Michael Shuman on The Little Grocery That Could

BALLE: Michael Shuman


The Little Grocery That Could

By Michael Shuman

Your Local Market

What happens next in the economy – the nation’s, the state’s, and Seattle’s – no longer lies in the hands of Capitol Hill politicians, the Federal Reserve, or even the boards of companies like Microsoft and Starbucks.  It depends on entrepreneurs like Jason Brown, who has big ambitions for his small business.  Jason recently opened a grocery store in the heart of downtown Bellevue called Your Local Market.  It combines the best features of Whole Foods, like high-quality local and organic products, with down-to-earth prices and familiar brands of low cost cleaning products. 

Jason, however, is not your typical small businessperson.   For more than three decades he has been an innovator in retailing.  He brought Columbia Sportswears to New Zealand and Australia.  He created the Natural Apothecary, which was sold to Wild Oats, and then went on to develop Andrew Weil Vitamin Advisor.  He grew a bi-coastal company called Organic To Go, which at its peak made healthy options available in 33 cafes and 150 outlets. 

Today, Jason is all about “local.”  He and his team have scoured the Pacific Northwest for great suppliers of local fruits, meats, and wines, and now has more than 3,000 regional products.   He has turned his store into a community center, with a full calendar of speakers and special events like single’s nights.  He holds monthly fundraiser in the store that has generated more than $36,000 in new donations for children’s organizations.  He has recruited local angel investors to become owners, and is committed to keeping the store into the hands of the community. Unlike Organic To Go, which was a national chain that ultimately was taken over and then taken apart by international investors, his is committed to growing more stores only in the state of Washington.

So far, the business has fared remarkably well, considering the times we’re in.  It opened in November and weekly sales have grown steadily to a peak of over $200,000.  It has added 75 jobs to the Bellevue economy (probably double that when indirect effects are counted), and has already become a significant generator of taxes for the city, county, and state.  For three years prior to opening, site was an eyesore with an empty parking lot and a boarded up building.  After a $2 million makeover, the market is now bringing a local streetscape back to life. 

Yet even in the hands of a skilled entrepreneur, Your Local Market is no guaranteed success.  The grocery business is notoriously difficult, with huge perishable inventories and tight margins if you want to serve the best in local products yet be competitively priced. Like other businesspeople, Jason made a series of bets that the economy would recover more quickly.  To survive, he has become the business equivalent of a kayak runner, surveying each week’s challenges and then deciding when and which direction to shoot the rapids.

If Jason can just grow his weekly sales to $200-250,000 per week consistently, he will clear break-even and be able to focus on growing his business, which is good for everyone.  In the meantime, besides courting more local investors, Jason has created a membership for his customers, which gives them deep discounts on your groceries over the next year or two. This program awards huge savings—20% or more—on the household necessities at a time when many Bellevue residents are economizing to get by.

Across the country, smart entrepreneurs are pioneering alternative financing methods like this to survive the recession.  Unlike investments, presales usually do not require expensive legal work.  In Oakland, California, a popular coffee shop called Awaken Café was able to finance its move to another store by preselling coffee.  In Hardwick, Vermont, Claire’s Diner has financed itself through a frequent-eaters program.

Small business innovations are key to our national recovery.  Studies consistently show that small businesses, especially new ones, are the most important creators of new jobs in U.S. economy.  Two Harvard economists analyzing metropolitan areas across the country found that the greater the presence of small business, the higher the economic growth rate.  Two Penn State economists also found that more local businesses meants higher per capita income growth. 

The verdict is virtually unanimous.  The United States will only succeed if small businesses like Your Local Market succeed.  The message for Seattle residents is equally clear:  If you want to bring the region out of recession, buy local, invest local, and think local first.


Michael Shuman is an economist, lawyer, and author of eight books, including most recently Local Dollars, Local Sense:  How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity (Chelsea Green).  He will be appearing at Your Local Market on Thursday, May 24, 6-8 pm, in a town meeting on “Investing in the Northwest.”

Local First business conference in Grand Rapids


Business leaders from around the country are in Grand Rapids this week to stress the importance of having strong locally owned businesses.
It's part of the tenth annual BALLE Business Conference. BALLE stands for Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. This is the first time the conference is being held in Grand Rapids.
The conference focuses on the economic and environmental advantages of buying from local stores and businesses.

Local First of Grand Rapids is hosting the conference, which started Tuesday with tours of West Michigan businesses known for using sustainable methods, as well as members of the furniture industry. You can click on the above link to learn more details about the conference, which does still have tickets available.

West Michigan was chosed to host the conference because it has a reputation for having both green businesses and a strong committment to supporting locally owned companies.

The five day conference includes dozens of seminars, guest speakers and breakout sessions. It's being described as a crash course on how to rebuild your community and business.


Wendell Berry on the Importance of Local, Sustainable Economies

National Endowment for the Humanities

National Endowment for the Humanities Awards & Honors: 2012 Jefferson Lecturer

Wendell E. Berry Lecture


“It All Turns On Affection”

By Wendell E. Berry

“Because a thing is going strong now, it need not go strong for ever,” [Margaret] said. “This craze for motion has only set in during the last hundred years. It may be followed by a civilization that won’t be a movement, because it will rest upon the earth.
E. M. Forster, Howards End (1910)1

One night in the winter of 1907, at what we have always called “the home place” in Henry County, Kentucky, my father, then six years old, sat with his older brother and listened as their parents spoke of the uses they would have for the money from their 1906 tobacco crop. The crop was to be sold at auction in Louisville on the next day. They would have been sitting in the light of a kerosene lamp, close to the stove, warming themselves before bedtime. They were not wealthy people. I believe that the debt on their farm was not fully paid, there would have been interest to pay, there would have been other debts. The depression of the 1890s would have left them burdened. Perhaps, after the income from the crop had paid their obligations, there would be some money that they could spend as they chose. At around two o’clock the next morning, my father was wakened by a horse’s shod hooves on the stones of the driveway. His father was leaving to catch the train to see the crop sold.

He came home that evening, as my father later would put it, “without a dime.” After the crop had paid its transportation to market and the commission on its sale, there was nothing left. Thus began my father’s lifelong advocacy, later my brother’s and my own, and now my daughter’s and my son’s, for small farmers and for land-conserving economies.


The economic hardship of my family and of many others, a century ago, was caused by a monopoly, the American Tobacco Company, which had eliminated all competitors and thus was able to reduce as it pleased the prices it paid to farmers. The American Tobacco Company was the work of James B. Duke of Durham, North Carolina, and New York City, who, disregarding any other consideration, followed a capitalist logic to absolute control of his industry and, incidentally, of the economic fate of thousands of families such as my own.

My effort to make sense of this memory and its encompassing history has depended on a pair of terms used by my teacher, Wallace Stegner. He thought rightly that we Americans, by inclination at least, have been divided into two kinds: “boomers” and “stickers.” Boomers, he said, are “those who pillage and run,” who want “to make a killing and end up on Easy Street,” whereas stickers are “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”2 “Boomer” names a kind of person and a kind of ambition that is the major theme, so far, of the history of the European races in our country. “Sticker” names a kind of person and also a desire that is, so far, a minor theme of that history, but a theme persistent enough to remain significant and to offer, still, a significant hope.

The boomer is motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and therefore power. James B. Duke was a boomer, if we can extend the definition to include pillage in absentia. He went, or sent, wherever the getting was good, and he got as much as he could take.

