September 5, 2005
I’m in Colorado, sans motorcycle, envious of all the leather-clad riders straddling V-twins this Labor Day weekend. My work with Nextcourse has been picking up and distracting me from writing more about the Bike to Barn trip. Of course, I get paid by the hour to do this work I love for Nextcourse, while writing for Bike to Barn, (though it also leaves my heart full) does little to fill the bank account.
And this is the point. Profiting. One theme I thought a lot about during our first Bike2Barn adventure is the part that profitability plays in a sustainable food industry.
I’ve stood on (and understood) both sides of the non-profit and for-profit fence. I’ve had friends who eschew the corporate world and all things material. They pack into communal houses and pedal, never drive. They recycle tin foil bits, buy only in bulk, and re-sole old Tevas, twice. Then there are my friends who dry-clean all their shirts, take cabs 15 city blocks to work. They can’t be bothered with separating trash from recycling, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a second-hand clothing store.
Now, I’m somewhere in the middle. I do save foil, and occasionally dry clean. I often ride my bike, but it has a 400cc motor. I buy in bulk, would prefer to walk 15 city blocks, and have re-soled my old Tevas, just once. I’ve toiled in corporate New York, and enjoyed the benefits of corporate credit card accounts, health insurance and tuition reimbursement plans. I’ve since gone freelance, and more than once, found myself in that position you hope you’ll only hear about, where you are wondering how to make rent this month, or choosing between two new tires or an overdue trip to the dentist. Each side of the fence clearly has its advantages and attendant feelings of relief. The corporate life offers security. The freelance life offers freedom.
I’ve never heard of a freelance farmer, but as I traveled, I’ve imagined a farmer faces the same quandaries I do, as I struggle to make a living outside of the common constructs of the corporation. I’ve wondered what paradigms exist, for all of us who want to do right in the world, and right by ourselves, without ending up destitute and choosing between tires and teeth. Where is the roadmap for people like me who want to dedicate their working lives to the creation of sustainable food systems? And who is out there, showing us some middle profit ground - how to make doing the right thing at least profitable enough so that we can keep doing it?
I’d like to think I’m blazing a new trail, out here on an edge with other freelancers, free thinkers, visionaries and idealists, helping to build a new paradigm for doing good without going under. Because I’m not willing to be destitute, not while there are people out there reaping in billions doing only harm in the world. What can I do? I’ve never been one to hug trees or stand on picket lines. It’s not to say that will always be the case - hell, I’m so mad at the increasing ratio of imported to local foods at Whole Foods I’m ready plaster their suggestion board with “buy local” stickers – but I don’t want to stand outside and harp endlessly at a system I despise, I want to sneak in, stealth like Robin Hood, and pull the profits right out from underneath it.
Our visits to the farms, and to others who toil for a more sustainable food system, gave me considerable hope. Creativity abounds. We saw farmers not only diversifying crops, but identifying entirely new markets, channels for distribution, and reasons for being, all the while increasing their sources for potential income. Dan Devaul, at Sunny Acres in San Luis Obispo, turned his family farm into an organization dedicated to helping people overcome addictions, offering a living and work environment that allows clients to regain their footing in the community. John and Vickie, of Rivenrock Gardens, are exploring relationships with organizations that would guarantee purchases of their cacti crops. Small time farmers, big time business brains.
Having a background in the less savory corporate world of marketing and media, I personally was most inspired when we met with Tracey Ryder and Carole Topalian, founders of Edible Ojai. Theirs is a multi-media company of sorts, whose mission it is to build relationships between farmers, food producers and the residents of individual communities through an expanding series of local newsletters, events and websites. They have built a new business model, creating a network of regional publications that serve to inspire consumers to take interest in their local food systems. Ultimately, they hope readers will increase their consumption of locally grown foods and in doing so, help increase the overall economic viability of their local communities. Tracey and Carole are making a living (and helping farmers make theirs) turning consumers on to the benefits of buying and consuming local foods.
Guillermo, from what I’ve witnessed, seems leery of profitable scenarios. He himself has already turned down lucrative offers for the purchase of LocalHarvest. He wonders what is being compromised, what is lost, when bigger money comes into play. He’s right to be cautious. We should all constantly keep our best intentions, missions, and goals in check when we attach a price tag to the work we do.
However, when I think of my time in the corporate world, and how many billions we minions were making, coming up with clever ideas for multi-million dollar ad campaigns – all to sell nutrient deplete food to the masses, I say
LET’S STEAL THE PROFITS AND RUN.
Ad dollars that might otherwise flow to corporate headquarter credit card accounts in New York City, might instead go to Edible Ojai, Cape Cod, Twin Cities, or Edible Chesapeake.
The more money we make as we toil to create sustainable food systems, the more profits we are taking from the unsustainable food industry. I for one, intend to do my part to bring the dollars back so that on each side of the fence, the grass is equally green.