Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Year of Local Economy

There are a lot of people out there who are starting to question the current economic system that is based upon constant growth and limitless consumption of finite natural resources while concentrating wealth into fewer and fewer hands.

Since last September, protests have sprung up all over the world that express a clear and unifying message – the system is not working. The economy is rigged to benefit those at the very top and the political system has become so corrupt that it is nearly impossible to imagine meaningful change coming from standard political channels.

The results that we have seen in recent years - governments spending trillions of dollars to bail out financial institutions that continue to fight any kind of significant financial regulation or social assistance to people who have lost their homes through foreclosure, tax breaks for the wealthiest while cutting back on basic social services, increasing exploitation of finite natural resources in the name of short term profits - are the natural outcome of a larger problem: the control that corporations have over the political and global economic system and the unrelenting focus on unsustainable economic growth.

Economic growth in the current system is neither desirable nor possible over the long term. Our future cannot always be bigger. Beyond a certain limit, economic growth becomes detrimental to human well being an to the to environment. In fact, economic activity is increasingly devoted to fixing the problems of economic growth. We are spending more time, effort and money to fix crumbling infrastructure, to clean up pollution and to deal with the social problems of always striving for more. We are running faster and faster to stay in the same place. The current system is, in a very technical sense, unsustainable and to survive on this planet, we need to develop new ways of organizing economic life based upon ecological sustainability and social justice.

One of the most basic ways of working toward this goal is to develop alternative institutions that provides for people’s basic needs within appropriate ecological constraints and allows people to contribute their skills in a way that strengthens human community.

This has always been central to the mission of D Acres and in 2012, we are looking to expand it with our theme this year which is “The Year of Local Economy”. Our goal is to add to the growing efforts of people around the world to build an alternative economy based on real relationships, shared values, systemic cooperation and a belief in human community.

We believe that one of the most important elements of building an alternative economy is to locate maximum economic power at the local level – communities should, to the greatest extent possible, be self-reliant and self-governing. To this end, whatever is produced locally should be consumed locally. As residents give priority to locally produced goods and services, a strong economic foundation is built that can meet most basic human needs while at the same time, reducing wasteful, environmentally destructive transportation. Of course, some goods and services cannot be produced locally and some trading between communities should take place. But it should be minimal and when done, should reflect the same principles of fairness and mutual responsibility that characterize economic relationships within a tight-knit community.

This is the kind of economic growth that is sustainable over the long term - growth in terms of human connections and community resources instead of money. Economic activity should be principally dedicated to meeting peoples’ basic needs and should not dominate every facet of society. It is an economy of slowing down – of not always to striving for more, of valuing simplicity over excess, of moving away from the idea that the more material items you have, the better your life will be. As Gandhi said, “A certain degree of physical comfort is necessary but above a certain level it becomes a hindrance instead of a help; therefore the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them, seems to be a delusion and a trap. The satisfaction of one's physical needs must come at a certain point to a dead stop before it degenerates into physical decadence. [We] will have to remodel [our] outlook if we are not to perish under the weight of the comforts to which we are becoming slaves."

This vision of an alternative economy is intended to stand in direct contrast to the centralized, mechanized, industrial modes of production that typify the global economy, where people and nature have no value beyond their monetary value, where everything is for sale but there is a total lack of information about the human and ecological cost of production.

In many ways, this is the philosophy that we put into practice on our own farm. We focus on work we can do with out hands and do not use mechanized equipment on the farm because we would lose the intrinsic material, ecological and spiritual benefits that come with relying solely on our own labor power.

We focus on our own productive capacity – we do not buy what we can produce ourselves and we only sell products after our own basic needs have been met. When we do buy products, we do our best to ensure that the products were not the result of human and ecological degradation elsewhere. When we sell products, we do so to our friends and neighbors, all of whom can come to our farm and have the security of knowing where their purchase comes from.