Stickers on the contrary are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it. Of my grandfather I need to say only that he shared in the virtues and the faults of his kind and time, one of his virtues being that he was a sticker. He belonged to a family who had come to Kentucky from Virginia, and who intended to go no farther. He was the third in his paternal line to live in the neighborhood of our little town of Port Royal, and he was the second to own the farm where he was born in 1864 and where he died in 1946.

We have one memory of him that seems, more than any other, to identify him as a sticker. He owned his farm, having bought out the other heirs, for more than fifty years. About forty of those years were in hard times, and he lived almost continuously in the distress of debt. Whatever has happened in what economists call “the economy,” it is generally true that the land economy has been discounted or ignored. My grandfather lived his life in an economic shadow. In an urbanizing and industrializing age, he was the wrong kind of man. In one of his difficult years he plowed a field on the lower part of a long slope and planted it in corn. While the soil was exposed, a heavy rain fell and the field was seriously eroded. This was heartbreak for my grandfather, and he devoted the rest of his life, first to healing the scars and then to his obligation of care. In keeping with the sticker’s commitment, he neither left behind the damage he had done nor forgot about it, but stayed to repair it, insofar as soil loss can be repaired. My father, I think, had his father’s error in mind when he would speak of farmers attempting, always uselessly if not tragically, “to plow their way out of debt.” From that time, my grandfather and my father were soil conservationists, a commitment that they handed on to my brother and to me.


It is not beside the point, or off my subject, to notice that these stories and their meanings, have survived because of my family’s continuing connection to its home place. Like my grandfather, my father grew up on that place and served as its caretaker. It has now belonged to my brother for many years, and he in turn has been its caretaker. He and I have lived as neighbors, allies, and friends. Our long conversation has often taken its themes from the two stories I have told, because we have been continually reminded of them by our home neighborhood and topography. If we had not lived there to be reminded and to remember, nobody would have remembered. If either of us had lived elsewhere, both of us would have known less. If both of us, like most of our generation, had moved away, the place with its memories would have been lost to us and we to it—and certainly my thoughts about agriculture, if I had thought of it at all, would have been much more approximate than they have been.

Because I have never separated myself from my home neighborhood, I cannot identify myself to myself apart from it. I am fairly literally flesh of its flesh. It is present in me, and to me, wherever I go. This undoubtedly accounts for my sense of shock when, on my first visit to Duke University, and by surprise, I came face-to-face with James B. Duke in his dignity, his glory perhaps, as the founder of that university. He stands imperially in bronze in front of a Methodist chapel aspiring to be a cathedral. He holds between two fingers of his left hand a bronze cigar. On one side of his pedestal is the legend: INDUSTRIALIST. On the other side is another single word: PHILANTHROPIST. The man thus commemorated seemed to me terrifyingly ignorant, even terrifyingly innocent, of the connection between his industry and his philanthropy. But I did know the connection. I felt it instantly and physically. The connection was my grandparents and thousands of others more or less like them. If you can appropriate for little or nothing the work and hope of enough such farmers, then you may dispense the grand charity of “philanthropy.”

After my encounter with the statue, the story of my grandfather’s 1906 tobacco crop slowly took on a new dimension and clarity in my mind. I still remembered my grandfather as himself, of course, but I began to think of him also as a kind of man standing in thematic opposition to a man of an entirely different kind. And I could see finally that between these two kinds there was a failure of imagination that was ruinous, that belongs indelibly to our history, and that has continued, growing worse, into our own time.


The term “imagination” in what I take to be its truest sense refers to a mental faculty that some people have used and thought about with the utmost seriousness. The sense of the verb “to imagine” contains the full richness of the verb “to see.” To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. It has nothing to do either with clever imitation of appearances or with “dreaming up.” It does not depend upon one’s attitude or point of view, but grasps securely the qualities of things seen or envisioned.

I will say, from my own belief and experience, that imagination thrives on contact, on tangible connection. For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Obviously there is some risk in making affection the pivot of an argument about economy. The charge will be made that affection is an emotion, merely “subjective,” and therefore that all affections are more or less equal: people may have affection for their children and their automobiles, their neighbors and their weapons. But the risk, I think, is only that affection is personal. If it is not personal, it is nothing; we don’t, at least, have to worry about governmental or corporate affection. And one of the endeavors of human cultures, from the beginning, has been to qualify and direct the influence of emotion. The word “affection” and the terms of value that cluster around it—love, care, sympathy, mercy, forbearance, respect, reverence—have histories and meanings that raise the issue of worth. We should, as our culture has warned us over and over again, give our affection to things that are true, just, and beautiful. When we give affection to things that are destructive, we are wrong. A large machine in a large, toxic, eroded cornfield is not, properly speaking, an object or a sign of affection.


My grandfather knew, urgently, the value of money, but only of such comparatively small sums as would have paid his debts and allowed to his farm and his family a decent prosperity. He certainly knew of the American Tobacco Company. He no doubt had read and heard of James B. Duke, and could identify him as the cause of a hard time, but nothing in his experience could have enabled him to imagine the life of the man himself.

James B. Duke came from a rural family in the tobacco country of North Carolina. In his early life he would have known men such as my grandfather. But after he began his rise as an industrialist, the life of a small tobacco grower would have been to him a negligible detail incidental to an opportunity for large profits. In the minds of the “captains of industry,” then and now, the people of the land economies have been reduced to statistical numerals. Power deals “efficiently” with quantities that affection cannot recognize.

It may seem plausible to suppose that the head of the American Tobacco Company would have imagined at least that a dependable supply of raw material to his industry would depend upon a stable, reasonably thriving population of farmers and upon the continuing fertility of their farms. But he imagined no such thing. In this he was like apparently all agribusiness executives. They don’t imagine farms or farmers. They imagine perhaps nothing at all, their minds being filled to capacity by numbers leading to the bottom line. Though the corporations, by law, are counted as persons, they do not have personal minds, if they can be said to have minds. It is a great oddity that a corporation, which properly speaking has no self, is by definition selfish, responsible only to itself. This is an impersonal, abstract selfishness, limitlessly acquisitive, but unable to look so far ahead as to preserve its own sources and supplies. The selfishness of the fossil fuel industries by nature is self-annihilating; but so, always, has been the selfishness of the agribusiness corporations. Land, as Wes Jackson has said, has thus been made as exhaustible as oil or coal.


There is another difference between my grandfather and James B. Duke that may finally be more important than any other, and this was a difference of kinds of pleasure. We may assume that, as a boomer, moving from one chance of wealth to another, James B. Duke wanted only what he did not yet have. If it is true that he was in this way typical of his kind, then his great pleasure was only in prospect, which excludes affection as a motive.

My grandfather, on the contrary, and despite his life’s persistent theme of hardship, took a great and present delight in the modest good that was at hand: in his place and his affection for it, in its pastures, animals, and crops, in favorable weather.

He did not participate in the least in what we call “mobility.” He died, after eighty-two years, in the same spot he was born in. He was probably in his sixties when he made the one longish trip of his life. He went with my father southward across Kentucky and into Tennessee. On their return, my father asked him what he thought of their journey. He replied: “Well, sir, I’ve looked with all the eyes I’ve got, and I wouldn’t trade the field behind my barn for every inch I’ve seen.”

In such modest joy in a modest holding is the promise of a stable, democratic society, a promise not to be found in “mobility”: our forlorn modern progress toward something indefinitely, and often unrealizably, better. A principled dissatisfaction with whatever one has promises nothing or worse.

