Schumacher Center for a New Economics: Seeds of Economic Transformation

Jay Owen Community Development Solutions, Sustainability News

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<p class=The Left Forum Conference is held annually in New York City.  At this year’s conference Schumacher Center for a New Economics will present two panels: “Beyond CSA: Community Supported Industry” and “Reclaiming our Agricultural Commons.”

New York City’s Left Forum is the largest annual conference of left and progressive intellectuals, activists, academics, organizations, and interested public. This year, the Forum is exploring ways that we can confront climate change and global economic crisis by “mobilizing for economic and ecological transformation” in order to create a more equitable and ecologically resilient world.  As Schumacher Society founders Bob Swann and Susan Witt explained in their 1995 essay from People, Land, and Community (Yale University Press), this transformation will require a reorganization of economic institutions so that they will be responsive to local and regional needs and conditions:

“These new institutions would decentralize the control of land, natural resources, industry, and financing to serve the people living in an area in an equitable way. We need to create an infrastructure that encourages local production for local needs. Community land trusts, worker-owned and worker-managed businesses, non-profit local banks, and regional currencies are some of the tools for building strong regional economies.”

The Schumacher Center for a New Economics will present two panels at this year’s Left Forum Conference, “Beyond CSA: Community Supported Industry,” and “Reclaiming Our Agricultural Commons.”  Both will explore initiatives that are building this interconnected system of strong regional economies.

Local Currency Program Director Alice Maggio will present “Beyond CSA: Community Supported Industry,” a panel discussion with Ted Dobson, an organic farmer and Sheffield Selectman, and Tim Geller, the Executive Director of the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire and President of the Board of BerkShares.

As we have globalized our economy we have lost the tools that supported local production for local consumption.  If each region rebuilt its own industries we would create new jobs, foster technological innovation, retain manufacturing skills, and maximize recirculation of regional capital.  But in a system where financial tools, education, and community expectations are turned toward the global, the convenient, and the cheap, how can we help regional “import-replacing” businesses establish themselves and succeed?

One initiative, designed specifically to support local food production, has already proven a success. The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model seemed radical when Robyn VanEn first introduced the idea at her Indian Line Farm—in a CSA, customers share in the risks and rewards of a business with the entrepreneur. Now, almost thirty years later, the idea has gained acceptance and popularity across the country and around the world.  At the Left Forum, Alice, Ted, and Tim will discuss how to expand upon the CSA concept to develop a similar understanding for other local production.

They will be discussing the work in the Berkshires that is allowing citizens to become more than just consumers.  This includes encouraging citizens to envision the kind of production appropriate to our region—taking into account the available natural and human resources—while at the same time building a local currency program.  In the case of the Berkshire region, BerkShares will serve as a source of community capital to invest in the businesses that will harness resources responsibly while meeting the needs of the region.

Our second panel, “Reclaiming our agricultural commons,” will be moderated by Commons Program Director Michelle Hughes, and will focus on securing land for responsible, decentralized agriculture, and the appropriate role of capital investments.

Successful farmers operating at an appropriate scale are the cornerstones of strong regional economies. They care for the soil and water, produce healthy food for diverse markets, employ others and support themselves. However, the current valuation of land makes it nearly impossible for farmers to capitalize a business, sustain a livelihood, build equity, and still afford secure long-term access to land.

Farmland prices are at an historic high.  Investors—witnessing the poor performance of stocks and foreseeing global population increases and food shortages—are sinking an increasing amount of money into farmland, which they view as a safe and “undervalued” asset. In fact, since world food prices hit record highs in September 2012, land prices have risen 9.4% in Iowa.  And in 2011, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was flat, investors nonetheless generated average returns of 15.6% by speculating on farmland, according to the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries in Chicago.  This investment in farmland has consolidated ownership and taken decision-making power out of the hands of land’s best stewards.

Thomas Jefferson said, “Land is given as a common stock for men to labor and live on.”  In his book, The Community Land Trust: A Guide to a New Model for Land Tenure in America, Bob Swann builds on this idea to show how we can use the tool of the community land trust to create an agricultural commons that removes land from the speculative market and holds it for the common good.

In the true spirit of the Left Forum, Michelle’s panel brings together farmers, land preservationists and investors for a dialogue about how best to direct investments in agriculture in order to strengthen our agricultural commons.  Panelists include Kathy Orlando, Executive Director of the Sheffield Land Trust and board member of the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires; Sam and Elizabeth Smith, retired farmers of Caretaker Farm in Williamstown, MA, who created a unique four-part ownership structure to affordably pass on their farm to the next generation; and Jake Meyers, an attorney who understands both the investor perspective and the need for farmers to have secure access and equity.

This panel also marks the start of a collaboration with the Greenhorns that builds on the Schumacher Center’s commons work—the Agrarian Trust.  The Agrarian Trust serves as a national platform for education on alternative land tenure models and engages stakeholders in a cultural debate about land access, ownership, and an agricultural commons, with the ultimate goal of moving more land into the care of the farmers building resilient regional food economies.

If you would like to join us at the Left Forum Conference, please register online at the Left Forum’s website. Online registration ends on May 30th.  “Beyond CSA: Community Supported Industry” is scheduled for Saturday, June 8th, at 10 am, and “Reclaiming our Agricultural Commons” is scheduled for Sunday, June 9th, at 10 am.

Best wishes,

Alice Maggio, Michelle Hughes, and Susan Witt
Schumacher Center for a New Economics

Board of Directors:  Peter Barnes, Mary Berry Smith, Hildegarde Hannum, Dan Levinson, Anne MacDonald, Jerry Mander, Gordon Thorne, Severine von Tscharner Fleming, Greg Watson, and Judy Wicks.
Advisory Board:  Wendell and Tanya Berry, Merrian Goggio Borgeson, Eric Harris-Braun, and Otto Scharmer

“A good community insures itself by trust, by good faith and good will, by mutual help. A good community, in other words, is a good local economy.” Wendell Berry from “Work of Local Culture”