RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Grow Local Businesses

When the check-out guy at the dollar store looked at the sky anxiously and complained that he needed to get home to plant his peppers, I became convinced we’re going to be OK. He’s proof that everyone’s more sustainable and self-sufficient this year. Even the Wall Street Journal looks like Martha Stewart is on the staff, with articles every weekend on how to fix your failing plants, corral the bugs, cook your bounty of produce. Maybe they realize that saving money makes financial sense.

But that’s not the whole idea — money. It’s more about connecting with our communities.

For farmers selling local, the markets are expanding exponentially. Restaurants are demanding fresher vegetables and pasture-raised meats. Local grains are even having a day in the sun, so move over, quinoa. Consumers jam farmers’ markets and sign up for seasonal subscriptions to produce, or CSAs. Yes, people know they may pay more, but they want the adventure of eating well. And, if you cook with in-season products, after paying for prepared foods from the factories, local products may make your food bill go down.

Now that we have the food system fixed, we see that supporting the local community takes all sorts of forms. There’s the good-old services swap. I’ll watch your kids if your husband helps my husband paint the barn.

Last year, my neighbor and I got into tag-team canning. I’d stop by her house to pick up what she had and take it home to wash, peel and cook. Then I’d have to run off somewhere and she’d take over and put the tomatoes in the jars and process them. Or we’d do it the other way — she’d start and I’d finish. It seemed to work out real well, both of us ending up with plenty.

Maybe you can share some equipment, keep the money out of the corporate pocket and help your neighbor. Like, let’s say your lawnmower is broken. You could buy a fancy-shmancy lawnmower from the big box store at a cost of several thousand dollars. Or you can find a kid, a reliable one, to cut the grass while you sit on the porch with your glass of home-grown mint tea.

Now, let’s take the next step in breaking from the industrial pattern, and one, I’m sorry to say, won’t be covered by the Journal. I’m talking about your retirement portfolio, dear boomer, and how to make it more local.

No secret that it’s hard for small businesses to get money now to survive. Just talk to the store owners on Main Street. There’s a little shoe store that I used to love, just sold a couple of brands, in business 20 years, that lost their line of credit last winter. The line of credit, $20,000, had been extended to him by the factory for inventory and he paid it off like clockwork. Twenty years.

But the factory had decided to raise their minimum lines of credit so while the owner had survived on $20,000 a quarter, under the new scheme he needed to commit for twice as much or borrow the money elsewhere to cover his inventory.

His bank, red ink from a couple of other deals on the books, and paying the high price of rescuing other banks through the FDIC, couldn’t lend him the money.

It’s a story written on all the Main Streets in the nation. Sure, somebody in the shoe store owner’s Rolodex could have helped, but it’s not in our modern culture to ask. Anyway, all our money is tied up in a 401K or a SEP or a Roth IRA or some other account that takes money out of the community and puts it into the great international banking system.

So it’s time to change the culture and, besides shopping locally, begin to invest locally.

How do you find local deals? Just keep your ears open, and talk to the business people you depend on. Most independents run into lean times now and then and they need good friends to help them through.

Sound scary? Compare the wisdom of investing with someone you know and trust with the wisdom of investing with, say Bernie Madoff or some CEO you’ve never heard of. In the same Wall Street Journal editions that discuss loam and compost, there are articles one after another on how it’s impossible to fund your retirement.

Unless you know your neighbors.

“A good community insures itself with trust,” said Wendell Berry one time, meaning that if you know the folks around you, you can expect that they won’t steal gas from yout truck in the driveway when you sleep at night. You can, in other words, trust them to do the right thing, or at least to try to do the right thing.

Maybe you know a kid that needs a college loan, planning to major in something that will benefit your community. Could you work a deal with him or her to help finance tuition, then pay you back with interest in your golden years?

There’s an extra bottom line in the payoff — something about connection with the future — but you won’t find anything about that in the Wall Street Journal.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, May 1, 2010

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