James B. Duke would not necessarily have thought so far of the small growers as even to hold them in contempt. The Duke trust exerted an oppression that was purely economic, involving a mechanical indifference, the indifference of a grinder to what it grinds. It was not, that is to say, a political oppression. It did not intend to victimize its victims. It simply followed its single purpose of the highest possible profit, and ignored the “side effects.” Confronting that purpose, any small farmer is only one, and one lost, among a great multitude of others, whose work can be quickly transformed into a great multitude of dollars.

Corporate industrialism has tended to be, and as its technological and financial power has grown it has tended increasingly to be, indifferent to its sources in what Aldo Leopold called “the land-community”: the land, all its features and “resources,” and all its members, human and nonhuman, including of course the humans who do, for better or worse, the work of land use.3  Industrialists and industrial economists have assumed, with permission from the rest of us, that land and people can be divorced without harm. If farmers come under adversity from high costs and low prices, then they must either increase their demands upon the land and decrease their care for it, or they must sell out and move to town, and this is supposed to involve no ecological or economic or social cost. Or if there are such costs, then they are rated as “the price of progress” or “creative destruction.”

But land abuse cannot brighten the human prospect. There is in fact no distinction between the fate of the land and the fate of the people. When one is abused, the other suffers. The penalties may come quickly to a farmer who destroys perennial cover on a sloping field. They will come sooner or later to a land-destroying civilization such as ours.

And so it has seemed to me less a choice than a necessity to oppose the boomer enterprise with its false standards and its incomplete accounting, and to espouse the cause of stable, restorative, locally adapted economies of mostly family-sized farms, ranches, shops, and trades. Naïve as it may sound now, within the context of our present faith in science, finance, and technology—the faith equally of “conservatives” and “liberals”—this cause nevertheless has an authentic source in the sticker’s hope to abide in and to live from some chosen and cherished small place—which, of course, is the agrarian vision that Thomas Jefferson spoke for, a sometimes honored human theme, minor and even fugitive, but continuous from ancient times until now. Allegiance to it, however, is not a conclusion but the beginning of thought.


The problem that ought to concern us first is the fairly recent dismantling of our old understanding and acceptance of human limits. For a long time we knew that we were not, and could never be, “as gods.” We knew, or retained the capacity to learn, that our intelligence could get us into trouble that it could not get us out of. We were intelligent enough to know that our intelligence, like our world, is limited. We seem to have known and feared the possibility of irreparable damage. But beginning in science and engineering, and continuing, by imitation, into other disciplines, we have progressed to the belief that humans are intelligent enough, or soon will be, to transcend all limits and to forestall or correct all bad results of the misuse of intelligence. Upon this belief rests the further belief that we can have “economic growth” without limit.

Economy in its original—and, I think, its proper—sense refers to household management. By extension, it refers to the husbanding of all the goods by which we live. An authentic economy, if we had one, would define and make, on the terms of thrift and affection, our connections to nature and to one another. Our present industrial system also makes those connections, but by pillage and indifference. Most economists think of this arrangement as “the economy.” Their columns and articles rarely if ever mention the land-communities and land-use economies. They never ask, in their professional oblivion, why we are willing to do permanent ecological and cultural damage “to strengthen the economy?”

In his essay, “Notes on Liberty and Property,” Allen Tate gave us an indispensable anatomy of our problem. His essay begins by equating, not liberty and property, but liberty and control of one’s property. He then makes the crucial distinction between ownership that is merely legal and what he calls “effective ownership.” If a property, say a small farm, has one owner, then the one owner has an effective and assured, if limited, control over it as long as he or she can afford to own it, and is free to sell it or use it, and (I will add) free to use it poorly or well. It is clear also that effective ownership of a small property is personal and therefore can, at least possibly, be intimate, familial, and affectionate. If, on the contrary, a person owns a small property of stock in a large corporation, then that person has surrendered control of the property to larger shareholders. The drastic mistake our people made, as Tate believed and I agree, was to be convinced “that there is one kind of property—just property, whether it be a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky or a stock certificate in the United States Steel Corporation.” By means of this confusion, Tate said, “Small ownership . . . has been worsted by big, dispersed ownership—the giant corporation.”4 (It is necessary to append to this argument the further fact that by now, owing largely to corporate influence, land ownership implies the right to destroy the land-community entirely, as in surface mining, and to impose, as a consequence, the dangers of flooding, water pollution, and disease upon communities downstream.)

Tate’s essay was written for the anthology, Who Owns America? the publication of which was utterly without effect. With other agrarian writings before and since, it took its place on the far margin of the national dialogue, dismissed as anachronistic, retrogressive, nostalgic, or (to use Tate’s own term of defiance) reactionary in the face of the supposedly “inevitable” dominance of corporate industrialism. Who Owns America? was published in the Depression year of 1936. It is at least ironic that talk of “effective property” could have been lightly dismissed at a time when many rural people who had migrated to industrial cities were returning to their home farms to survive.

In 1936, when to the dominant minds a thirty-acre farm in Kentucky was becoming laughable, Tate’s essay would have seemed irrelevant as a matter of course. At that time, despite the Depression, faith in the standards and devices of industrial progress was nearly universal and could not be shaken.


But now, three-quarters of a century later, we are no longer talking about theoretical alternatives to corporate rule. We are talking with practical urgency about an obvious need. Now the two great aims of industrialism—replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy—seem close to fulfillment. At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good. It has failed to sustain the health and stability of human society. Among its characteristic signs are destroyed communities, neighborhoods, families, small businesses, and small farms. It has failed just as conspicuously and more dangerously to conserve the wealth and health of nature. No amount of fiddling with capitalism to regulate and humanize it, no pointless rhetoric on the virtues of capitalism or socialism, no billions or trillions spent on “defense” of the “American dream,” can for long disguise this failure. The evidences of it are everywhere: eroded, wasted, or degraded soils; damaged or destroyed ecosystems; extinction of species; whole landscapes defaced, gouged, flooded, or blown up; pollution of the whole atmosphere and of the water cycle; “dead zones” in the coastal waters; thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters, of mineable minerals and ores; natural health and beauty replaced by a heartless and sickening ugliness. Perhaps its greatest success is an astounding increase in the destructiveness, and therefore the profitability, of war.

In 1936, moreover, only a handful of people were thinking about sustainability. Now, reasonably, many of us are thinking about it. The problem of sustainability is simple enough to state. It requires that the fertility cycle of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay—what Albert Howard called “the Wheel of Life”—should turn continuously in place, so that the law of return is kept and nothing is wasted. For this to happen in the stewardship of humans, there must be a cultural cycle, in harmony with the fertility cycle, also continuously turning in place. The cultural cycle is an unending conversation between old people and young people, assuring the survival of local memory, which has, as long as it remains local, the greatest practical urgency and value. This is what is meant, and is all that is meant, by “sustainability.” The fertility cycle turns by the law of nature. The cultural cycle turns on affection.


That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated. We all, in the course of our daily economic life, consent to it, whether or not we approve of it. This is because of the increasing abstraction and unconsciousness of our connection to our economic sources in the land, the land-communities, and the land-use economies. In my region and within my memory, for example, human life has become less creaturely and more engineered, less familiar and more remote from local places, pleasures, and associations. Our knowledge, in short, has become increasingly statistical.

Statistical knowledge once was rare. It was a property of the minds of great rulers, conquerors, and generals, people who succeeded or failed by the manipulation of large quantities that remained, to them, unimagined because unimaginable: merely accountable quantities of land, treasure, people, soldiers, and workers. This is the sort of knowledge we now call “data” or “facts” or “information.” Or we call it “objective knowledge,” supposedly untainted by personal attachment, but nonetheless available for industrial and commercial exploitation. By means of such knowledge a category assumes dominion over its parts or members. With the coming of industrialism, the great industrialists, like kings and conquerors, become exploiters of statistical knowledge. And finally virtually all of us, in order to participate and survive in their system, have had to agree to their substitution of statistical knowledge for personal knowledge. Virtually all of us now share with the most powerful industrialists their remoteness from actual experience of the actual world. Like them, we participate in an absentee economy, which makes us effectively absent even from our own dwelling places. Though most of us have little wealth and perhaps no power, we consumer–citizens are more like James B. Duke than we are like my grandfather. By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers.