But as stated above, we are dedicating this year to expanding out efforts to build a local economy that is grounded in a basic sense of justice, fairness and environmental stewardship. To this end, we will launch or expand three programs that are dedicated to strengthen the local economy.

First, in the beginning of February, we will begin a 10-week multi-farm Winter Community Supported Agriculture project or CSA. CSAs operates like a magazine subscription for food. Members pay for all of the food up front and then receive a box of food every week.

CSA are one of the most popular ways that people have found to put the idea of building a local economy – shortening the distance between producers and consumers, building real connections between the two and making local economic activity benefit the local community into practice. CSAs allows producers to capture a larger share of the profits, keeps money circulating within the community, gives consumers a say over the kind and quality of food the community produces, the way land is used, the way the local landscape is preserved and the conditions under which the food they consume is produced.

Those who support CSAs don’t so much “buy” food from particular farms as become members of those farms. CSAs provide more than just food but is a way for people to become connected to the ecological and human community that farms the land around them.

D Acres’ Winter CSA will begin on February 1st and go through April 4th. Details of the program are available by emailing or calling 786-2366.

Second, D Acres will be launching a community exchange or mutual credit system. The goal of this program is to create a system whereby local residents can exchange goods and services without using standard currency. It addresses three fundamental problems inherent with this currency: a) its always scarce, b) it comes into the community from outside and c) it easily leaks out of the community and often ends up in the hands of those who already have enormous amounts of it.

A mutual credit system gets around these problems by setting up a system where a group of people can exchange goods and services between themselves for credits and debits within the system. People can trade a wide variety of goods and services such as bread or organic vegetables, bricklaying, house painting, babysitting, etc earning credits for sales and taking on debits for purchases. Debits and credits are entered into a database and which is available to all participants. In communities where this system has worked well in the United States and around the world, participants strive to contribute as much as they take.

Such community exchanges are another way that allows communities to take control of their own economic activity. Today, every community in this country has an enormous number of skilled people – carpenters, potters, builders, weavers, farmers, teachers, musicians, artists – who cannot find work. Community exchanges create an environment where people can find each other and access the skills and resources of others in exchange for their own without using a conventional currency that drains too quickly from the community.

We will be holding an initial discussion and planning meeting on February 25th at 12pm. More information about the program is available on our website.

Third, D Acres is collaborating with Stacey Lucas and Artistic Roots to produce the 6th edition of the Local Goods Guide this spring. The guide serves as a resource for residents of the Pemi-Baker and Upper Valley region of New Hampshire to access local food, wares, and businesses within their community, and as a means for encouraging a revitalization of the local economy and promoting the artistic and agrarian abundance of our locale.

The 2012 Guide will include an expanded list of categories including agricultural products (local sources of wood, hay, fiber, nursery stock) and handmade goods shops, in addition to a comprehensive listing of farms, artists, crafters, galleries, and studios in central New Hampshire. We will begin distributing 12,000 copies of the Guide to over 200 venues on Memorial Day weekend. For further information on listing or advertising within the guide, contact Katie Cristiano at 786-2366 or at

-- Scott

Friday, January 20, 2012

Permaculture 2012

This morning, twenty eager and curious attendees of a NOFA-NH Permaculture Meet-up arrived here at D Acres. I had farm-fresh sausage, eggs, and home-fries cooked up, plus fixin’s from our shelves of preserved goods and our own herbal tea to top it off. Folks were eating breakfast, then taking a tour of the farm. The momentum that brought these folks together and the common theme that threaded through their conversation was: Permaculture.

Permaculture has been defined in many ways. Entire tomes have been written to discuss permaculture applications, permaculture theory, and permaculture goals. The succinct definition that we use here is as follows:

Permaculture is a holistic, integrative design for a sustainable future.

Permaculture is many things. It’s about building resilience, it’s about cultivating self-sufficiency, it’s about common sense and stacking functions; permaculture is about conserving resources with future generations in mind, minimizing one’s footprint, and strengthening community; it’s about food production that works with nature, not against her.

