Friday, August 07, 2009

Local Food Processing. Small is Beautiful

When Woody Tasch from Slow Money came to town last week I was startled to hear him respectfully and with gratitude reference the book Small is Beautiful.

I'd read Slow Money and was struck by the possibilities but hadn't connected the work to E. F. Schumacher and his great book, "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered."

But this is a natural 21st century marriage. Efficient, market-driven financial discipline, with sustainable goals and methods, (Slow Money) meets smart, appropriate-scale technologies, in this case taking the form of local foods and sustainable agriculture.

What a magic time for this combination to occur. Demand is off the chart for local foods. Production and processing techniques are faster, smarter, cheaper. Tools for design, organizing, marketing, sales and distribution have never been better or less expensive. I'm back to the fact that this is indeed the Renaissance age of entrepreneurship, and it's just beginning.

Food is an issue whose time has come. There is a wonderful quote from Wisconsin's own Aldo Leopold in his Sand County Almanac that ties in here. Think about the following Leopold quote in terms of sustainable agriculture, local processing, local foods and healthy, more compelling communities; "By and large our present problem is one of attitudes and implements. We are remodeling the Alhambra with a steam-shovel, and are proud of our yardage. We shall hardly relinquish the shovel, which after all has many good points, but we are in need of gentler and more objective criteria for its successful use."

Free markets have nurtured the greatest freedoms in human history, but we need to apply those tools in less destructive, more successful ways especially in the way we feed and nurture ourselves and the place we live.

As a group of us works to design an efficient, reproducible local foods processing system with our Driftless Foods, Iowa County initiative, none of us are taking anything as gospel. Small is beautiful not because it sounds good as a theory on paper but because technology has evolved small, smart, nimble processing equipment that makes better use of resources and produces higher, more sustainable profits. That's why small is beautiful. Schumacher was [is!] right.

Small is a matter of perspective certainly. The multiple local foods processing plants we are designing to work in a self-supportive coalition, are not garden sheds. They will take a lot of money by anyone's standards. They will be technologically and environmentally brilliant. Small? No, compared to farmyard vegetable stands. Yes, compared to the Wall Street backed food system now falling apart.

One of my favorite Schumacher quotes sums up what a new local foods processing system might look like: "The aim ought to be to obtain the maximum amount of well being with the minimum amount of consumption." That is, an ultra lean, wise production system that creates great multi-generational jobs for a community, passing the bulk of the profits into a pool that all contributors are compensated from equitably.

I'm going to post the first Driftless Foods Cooperative white paper that we produced by separate headline following this. It's a short overview of the project.

Small is beautiful because it is smart, sustainable and profitable. Above all else small is valuable because it is reproducible .

In economic terms, that's a beautiful thing.

The E.F. Schumacher Society

Small is Beautiful. Wikipedia

The Aldo Leopold Foundation

Aldo Leopold. Wikipedia

The Aldo Leopold quote in this post is from the dedications page of the 25th Anniversary edition of Small is Beautiful.

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