The failure of imagination that divided the Duke monopoly and such farmers as my grandfather seems by now to be taken for granted. James B. Duke controlled remotely the economies of thousands of farm families. A hundred years later, “remote control” is an unquestioned fact, the realization of a technological ideal, and we have remote entertainment and remote war. Statistical knowledge is remote, and it isolates us in our remoteness. It is the stuff itself of unimagined life. We may, as we say, “know” statistical sums, but we cannot imagine them.

It is by imagination that knowledge is “carried to the heart” (to borrow again from Allen Tate).5 The faculties of the mind—reason, memory, feeling, intuition, imagination, and the rest—are not distinct from one another. Though some may be favored over others and some ignored, none functions alone. But the human mind, even in its wholeness, even in instances of greatest genius, is irremediably limited. Its several faculties, when we try to use them separately or specialize them, are even more limited.

The fact is that we humans are not much to be trusted with what I am calling statistical knowledge, and the larger the statistical quantities the less we are to be trusted. We don’t learn much from big numbers. We don’t understand them very well, and we aren’t much affected by them. The reality that is responsibly manageable by human intelligence is much nearer in scale to a small rural community or urban neighborhood than to the “globe.”

When people succeed in profiting on a large scale, they succeed for themselves. When they fail, they fail for many others, sometimes for us all. A large failure is worse than a small one, and this has the sound of an axiom, but how many believe it? Propriety of scale in all human undertakings is paramount, and we ignore it. We are now betting our lives on quantities that far exceed all our powers of comprehension. We believe that we have built a perhaps limitless power of comprehension into computers and other machines, but our minds remain as limited as ever. Our trust that machines can manipulate to humane effect quantities that are unintelligible and unimaginable to humans is incorrigibly strange.

As there is a limit only within which property ownership is effective, so is there a limit only within which the human mind is effective and at least possibly beneficent. We must assume that the limit would vary somewhat, though not greatly, with the abilities of persons. Beyond that limit the mind loses its wholeness, and its faculties begin to be employed separately or fragmented according to the specialties or professions for which it has been trained.


In my reading of the historian John Lukacs, I have been most instructed by his understanding that there is no knowledge but human knowledge, that we are therefore inescapably central to our own consciousness, and that this is “a statement not of arrogance but of humility. It is yet another recognition of the inevitable limitations of mankind.”6 We are thus isolated within our uniquely human boundaries, which we certainly cannot transcend or escape by means of technological devices.

But as I understand this dilemma, we are not completely isolated. Though we cannot by our own powers escape our limits, we are subject to correction from, so to speak, the outside. I can hardly expect everybody to believe, as I do (with due caution), that inspiration can come from the outside. But inspiration is not the only way the human enclosure can be penetrated. Nature too may break in upon us, sometimes to our delight, sometimes to our dismay.

As many hunters, farmers, ecologists, and poets have understood, Nature (and here we capitalize her name) is the impartial mother of all creatures, unpredictable, never entirely revealed, not my mother or your mother, but nonetheless our mother. If we are observant and respectful of her, she gives good instruction. As Albert Howard, Wes Jackson, and others have carefully understood, she can give us the right patterns and standards for agriculture. If we ignore or offend her, she enforces her will with punishment. She is always trying to tell us that we are not so superior or independent or alone or autonomous as we may think. She tells us in the voice of Edmund Spenser that she is of all creatures “the equall mother, / And knittest each to each, as brother unto brother.”7 Nearly three and a half centuries later, we hear her saying about the same thing in the voice of Aldo Leopold: “In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”8

We cannot know the whole truth, which belongs to God alone, but our task nevertheless is to seek to know what is true. And if we offend gravely enough against what we know to be true, as by failing badly enough to deal affectionately and responsibly with our land and our neighbors, truth will retaliate with ugliness, poverty, and disease. The crisis of this line of thought is the realization that we are at once limited and unendingly responsible for what we know and do.


The discrepancy between what modern humans presume to know and what they can imagine—given the background of pride and self-congratulation—is amusing and even funny. It becomes more serious as it raises issues of responsibility. It becomes fearfully serious when we start dealing with statistical measures of industrial destruction.

To hear of a thousand deaths in war is terrible, and we “know” that it is. But as it registers on our hearts, it is not more terrible than one death fully imagined. The economic hardship of one farm family, if they are our neighbors, affects us more painfully than pages of statistics on the decline of the farm population. I can be heartstruck by grief and a kind of compassion at the sight of one gulley (and by shame if I caused it myself), but, conservationist though I am, I am not nearly so upset by an accounting of the tons of plowland sediment borne by the Mississippi River. Wallace Stevens wrote that “Imagination applied to the whole world is vapid in comparison to imagination applied to a detail”9—and that appears to have the force of truth.

It is a horrible fact that we can read in the daily paper, without interrupting our breakfast, numerical reckonings of death and destruction that ought to break our hearts or scare us out of our wits. This brings us to an entirely practical question:  Can we—and, if we can, how can we—make actual in our minds the sometimes urgent things we say we know? This obviously cannot be accomplished by a technological breakthrough, nor can it be accomplished by a big thought. Perhaps it cannot be accomplished at all.


Yet another not very stretchable human limit is in our ability to tolerate or adapt to change. Change of course is a constant of earthly life. You can’t step twice into exactly the same river, nor can you live two successive moments in exactly the same place. And always in human history there have been costly or catastrophic sudden changes. But with relentless fanfare, at the cost of almost indescribable ecological and social disorder, and to the almost incalculable enrichment and empowerment of corporations, industrialists have substituted what they fairly accurately call “revolution” for the slower, kinder processes of adaptation or evolution. We have had in only about two centuries a steady and ever-quickening sequence of industrial revolutions in manufacturing, transportation, war, agriculture, education, entertainment, homemaking and family life, health care, and so-called communications.

Probably everything that can be said in favor of all this has been said, and it is true that these revolutions have brought some increase of convenience and comfort and some easing of pain. It is also true that the industrialization of everything has incurred liabilities and is running deficits that have not been adequately accounted. All of these changes have depended upon industrial technologies, processes, and products, which have depended upon the fossil fuels, the production and consumption of which have been, and are still, unimaginably damaging to land, water, air, plants, animals, and humans. And the cycle of obsolescence and innovation, goaded by crazes of fashion, has given the corporate economy a controlling share of everybody’s income.

The cost of this has been paid also in a social condition which apologists call “mobility,” implying that it has been always “upward” to a “higher standard of living,” but which in fact has been an ever-worsening unsettlement of our people, and the extinction or near-extinction of traditional and necessary communal structures.

For this also there is no technological or large-scale solution. Perhaps, as they believe, the most conscientiously up-to-date people can easily do without local workshops and stores, local journalism, a local newspaper, a local post office, all of which supposedly have been replaced by technologies. But what technology can replace personal privacy or the coherence of a family or a community? What technology can undo the collateral damages of an inhuman rate of technological change?