Here at D Acres, the application of permaculture principles can be seen in all corners of our farm and homestead. Permaculture is reflected in our natural & earthen building styles, our mixed-species garden beds, our incorporation of animals in the agricultural system, and our development of diverse perennial food forests. The list could go on and on.

In fact, we invite you to join us for a closer study of permaculture principles and praxis…with our third annual Permaculture Design Certification course. Titled “Permaculture Through the Seasons,” this is a unique class that meets one weekend per month for seven months. This enables participants to gain an understanding of permaculture applications through different seasons and across a broader spectrum of time than most permaculture courses provide for. The course layout caters to a diversity of students: homeowners, family gardeners, designers, landscapers, builders, etc. Regardless of your goals and interests, permaculture can enhance the way in which you shape your lifestyle and engage with the natural world around you.

2012’s “Permaculture Through the Seasons” course is instructed by Steve Whitman & Josh Trought, with featured presenters Dave Jacke, Dave Wichland, and Keith Morris. The course is based at D Acres Farm in Dorchester, NH; tuition includes overnight accommodations and farm-fresh organic meals for each weekend session. Register now! Space is limited for this popular offering, early bird discounts apply before March 1st. Course begins April 2012. Contact D Acres for registration information or further questions.

as published in North Country News

Thursday, January 5, 2012

In Support of Sweaters

The butter was hard. Not frozen, but certainly not spread-able. With close attention, it was possible to collect some shavings by scraping with a sharp knife. This could then be carefully balanced over a slice of bread.

The reason, though, was not that we had just pulled the butter from the root cellar nor that we had frozen it for storage. No, the reason was simply that the room stood at 48 degrees. If you were to take an extended observation of the kitchen, you would see that the cooking oil, sitting beside the window, was more solid than liquid. The woodstove was cold, and the granite countertop chilled your hands to touch it.

Granted, the above may be a slightly extreme example. We don’t often let the indoor temperature drop into the 40s here at D Acres…we prefer a balmy 50-55 degrees. With a sweater or an extra hat, that’s downright comfortable. And it is winter, after all. What are sweaters for, but to wear them when it’s cold?

We heat with wood here at the farm, both with woodstoves and a wood-fired boiler. The latter is how we heat our water, as well as space through the use of a radiant heat system on both the first and second floors of the community building.

Wood heat of course, entails work. More specifically, it entails work that is much more personal and therefore tangible than, for example, propane heat. As the weather allows throughout the year, we are in the woods with chainsaws and our team of oxen. Trees are felled, logs are hauled, and wood is cross-cut. The mauls are then taken out and the cordwood split for storing and drying. All told, each cord of wood represents a significant number of human hours.

Engaging in the work rapidly impresses upon us the worth of our wood. How do we assess the time, energy, sweat, and care that are part and parcel of our logging efforts? How do we value such an essential natural resource? It is abundant, but not endless.

Still, I admit that I am on the harsher end of the spectrum. Stoic consumption of hot water and the layering of multiple hats strike my young fancy more than burning wood every day. I like winter because it is not summer; a season of cold is part of the annual yin-and-yang, ebb-and-flow of temperatures across the year.

My point, though, is not to advocate a minimalist regime for all. I simply want to spread an appreciation of sweaters, of layers, of hats in winter. Each works just as well indoors as out. Consider from whence your heat is sourced, and how best to value, conserve, and utilize the energy that winter heat implies.

as published in North Country News

Monday, January 2, 2012

Currency in Community

The process by which banks create money is so simple that the mind is repelled.

- John Kenneth Galbraith

Every year at D Acres a theme is chosen to serve as a focal point for our major projects, and, if you've been following any of our recent propaganda, you probably realize that the theme for 2012 is "The Local Economy: Currency in Community." In this blog posting I'd like to say something more about the subtitle, since, as I hope you will soon agree, those three words contain much worth thinking about.

