish you success by any metric you are comfortable using.
As we are firmly in the inner-belt suburbs around Philly, I can only imagine some of the experiments you are attempting. Things get a little tricky when you start using the word "livestock" when houses are very close together. I am getting more comfortable with the gardening portion of the equation and hope to find a good combination of crops that we can enjoy for as long a growing cycle as possible. Your blog keeps me interested and provides me a sense of commnunity in my efforts, even though we are hundreds of miles apart.

At 12/01/2006 11:55 AM, Blogger e4 said...

Yeah, it's too bad you can't keep a couple chickens in most surburban or urban areas.

City-based livestock, hmmm... Compost worms? Honeybees? Rabbits? How about yeast? Guess that's more of a fungus, though, huh... Maybe gardening is the way to go. Maybe some berries or dwarf fruit trees?

See if your library or bookstore has Gaia's Garden. Incredible ideas for smallish spaces.

The Path to Freedom folks are doing amazing things in the heart of Pasedena, but they apparently have some zoning freedom because they've got animals.

At 12/01/2006 12:21 PM, Blogger Madcap said...

I think it's a great scheme, particularly within the model we're currently living. I particularly enjoy barter, when you can find someone who's got some integrity.

At 12/01/2006 10:34 PM, Blogger Emme said...

This is a great scheme. It has so many benefits to your neighborhood. I look forward to reading more!

At 12/02/2006 9:33 AM, Blogger Deb said...

This series made for some interesting Saturday morning reading! It's always encouraging to hear about others who are making a difference, not by donating to this or that organization and ranting about how we humans are messing things up, but by doing something about it in the way they live their lives.

At 12/02/2006 6:45 PM, Blogger Beo said...

Maybe its an NSA (neighbor)? I love the layered benifits: good food building good community building ecological awareness.

There is a great cookbook produced by the Madison, WI area CSA council called
Asparagus to Zucchini
that groups recipes by vegetable so you can cook by what you have not what you want to eat. Good recipes, great idea.

At 12/05/2006 10:17 AM, Blogger e4 said...

Madcap - yes, I'm a big fan of barter too. What's useless to me might be a godsend for you, and vice versa.

Emme - We'll see how it goes. It'll probably take at least a few years to get very far along, but it'll be an interesting journey.

Deb - Yeah, I tend to get a bit depressed thinking about what a mess we seem to have made of things, but I find that for me, action is the antidote to that depression.

Beo - NSA, I like it. I will definitely be looking for a copy of that book...

At 8/14/2010 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to be the devil's advocate on this one... you don't change the world, you're tagged, logged, and then noted as the place to go when SHTF when everyone else needs what they now know you have.

I'm VERY wiggy about this, personally. We had to get our kids disbudded this week - I purposely found a farmer on-line to do it for us so that the vets don't have a record of us even having critters. No National Livestock ID shtuff for me, thanks. No neighbors aware of what I've got in the woods.

And the farmer we found... he wondered how we got his number. Dude, you are REGISTERED, they have your name, your number, your address on-line and everyone knows what you have and what you do.

I'm sorry, but that scares the crap out of me. Changing the world only works if you're not part of the system. Otherwise, you belong to them... and the only change will be them coming to take from you.



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