The losses and damages characteristic of our present economy cannot be stopped, let alone restored, by “liberal” or “conservative” tweakings of corporate industrialism, against which the ancient imperatives of good care, homemaking, and frugality can have no standing. The possibility of authentic correction comes, I think, from two already-evident causes. The first is scarcity and other serious problems arising from industrial abuses of the land-community. The goods of nature so far have been taken for granted and, especially in America, assumed to be limitless, but their diminishment, sooner or later unignorable, will enforce change.

A positive cause, still little noticed by high officials and the media, is the by now well-established effort to build or rebuild local economies, starting with economies of food. This effort to connect cities with their surrounding rural landscapes has the advantage of being both attractive and necessary. It rests exactly upon the recognition of human limits and the necessity of human scale. Its purpose, to the extent possible, is to bring producers and consumers, causes and effects, back within the bounds of neighborhood, which is to say the effective reach of imagination, sympathy, affection, and all else that neighborhood implies. An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security that they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.


In this age so abstracted and bewildered by technological magnifications of power, people who stray beyond the limits of their mental competence typically find no guide except for the supposed authority of market price. “The market” thus assumes the standing of ultimate reality. But market value is an illusion, as is proven by its frequent changes; it is determined solely by the buyer’s ability and willingness to pay.

By now our immense destructiveness has made clear that the actual value of some things exceeds human ability to calculate or measure, and therefore must be considered absolute. For the destruction of these things there is never, under any circumstances, any justification. Their absolute value is recognized by the mortal need of those who do not have them, and by affection. Land, to people who do not have it and who are thus without the means of life, is absolutely valuable. Ecological health, in a land dying of abuse, is not worth “something”; it is worth everything. And abused land relentlessly declines in value to its present and succeeding owners, whatever its market price.

But we need not wait, as we are doing, to be taught the absolute value of land and of land health by hunger and disease. Affection can teach us, and soon enough, if we grant appropriate standing to affection. For this we must look to the stickers, who “love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.”

By now all thoughtful people have begun to feel our eligibility to be instructed by ecological disaster and mortal need. But we endangered ourselves first of all by dismissing affection as an honorable and necessary motive. Our decision in the middle of the last century to reduce the farm population, eliminating the allegedly “inefficient” small farmers, was enabled by the discounting of affection. As a result, we now have barely enough farmers to keep the land in production, with the help of increasingly expensive industrial technology and at an increasing ecological and social cost. Far from the plain citizens and members of the land-community, as Aldo Leopold wished them to be, farmers are now too likely to be merely the land’s exploiters.

I don’t hesitate to say that damage or destruction of the land-community is morally wrong, just as Leopold did not hesitate to say so when he was composing his essay, “The Land Ethic,” in 1947. But I do not believe, as I think Leopold did not, that morality, even religious morality, is an adequate motive for good care of the land-community. The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely. And here Leopold himself set the example. In 1935 he bought an exhausted Wisconsin farm and, with his family, began its restoration. To do this was morally right, of course, but the motive was affection. Leopold was an ecologist. He felt, we may be sure, an informed sorrow for the place in its ruin. He imagined it as it had been, as it was, and as it might be. And a profound, delighted affection radiates from every sentence he wrote about it.

Without this informed, practical, and practiced affection, the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country.


In thinking about the importance of affection, and of its increasing importance in our present world, I have been guided most directly by E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, published in 1910. By then, Forster was aware of the implications of “rural decay,”10 and in this novel he spoke, with some reason, of his fear that “the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. . . . and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again.”11 Henry Wilcox, the novel’s “plain man of business,” speaks the customary rationalization, which has echoed through American bureaus and colleges of agriculture, almost without objection, for at least sixty years:  “the days for small farms are over.”12

In Howards End, Forster saw the coming predominance of the machine and of mechanical thought, the consequent deracination and restlessness of populations, and the consequent ugliness. He saw an industrial ugliness, “a red rust,”13 already creeping out from the cities into the countryside. He seems to have understood by then also that this ugliness was the result of the withdrawal of affection from places. To have beautiful buildings, for example, people obviously must want them to be beautiful and know how to make them beautiful, but evidently they also must love the places where the buildings are to be built. For a long time, in city and countryside, architecture has disregarded the nature and influence of places. Buildings have become as interchangeable from one place to another as automobiles. The outskirts of cities are virtually identical and as depressingly ugly as the corn-and-bean deserts of industrial agriculture.

What Forster could not have foreseen in 1910 was the extent of the ugliness to come. We still have not understood how far at fault has been the prevalent assumption that cities could be improved by pillage of the countryside. But urban life and rural life have now proved to be interdependent. As the countryside has become more toxic, more eroded, more ecologically degraded and more deserted, the cities have grown uglier, less sustainable, and less livable.


The argument of Howards End has its beginning in a manifesto against materialism:

It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?14

“The light within,” I think, means affection, affection as motive and guide. Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. The factual knowledge, in which we seem more and more to be placing our trust, leads only to hope of the discovery, endlessly deferrable, of an ultimate fact or smallest particle that at last will explain everything.

The climactic scene of Forster’s novel is the confrontation between its heroine, Margaret Schlegel, and her husband, the self-described “plain man of business,” Henry Wilcox. The issue is Henry’s determination to deal, as he thinks, “realistically” with a situation that calls for imagination, for affection, and then forgiveness. Margaret feels at the start of their confrontation that she is “fighting for women against men.”15 But she is not a feminist in the popular or political sense. What she opposes with all her might is Henry’s hardness of mind and heart that is “realistic” only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls. She opposes his refusal to see the practicality of the life of the soul.

Margaret’s premise, as she puts it to Henry, is the balance point of the book:  “It all turns on affection now . . . Affection. Don’t you see?”16

In a speech delivered in 2006, “Revitalizing Rural Communities,” Frederick Kirschenmann quoted his friend Constance Falk, an economist: “There is a new vision emerging demonstrating how we can solve problems and at the same time create a better world, and it all depends on collaboration, love, respect, beauty, and fairness.”17

Those two women, almost a century apart, speak for human wholeness against fragmentation, disorder, and heartbreak. The English philosopher and geometer, Keith Critchlow, brings his own light to the same point: “The human mind takes apart with its analytic habits of reasoning but the human heart puts things together because it loves them . . .” 18


The great reassurance of Forster’s novel is the wholeheartedness of his language. It is to begin with a language not disturbed by mystery, by things unseen. But Forster’s interest throughout is in soul-sustaining habitations: houses, households, earthly places where lives can be made and loved. In defense of such dwellings he uses, without irony or apology, the vocabulary that I have depended on in this talk:  truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy. Those words are hard to keep still within definitions; they make the dictionary hum like a beehive. But in such words, in their resonance within their histories and in their associations with one another, we find our indispensable humanity, without which we are lost and in danger.

No doubt there always will be some people willing to do anything at all that is economically or technologically possible, who look upon the world and its creatures without affection and therefore as exploitable without limit. Against that limitlessness, in which we foresee assuredly our ruin, we have only our ancient effort to define ourselves as human and humane. But this ages-long, imperfect, unendable attempt, with its magnificent record, we have virtually disowned by assigning it to the ever more subordinate set of school subjects we call “arts and humanities” or, for short, “culture.” Culture, so isolated, is seen either as a dead-end academic profession or as a mainly useless acquisition to be displayed and appreciated “for its own sake.” This definition of culture as “high culture” actually debases it, as it debases also the presumably low culture that is excluded: the arts, for example, of land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking.

I don’t like to deal in categorical approvals, and certainly not of the arts. Even so, I do not concede that the “fine arts,” in general, are useless or unnecessary or even impractical. I can testify that some works of art, by the usual classification fine, have instructed, sustained, and comforted me for many years in my opposition to industrial pillage.