To start out with, the phrase "Currency in Community" intentionally has an air of paradox about it. As the Occupiers of Wall Street and Everywhere are constantly reminding us, the single-minded pursuit of currency erodes community. It does this in a number of ways -- I'll mention only three. First for the sake of maximizing profits businesses routinely outsource jobs from communities that depend on them, to temporary and ever shifting free trade zones around the world, wherever the most easily exploited workers happen to be. The result is race to the bottom in which workers are pitted against one another in their vain struggle to preserve jobs and the communities that depend on them. The pursuit of currency likewise leads to corporations dodging their responsibility for paying the costs of pollution and the other "externalities" their activities impose on communities. Instead of cleaning up the messes they make in their quest for profits corporations destroy the commons -- rivers, clean air, topsoil, etc., on which every community depends. And, finally, and most glaringly perhaps, the pursuit of cash leads to the wholesale destruction of communities by subjecting housing to whatever high risk bets all of the very smart people on Wall Street have dreamed up this week. So banks and mortgage brokers, we have learned recently, made more and more sketchy loans for overpriced houses to people who couldn't afford them, often in fraudulent ways, and then repackaged and sold those loans as if they were risk free investments, all while placing large bets on the failure of those same loans. Lots of cash in the form of bonuses and fees was collected but countless communities were destroyed in the process.

Given all of this it might seem strange that we have chosen "Currency in Community" as the subtitle for our next year's efforts. However, before I say more about this clash between currency and community as currency now operates, I should mention that there are two other meanings of the phrase which are relevant and less fraught with conflict. First, "Currency in Community" is intended to capture the turn to community that is taking place as currency in the usual sense lurches from crisis to crisis leaving us all with less of it to spend. Whether we realize it or not, as times get tough, we all turn to community to provide the network of social supports it has, until quite recently, always provided. So "Currency in Community" points to our focus on community building in a way that puts financial transactions on the back burner and highlights the development of personal relationships based on trust and mutual aid rather than just the calculation of individual advantage. Secondly, since currency in the usual sense of cold hard cash still has an important role to play in our economic interactions with each other, "Currency in Community" is intended to highlight a number of efforts we'll be making at D Acres to reconnect currency with our local community. These efforts will include attempts to connect farmers to more local customers to keep currency within the community as well as a much more ambitious attempt to introduce a community-based alternative currency. I've bitten off a lot here, so it's time to start chewing.

The examples I used above to describe how the pursuit of currency undermines communities bring up an obvious question -- what is it that leads to this result? The usual answer to this question puts the blame on greed -- the greed of the fabled 1% who, for whatever anti-social reasons motivate them, simply cannot ever get enough money. It is not money itself, but the skewed values of those who control so much of it that is source of our current problems with currency. This may be part of the explanation, but I think it misses the fact that there is something about money, or more specifically, the way it is created in our society, that should bear much more of the blame. This may sound strange, talking about the creation of money, since it is commonly assumed that a certain amount of money is just out there in the world to be made or lost by individuals and businesses depending on their abilities, the ways the rule of the game work in their favor or against them and on a certain amount of luck. This assumption, however, turns out to be false, since money is continually being created and destroyed in a process, which as Galbraith points out, is so simple that the mind is repelled. We usually think of money as originating as a way of facilitating trade, as something issued by governments to overcome the awkwardness and inefficiencies involved in more primitive forms of trade like barter. Nothing could be further than the truth. Money is in fact almost never issued by governments. It is instead created every day out of thin air by banks. Banks create money every time they issue a loan, and that money vanishes once again as soon as the loan is repaid. That is not the way we look at money normally, but it is nevertheless true. Banks take in deposits from some customers and loan much more than they have on deposit to other customers who promise to pay these loans back with interest. Everybody knows this -- it is known as the fractional reserve banking system in which banks are allowed to loan out more money than they actually have in their vaults, keeping only a small percentage of their depositors money on reserve in case some of those depositors want it back. Now the vast majority of the money out there in the world today, whether it is the cash in everyone's pockets, the balances in their savings and checking accounts, or the money they collect at work every week, originated as a loan that is on its way to being paid back.

