writing $5,000 checks and pooling their money. They named their club No Small Potatoes, and they’ve already made dozens of low-interest, three-year loans to a number of family farms and foodrelated small businesses throughout the state. But how do you go from a handful of people writing checks for $5,000 to upending a system as well-financed and politically mobilized as Big Ag?
I know that our $33 million isn’t meaningful when you put it up against anything that happens on Wall Street during a single minute of one trading day. It doesn’t even show up as a blip. But ideas and culture matter, too, even if they can’t be quantified. There has to be a cultural shift. And it has to start at the community level. One of the first times I ever spoke about Slow Money in public was in Burlington, Vermont. There were 50 people in the room, 49 of whom were wildly enthusiastic about the idea. But there was one guy in the back who, at the very end of my talk, said, “I’ve been banking here in Burlington for 35 years. My question for you is: How on earth are you going to get anybody to do this? You’re turning everything we’ve all been taught as investors 100 percent upside‑down.” My answer to him was: “The other 49 people in this room want this to happen. The truth is, we don’t really have to convince you in order to have an effect. The job for those of us who want to go in this direction is just to help one another go in this direction.” Sometimes the people who are most inspired to do something about a problem are the ones who feel they can’t do anything; the problem seems so big that they get paralyzed. Making it easier for people to buy food from the guy down the street is a way to take 2 0 onearth
part in a cultural shift that’s occurring right now, the signs of which are getting clearer and clearer. What are those signs?
Look at the growth of farmers’ markets and CSAs [communitysupported agriculture, whereby small farmers contract with consumers to sell their produce over specified periods of time], which have both experienced such a burst of energy over the last 20 years. Back in 1980, there were no CSAs; now there are estimates that something like half a million Americans belong to one. If those estimates are correct, it means that for 500,000 Americans, the decisions about how and where to get their food are rooted in something other than finding the best deal. They’re rooted in the consumer’s desire to develop a relationship with the provider of that food. It’s a completely different way of measuring worth.
fter Andrew Thaler self-published fleet,
a science-fiction novel set in a future where climate change has led to massive global flooding, he needed a way to promote the book and its apocalyptic theme. His darkly clever publicity campaign was to “drown” various wellknown cities (via modified Google Earth screen grabs) according to the U.S. Geological Survey’s absolute-worst-case-scenario projections of future sea-level rise, then post images of the submerged locales—including many of their most recognizable landmarks—on his Twitter feed. Then, to Thaler’s astonishment, his Twitter followers began making requests: they wanted to see their own cities underwater. Such was the demand for deluge that the 29-year-old Thaler, who holds a Ph.D. in marine science and conservation from Duke University, had to create a new Twitter feed with its own hashtag—#drownyourtown—to handle all the requests. His earlier models, such as the 262 feet of water over Washington, D.C., which spared little but the top of the Washington Monument, were at the far end of statistical probability, and were constructed primarily for maximum visual and emotional impact. Once he began basing his models on more realistic projections—Nagoya, Japan, for instance, buried under less than 40 inches of water—the results were all the more shocking for their increased plausibility. Now visitors to #drownyourtown are encouraged to submit their own doctored images—turning this Twitter feed into a fascinating, if ominous, cascade.
In other words, the future of America’s small, sustainable farms is in the hands of their neighbors?
How is the next generation of small farmers going to buy farmland at $5,000 or even $10,000 an acre? The only prayer we have is if the people who live in communities where small farms are located decide that they’re going to be the ones to support the farmers. That’s where relationships enter the equation. When people begin connecting personally to these farms, they begin to perceive the value of saving them. They may not even think about whether to call the act of saving them “philanthropy” or “investing.” You don’t calculate the value of going outside to play a game of catch with your son in dollars; you go outside and play with your son because it has an innate value to you personally. To our members, saving the family farm down the street is no different.
left: courtesy of andrew thaler; right: photograph for onearth by brian adams