But I would insist that the economic arts are just as honorably and authentically refinable as the fine arts. And so I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities. I mean, not economics, but economy, the making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth’s many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us.


My grandparents were fortunate. They survived their debts and kept their farm—finally, and almost too late, with help from my father, who had begun his law practice in the county seat. But in the century and more since that hard year of 1907, millions of others have not been so fortunate. Owing largely to economic constraints, they have lost their hold on the land, and the land has lost its hold on them. They have entered into the trial of displacement and scattering that we try to dignify as “mobility.”

Even so, land and people have suffered together, as invariably they must. Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit. Of the land-community much has been consumed, much has been wasted, almost nothing has flourished.

But this has not been inevitable. We do not have to live as if we are alone.

Textual Notes

  1. Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1991, page 355.
  2. Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Random House, New York, 1992, pages xxii & 4.
  3. A Sand County Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1966, pages 219–220.
  4. Who Owns America? edited by Herbert Agar and Allen Tate, ISI Books, Wilmington, DE, 1999,  pages 109–114. (First published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1936.)
  5. “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” Collected Poems, 1919–1976, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1989, page 22.
  6. Last Rites, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009, pages 31 and 35.
  7. The Faerie Queene, VII, vii, stanza XIV.
  8. A Sand County Almanac, pages 219–220.
  9. Opus Posthumous, edited, with an Introduction by Samuel French Morse, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957, page 176.
  10. Howards End, page 15.
  11. Ibid., page 112.
  12. Ibid., page 214.
  13. Ibid., page 355.
  14. Ibid., page 30.
  15. Ibid., page 303.
  16. Ibid., page 304.
  17. In Cultivating an Ecological Conscience, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2011, pages 329–330.
  18. The Hidden Geometry of Flowers, Floris Books, Edinburgh, 2011, page 39.

African American Family Businesses Owners Wanted for New Documentary TV Series

Al Roker Entertainment

Major production company seeks African American family businesses for new documentary TV series:

Whether you own a bridal salon or flip houses, whether you fabricate custom cars or run an animal shelter, we want to hear from you. We're after larger than life personalities who are passionate about their business and good at what they do. Ideal candidates have multiple family members working for the business (but non-family can also be on the payroll). The more unique you are, the better!

Important Considerations: This should be an actively run business, and not a hobby or something an enterprise that's just starting up. We are NOT actively interested in family-run restaurants or food businesses (unless they're super-duper unique and special).  

To apply:

Email us a brief description of who you are, what you do, and why you think you'd make a great TV show. Include any relevant photos and/or links. One of our producers will contact you.


Series would air on major US network.

How Government Can Unleash Small Business to Grow the Economy

US News


By David Brodwin


Skip Schwarzman and Lynn Buono, co-owners of Feast Your Eyes Catering in Philadelphia, nearly came to grief when expanding their business in their hip, newly-renovated building. The expansion consolidated several real estate parcels, each with a different address. But the computers in the city's revenue department couldn't handle the change. The business was double-billed for taxes for more than two years, and then cited for delinquency. 

"It nearly put the kibosh on our plan," says Skip. "With a citation outstanding, it's all-but-impossible to borrow money." Ultimately it took intense communications among Skip, his lawyer, city tax officials, and the city IT department to correct the problem.

Many small business owners across the United States share similar woes. They're poised to open their doors or poised to expand. They're ready to hire more people, create good jobs with benefits, and inject cash into their community. But they're stymied by permitting, inspections, fees, tax errors, and other challenges.

Well-crafted regulations are essential for protecting the consumers, employees, and the public at large. But some regulations are outdated or poorly written or arbitrarily enforced. Some government processes don't work as intended. We need to fix these problems so small business can lead the way to a vibrant new economy.

The economy can't grow unless small business grows. Small businesses created more than 65 percent of the net new jobs in the private sector, according to data from the U.S. Small Business Administration. But even this figure understates the true importance of small business to the economy. Many large high-growth businesses grow by acquiring smaller business. (For example, Google has acquired over 100 companies to sustain its growth; Cisco bought more than 140.) Moreover, as large corporations downsize and outsource, many former employees become independent contractors and sole proprietors rather than seek new corporate jobs.

New Rules to Support a New Economy

Small businesses owners are working closely with government officials to remove obstacles and improve the business climate. Often these efforts are led by a new breed of business organization dedicated to supporting sustainable, local economies. These groups, such as Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia share ideas and best practices through the Business Alliance of Local Living Economies, which has its annual conference next week in Grand Rapids, Mich.

These networks of small and sustainable businesses have found that business regulations, zoning, and codes have not kept up with innovation. The regulations need updating. For example, existing restaurant codes were not designed for gourmet food trucks. Existing construction codes hamper rooftop solar energy and greywater recycling. Existing rules that restrict businesses in residential areas don't recognize the growth of small-scale home-based business. Existing agricultural rules don't support the "Farm to Table" movement that brings fresh, locally grown produce to homes and restaurants. Rules like these need to be updated to provide necessary safeguards without impeding innovation.

Streamlining and Simplifying Regulations and Government Processes

Many small businesses must paddle upstream, against the current and around rocks, snags, and other obstacles. The obstacles consist of outmoded rules, poorly designed regulations, obsolete computer systems, and government agencies that don't coordinate with one another. Fortunately, however, the problems can often be fixed in ways that don't require much money and which preserve vital safeguards that protect the public.

We need to improve transparency, communications, and responsiveness between government and business. Many government departments require small business owners to stand in line at City Hall for permits, etc.  However, the task at hand could easily be completed over the Internet. Business owners are expected to offer live testimony in regulatory hearings when they could easily submit comments online. City procurement processes are often cumbersome and skewed toward insiders with political connections. Business owners are whipsawed by contradictory orders from departments that need to rationalize their policies and processes. For example, the health department inspector tells the business owner to put the sink in one location; the building department wants the sink moved somewhere else. Who can adjudicate?

Some cities have launched innovative technology solutions to address issues like these. For example, New York has an interactive web-based platform on which proposed rules and regulations are posted and comments can be made. Phoenix has an E-mail system that broadcasts contracting opportunities under $50,000 to locally owned businesses.  Other cities need to follow suit.

Focus on Real, Proven Needs of Small Business

Efforts to create a better climate for small and sustainable business can easily get caught up in partisan politics, particularly where tax codes and regulations are involved. To minimize that hazard, it's important to be objective in mapping the improvements that could unleash the potential of small business. The voices of small, local businesses, government agencies, lenders, and the service providers are essential to the conversation about what small businesses need to flourish. For example, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia recently studied the needs of small businesses and recommended nine solutions through its report, Taking Care of Business: Improving Philadelphia's Small Business Climate.

In conclusion, small business has historically led most of the job growth in the United States. A vibrant small business sector will propel us toward stronger employment and a vigorous economy. But first, we must complete some important clean-up work.

Come hear author David Brodwin and Leanne Krueger-Braneky of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia next week at the 2012 BALLE Business Conference.  Register Now!

Network Spotlight: Dane Buy Local Releases Local Impact Survey

The Cap Times

Biz Beat: Despite recession, Dane Buy Local members created 467 jobs last year


No, Tara Ingalls isn’t solving the employment crisis on her own.

But the owner of a Madison-based graphic design firm is proud of doubling her staff over the past year to eight employees.

“We’re generating a lot of business from all the new startups in town,” says Ingalls, owner of Tingalls Dzyn.

Ingalls thinks the recession caused a lot of companies to lay off their own in-house design people. Now that the economy is recovering, she says those companies are looking for help.