Money in our current economic system is thus issued as credit, it then circulates for a while and finally gets paid back and vanishes once again into the thin air it was created from. There are two important points here that I want to emphasize about this process. First, if all of the loans out there that have been issued were to get paid back at once without any new loans being issued, or what amounts to the same thing, if all of the borrowers out there were to default on their loans at once, the vast majority of money in circulation would vanish and there would be little cash around to facilitate economic activity. This is what happened in the Great Depression and it is threatening to happen again, triggered this time around by the European debt crisis which itself is the latest result of the bursting of the housing bubble. So economic activity in general depends on the circulation of enough money in the system and this depends on sufficient numbers of people, businesses and governments taking out loans and paying them back. The second point that needs to be highlighted here has to do with the interest banks charge for the money they lend into existence. The charging of interest on the loans that create money in the first place means that there can never be enough economic activity taking place -- instead tomorrow needs to have more economic activity producing more things of value than today. The money in circulation in the world economy as a whole thus comes with a bet attached to it -- a bet that there will be more things of value to support more economic activity tomorrow. If things don't turn out this way, loans don't get paid back, credit contracts, money vanishes. When money only exists as a result of having been loaned into existence at interest, the economy as a whole can only ever either grow or collapse, it cannot stay the same size.

This is why governments around the world are so fixated on the idea of economic growth. It is not because growth is always a good thing and pursuing growth is what people all really want. It is because if we don't have growth we have recessions and depressions in which everyone suffers. It is conventional wisdom at this point in time that economic growth is nothing but a good thing, so the fact that our monetary system requires it may not seem like any problem at all. As advocates of global "free-trade" policies like to put it, the rising tide lifts all boats -- more economic activity means more things of more value are out there for more people to get more of. Now not only does this assume that human beings are always better off with more money, more possessions and more shopping, more fundamentally it assumes that the economy can in fact grow forever. Again, conventional wisdom, can't see why not. In theory we can grow the economy forever by finding substitutes for whatever we run out of -- the market price of oil going up will spur the search for alternatives or allow us to extract the more expensive tar sands or shale oil that were unprofitable ten years ago; or it can grow as a result of our inventing new services to be paid for with cash -- professional child care, landscaping, elective cosmetic surgery are only three of the myriad new services that have appeared in my lifetime; or it can grow as new markets are created in or forced upon communities that previously didn't have very developed economies or use very much money -- a pattern which is well documented in all of its brutality in Naomi Klein's book The Shock Doctrine. In practice, however, there may very well be real limits to how large an economy can grow. There is a finite amount of solar energy reaching the planet, a finite amount of fossil fuels, of moving air and flowing water for generating electricity, but without ever increasing energy supplies economic activity cannot continue to expand. This makes sense since doing more things would seem to require using more energy. Likewise, there is a limited amount of arable crop land, a finite number of fish in the oceans, a limited amount of space to put our wastes, a limited area on which to build new houses and a limited amount of material with which to build them. There also may be limits to how much we may want the economy to grow, limits in other words to how many human relationships we want to be brought into the economic sphere -- would you be willing to pay for sexual services from your spouse or charge your own children for the parenting services they utilized in being raised by you?

The point of all of this so far is simple if a little surprising. Economic expansion is a requirement of the current monetary system even though the collective pursuit of ever more money often has negative effects on communities. It is not that there are a few people out there whose individual greed drives the world's economic engines to the frantic pursuit of more. Instead the logic of our economic system has built into it a perpetual demand for more money being brought into the system and so encourages and rewards those who pursue more regardless of the human costs of doing so.

To come back to the practical reality of the present, we seem to be now witnessing the slowing and reversal of the largest credit, monetary and economic expansion in all of human history. This means that, like it or not, we will continue to have less money available to us going forward. As we all find ourselves with less to spend in the formal economy we will all have to return to community. And I think there is plenty of evidence that this is happening right now. Witness the growth of community gardens, couch surfing, clothing swaps, co-housing arrangements, ride sharing, food banks, potlucks, knitting circles, home-schooling networks, not to mention college graduates moving back in with their parents rather than to another part of the country for a job. Not all of this is for the better, of course, but it certainly represents a shift from a world in which each new generation was expected to earn more, buy a bigger house and a fancier car than the previous generation could because each generation was richer in cash than the previous. But many people are also discovering that downsizing (be it voluntary or involuntary), simplifying, slowing down, getting more involved in community affairs are more valuable than always speeding up in the manic pursuit of more and more cash. And this value is something impossible to measure in terms of mere cash. Resilient communities require less currency in circulation than the fragmented non-community of the marketplace and they make our lives far richer.

Of course, cash is not entirely a bad thing, and I am not advocating or celebrating the evaporation of currency since in a world dependent on the money economy the sudden disappearance of currency leads to a great deal of hardship and suffering. This brings me to the final point I'd like to discuss, the possibility that there might be different ways of issuing and using currency that might not force us into the losing game of trying to expand economic activity forever on a finite planet. It just so happens that many people have been experimenting with what can be called community based currencies. Such alternative or complementary currencies are intended to serve some of the essential functions of debt-based currencies while avoiding their dilemma of either growth or collapse.

Since I don't want to tax the reader's attention too much more, and since I'd like to get this out there as soon as I can, I'll save further expansion on this idea for another time. For now I'll just mention that there are many different kinds of alternative currencies, things like time banks, community exchanges, and local currencies issued by towns or cities. What they all have in common are the fact that they are tied more or less closely to a particular place or region and that the amount of money in circulation is not dependent on the whole system forever expanding. Instead it is tied directly to the value of what is being exchanged.

I'll talk more about a particular type of local currency called a "Community Exchange" in a future blog posting. For now imagine a system that works like so: I have something I'd like to sell, but don't have a buyer yet, so I post my item and how much I want for it on a list where the people in my community can see it. If someone is interested they purchase it from me, if not, maybe I lower my price until I attract a buyer, or maybe I am willing to bargain with a potential customer. Where does the money come from to purchase what I am selling? It comes from within the system itself -- if the sale goes through my account is credited, the buyer's account is debited. The credit on my account allows me to purchase something from someone else. The debit on the buyer's account will have to be cleared at some point by that person selling something to someone else. In a sense by making a purchase the buyer is taking out a loan, making a promise to bring something to market later to clear his or her debit. One difference between this system and our currency monetary system is that the "money" it relies on is not issued by banks as loans for interest. Instead it is issued within the system and so the amount of money in circulation is exactly equal to the amount of value of all of the things being exchanged. We "earn" and "spend" this money directly with each other without relying on banks to issue loans first to get the whole game going. The debits that buyers accrue do have to be paid back at some point, but since there is no interest, the system as a whole does not need to expand forever. What, you might be wondering, prevents someone from taking advantage of this system and purchasing things without offering anything for sale? There are numerous ways of accomplishing this, including establishing credit limits and making each individual participant's current balance public knowledge. But ultimately, a system of trading that uses money, our current system as well as any alternative system, relies on trust. Part of the appeal of a locally based community currency is that it is explicitly tied to an existing community, a particular place where people can get to know each other if they do not already know each other and where trust can develop and flourish. Community based currencies, like the one I have been describing are based not on a bet that the future will always be richer in monetary terms but on the hope that the future will consist of richer community ties and that currency will enhance and not undermine community.

That's all for now, Happy New Year!

~George Matthews