“We don’t just do website design,” she says. “We do websites that get found.”

Ingalls is one of the 625 member businesses of Dane Buy Local, a group working to raise awareness about the impact of spending money with a locally owned company.

The effort appears to be paying off. Dane Buy Local members report creating 467 jobs in 2011, an increase of 11 percent. Members also report paying out over $85 million in salaries last year and another $9.2 million in state and local taxes.

The results came from a 2011 economic impact survey, described at the monthly meeting of the Fitchburg Chamber of Commerce Tuesday.

The survey counted 4,277 employees working at Dane Buy Local businesses. Those member companies also donated 178,330 volunteer hours and $2.4 million to nonprofits.

“Eight years ago, a group of devoted people got together and decided they wanted to make an impact,” says Dane Buy Local board member Kay-Tee Franke. “I think the results speak for themselves.”

Dane Buy Local is now counted as one of the five largest organizations of its kind in the country, says Rick Lenz, CEO of Motus Financial in Madison.

Lenz was an executive for Metavante Corp. when the banking data services company was sold in 2009 to Fidelity National Information Services. Faced with a choice of relocating out of state for his job or staying here, Lenz decided to remain in Fitchburg, where his children are heavily involved in youth soccer.

Now, Lenz is running his own two-person financial services firm -- and touting the buy local movement.

He noted that Wisconsin lost 6,100 private-sector jobs over the past year. “Well, it’s been a little different in the buy local community,” he says. “To have 11 percent job growth in this economy is just outstanding.”

The challenge remains in convincing consumers of the long-term value of buying locally. A recent study from a buy local group in Grand Rapids, Mich., found that for every $100 spent at a local store, $73 stays in the community. That compares to just $43 out of every $100 spent at a non-locally owned business.

“Buying local helps create jobs, it’s good for the economy and it builds stronger communities,” says Lenz, adding it was a local company, Ancora Coffee, which supplied hot beverages for a chilly youth soccer tournament last weekend in Fitchburg.

The Fitchburg Chamber of Commerce is doing its part this month to support local businesses. It is hosting a Business Blitz through May 10 where shoppers can enjoy special deals.

For more information, read a short summary of Dane Buy Local's survey here.

A New Kind of Corner Store: Healthy Local Food for All


What if Jay-Z ran a healthy corner store?


By Alison Cross

Convenience store. Bodega. Corner store. Call it what you will, the one thing you cannot call most corner stores is healthy.

The reputation urban corner stores have is pretty consistent: crowded shelves, stuffy aisles, coolers filled with liquor and syrupy sweet sodas, lottery tickets spilling out from atop a dingy counter. You know there’s something wrong when the quality of the bulletproof glass at the register far surpasses the quality of the food in front of it.  At its core, the corner store has been begging to be reinvented for decades.

When my brother and I began crafting our store, The Boxcar Grocer, as a way to give more people in the Atlanta community access to good food, we had no idea it would evolve into a mission to change an entire industry standard.

Our store concept challenges the notion that healthy food cannot be made available in a corner store setting. And it’s an idea that resonated beyond Atlanta — not only because as Black people, we look like the neighborhood demographic, but also because we’re committed to improving the community around us through partnerships with local producers to bring high quality food into the area.

But when we opened the doors to the Grocer last fall, a funny thing happened. More and more middle class people who looked like our aunts and uncles and cousins began streaming through the doors with smiles on their faces. They biked over from their dorms at Morehouse. They walked over from the barbershop next door. They took lunch breaks from places like Spelman College and City Hall. Some had pickup trucks with lawn equipment in the back, and some had advanced degrees and comfortable jobs, but they all told us how great it felt to know that a store was reaching out to them as though they deserved to eat healthy food. And they loved the fact that much of the produce we sell is grown within the city of Atlanta. They asked questions about us and our farmers. They bought up all the Bryant Terry books we scattered around the store, and they returned week after week after week to ensure our business success, simply because we had cared enough to come to their neighborhood.

Our desire to change the corner store experience came from understanding the correlation between health and food access on an intellectual level. But our customers taught us to redefine what it means to be truly “accessible.” And sometimes access means helping people open their minds to new possibility.

The food justice movement tends to define the term narrowly, as in one’s proximity to a store. My brother and I decided we also wanted to dismantle the idea that organic food is only for people who cook like Martha Stewart and look like Jennifer Aniston, for people who live in other neighborhoods.

We want the actual lifestyle associated with eating organic food and preserving one’s health to be an accessible idea in the minds of all people. Right now it’s not. There are entire communities of people — Black and Latino people who look like my friends and I — wherein food-related illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, strokes, and cancer are both expected and acceptable.

The Boxcar Grocer brand is a call, overall, to change these beliefs.

My brother and I grew up listening to hip-hop and watching MTV, so we’re aware of the power of the “lifestyle brand” to shape people’s behavior. “What if we used branding to treat organic sensibilities like an object in a Jay-Z rap?” we wondered. Would that help bridge the cultural gap that keeps people buying and eating unhealthy food? Because culture is a much bigger factor than income.

After all, how many people making minimum wage still rap along to Jay-Z as he sings: “(Ball so hard), got a broken clock, Rolleys that don’t tick tock, Audemars that’s losing time, hidden behind all these big rocks?”

Jay-Z created a lifestyle brand that people want to emulate, regardless of their income level. By seeing his brand as an extension of his life, he has influenced multiple generations with his music, Rocawear clothing line, chain of 40/40 Clubs, and deft ability to cross cultural boundaries while making it all look like one big party.

Ask yourself: When was the last time a health food store made a healthy lifestyle look like it was fun and accessible to an urban audience?

Once a month we trick out The Boxcar Grocer with a DJ who spins an eclectic mix of hip-hop and pop music for food tasting events. We’ve also built booths along the inside wall of our store to welcome local vendors to sell directly to the public any time of the week. The vintage train depot aesthetic that informs every design decision about the store interior resonates with its modernist minimalism. And our uniforms are a retro blend of shopkeeper and train porter with vintage leather aprons. People gravitate to our space as much as they gravitate to us because of the novelty of it all. It shows we’re doing something right.

The day people of all backgrounds flock to our store for kale and kohlrabi the way people line up to see Jay-Z perform in concert is the day we’ll call Boxcar Grocer a success.

Until then, we will continue to make the necessary connections to grow our store into a recognizable brand associated with health consciousness and urban farming. We’ll also keep improving on the corner store experience, and we’ll work from the belief that everybody deserves access to healthy food.

Alison Cross has been running The Boxcar Grocer, an alternative corner store in Atlanta, Ga., with her brother Alphonzo since 2011.

BALLE Conference in the Grand Rapids Business Journal

Grand Rapids Business Journal

BALLE conference features some key headliners


By David Czurak

When the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies brings its 10th annual conference to Grand Rapids next week, those who attend will find dozens of seminars to choose from over the meeting’s five-day timeframe.

All of the seminars will focus on sustainable business practices in one way or another. Most will involve a panel of experts from all parts of the country who will share their experiences, but a few will feature a single speaker, and David Levine is one of those.

Levine is the co-founder and executive director of the American Sustainable Business Council, a network of 50 business organizations that represents more than 100,000 companies and more than 200,000 business leaders on public policy issues from its home base in Washington, D.C.

Levine will speak Thursday, May 17, at 3:45 p.m. in the Ryerson Auditorium in the downtown Grand Rapids Public Library. His topic is how to build policy and political power for a sustainable economy. His talk is described by BALLE as a crash course in how to communicate better with elected officials and government agencies in order to effectively advocate on behalf of sustainable agendas.

Much of Levine’s knowledge comes from personal experiences, but some comes from keeping in touch with others in the field. ASBC surveys small-business owners to find out where they stand on certain economic issues as credit, business regulations and taxes. Not surprisingly, more than a few of their responses have contradicted what politicians have been telling the media.

ASBC, which conducted its latest survey with the Main Street Alliance and the Small Business Majority, completed its most recent one in February. The survey reached 500 small-business owners; here are some of the findings:

**Credit: 90 percent of the owners said the availability of small-business loans is a problem, and 60 percent said they faced difficulty in getting a loan that would have grown their business. Another 90 percent said regulations should be softened to make it easier for community banks and credit unions to make loans. By a 2-to-1 ratio, they favored raising the lending cap for credit unions from 12.25 percent to 27.5 percent.

About three-quarters felt their businesses had been damaged by the sub-prime mortgage fiasco that collapsed the housing market, as it greatly reduced consumer spending.

**Regulations: Only 14 percent said government regulations were their biggest problem, while 34 percent said it was weak consumer demand. More than eight of 10 small-business owners supported tighter regulations on credit cards, while nearly half strongly favored much tougher rules.

Another 86 percent agreed that some form of business regulation was necessary to have a modern economy, and 93 percent said they could live with some regulation if it was fair, reasonable and manageable. Clean energy policies were favored by 79 percent.

**Taxes: 90 percent of small-business owners said large domestic and multi-international corporations use loopholes to avoid taxes that their businesses have to pay. They also reported this situation was a problem for them; 55 percent said it was a major problem.

Two-thirds said big corporations don’t pay a fair share of taxes and 73 percent felt the same for multi-international corporations. Nearly six in 10 felt households with more than $1 million in annual income don’t pay their fair share of taxes and should pay a higher tax rate. Only one of the 500 small-business owners surveyed reported having an annual income of more than $1 million.

Four out of the five owners disapproved of the “carried-interest” loophole that gives hedge fund managers and others in the financial market a personal tax rate of 15 percent; 51 percent said Congress should let the tax cuts for those who annually earn $250,000 and more expire at the end of this year.

In addition to Levine, another conference headliner is Art Weinzweig. The co-founder of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses in Ann Arbor will talk about why a sustainable economy calls for new types of leadership. He will speak May 17 at 1:30 p.m. in the Grand Rapids Community College Student Center, Room 234.

Weinzweig is well known for his unique approach to doing business through what he calls Zing Training. Zingerman’s Community of Businesses consists of seven entities that range from a bake house to a creamery to a coffee company.

The BALLE Conference, which is being hosted by Local First of Grand Rapids, begins Wednesday, May 16, at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel with an 8 a.m. breakfast and runs through Saturday, May 19. A closing reception will be held Friday, May 18, at Rosa Parks Circle starting at 5:45 p.m. A day-long trip to Detroit is on Saturday’s agenda.

BALLE Executive Director Michelle Long told the Business Journal why her organization chose Grand Rapids for its biggest annual event.

“The city was picked because of the innovation that is happening in Grand Rapids to grow the economy from the inside out. The real Local First mentality there and the fact that Grand Rapids has been named one of America’s greenest cities (by Fast Co. magazine) are reasons we want to come and learn from that place,” said Long.

Complete information, which includes the meeting’s 11-page agenda, can be found at www.livingeconomies.org

Register now!

Leveraging Their Localness: A New Piggly Wiggly Commercial All About Local

Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co.


The Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, a chain of employee-owned grocery stores in South Carolina (and a member of BALLE Network Lowcountry Local First), has developed an advertising campaign where they proudly proclaim their localness as a selling point.  Many companies across North America are also building campaigns based on local ownership, local sourcing, and being good stewards to their local community and environment.


At Piggly Wiggly Carolina Company, we know what it means to be 'local.' Our founder, Joe Newton, had a vision when he started this grocery store chain in 1947 -- to buy local, sell local, hire local and invest in the community. Today, we're 100% employee owned and Joe's vision holds true. The Pig has more than 100 stores and over 4,000 employee owners throughout South Carolina and southeastern Georgia. We support local businesses and farms. We invest in the communities of which we are a part. Piggly Wiggly is, and will always be, local since forever."


Grand Rapids Business Owners Lead with their Values


In era of Wall Street greed, West Michigan businesses tout success with religious ethics


Jeff PadnosIf you ask Jeff Padnos the basis of his business practice, he’ll boil it down pretty quickly: Treat others the way you would like to be treated.

It’s a sound philosophy, judging from the success of Louis Padnos Iron & Metal, the Holland-based recycling business of which Padnos is president. The company employs about 400 workers and has gotten national coverage as a family-owned firm since 1905.

It’s also solid theology, a teaching that sweeps across time and many faiths. Padnos, a Jew, quotes the Jewish sage Hillel: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” But he also nods to the Christian version espoused by Jesus: “Do to others what you would have them do to you.”

“I could easily wear a WWJD bracelet and act accordingly,” Padnos told an interfaith gathering at Grand Valley State University recently. “If everyone did that, the world would be a better place.”

For him, following the ethics of his faith is good business, Padnos told close to 50 guests at an April 10 roundtable on religion and business. In laying out his company’s commitment to treating both its employees and the environment well, Padnos put forth a vision more companies should follow.

“Doing business right can be like applied religion,” said Padnos, grandson of company founder Louis Padnos, a Russian immigrant. “Business is a noble way to apply religion.”

Really? Success in business can go hand-in-hand with ethical religious principles? In an age of Wall Street avarice and a Grand Canyon-size gulf between the richest Americans and everyone else, it’s tempting to write off the whole “ethical business” idea as hopelessly naive.

But Padnos and two other area businessmen offered convincing testimonies that serving as an example of one’s faith should come first when it comes to business. In fact, Padnos’ Christian and Muslim co-panelists hit common ethical notes with remarkable consistency, adding refreshing voices to Grand Rapids’ Year of Interfaith Understanding.

Fred Keller, founder and owner of Cascade Engineering, said he keeps in his pocket a quote from John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church to which Keller belongs: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

Keller said he aims to do so at Cascade, which has been recognized for its anti-racism
programs, welfare-to-career training and commitment to sustainability. His company’s goal, he said, “is for every person to know they are valued.”

He’s also learned to be faithful through hardship in his private life, having lost his first wife to breast cancer when she was 42. Her death deepened his sense of God’s presence and the need to live with urgency and purpose, he said.

“Is religion all about how we save ourselves, or is it all about how we make this a better world?” he challenged the group.

His firm has teamed up with Padnos to do its part, installing 15,000 square feet of solar panels atop Padnos’ Wyoming scrap metal facility. Their cooperation stems from their fathers’ business dealings with each other many years ago.

Dr. Mohammad Saleh added the perspective of a Muslim physician who tries to reflect God’s love in how he treats each patient. Chairman of the Islamic Mosque and Religious Institute, Saleh said he tries to live as if God is watching his every move.

“When I deal with people, I say, ‘My God is watching me every moment,’ “ Saleh said.

With so much agreement among the panelists, one audience member asked why so much attention is paid to religion’s divisiveness. Keller ventured that the loudest voices from the fringes usually prevail, adding his faith needs more “radical moderates.” Saleh agreed.

“The silent majority needs to speak up and start a dialogue with other religions,” he said of his fellow Muslims.

In their modest way, these three did just that. And in its radically moderate way, so is West Michigan.

Both PADNOS and Fred Keller will be featured at the 2012 BALLE Business Conference in Grand Rapids. Register now!