ECOpreneuring: A Review and a Contest

First, a review:

When I was at the Mother Earth News Fair at the beginning of the month, I met John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist and chatted with them about their book, ECOpreneuring – Putting Purpose and the Planet before Profit. I read it a few months earlier and was interested in talking with them about it. For an average-sized book, it packs a lot of information. It talks about how, through small, sustainable, entrepreneurial businesses, (such as farming) you can make a living by solving the problems facing society. That’s ambitious, I know, but the steps and ideas described here are practical and pragmatic. You can have both purpose and profit.

It’s one of the first “how-to” manuals I’ve seen that addresses not only the steps to start, manage and grow a sustainable business, but also addresses the financial side of it, complete with real numbers. By tapping into the LOHAS (Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability) marketplace, estimated to be $227 billion in the United States alone, an enterprising entrepreneur can make a living and help create a better life for the customer at the same time. The new wave of small farmers, those growing healthy, wholesome food for all of us, fit well into this business model.

There are several other topics in the book I found intriguing:

  • Understanding and using the Global Commons: We have unprecedented access to information through the internet and new tools that can help us manage our business and market our products for very little cost.
  • Tapping burgeoning local economies: By focusing on growing the local business infrastructure and blurring the lines between career and personal life, we can strengthen our communities and build strong local customer bases.
  • Proclaiming your passion: Creating a business that incorporates what you most love will give you more than a living – it will give you a much better life.

These ideas, among many others in the book, present a different way of approaching the business of business. The authors know this from personal experience. They own Inn Serendipity Bed & Breakfast and Farm in Wisconsin and discuss their successes and challenges in creating this business, including the basics of funding, taxation, and legal logistics. If you want to be both inspired and informed about starting and maintaining a small, sustainable business, this is the book for you.

That’s the review; here’s the contest: I have a spare copy of this book that is just crying out for a new home. To throw your hat into the ring, and possibly claim this book for your very own, leave a comment on this blog posting describing a sustainable business you’d like to create or a new way to make an operation currently in business much more sustainable. I’ll choose the best one (completely subjectively, of course) and get the book, ECOpreneuring, into your hands. Let the games begin!

The Wisdom of the Small Farmers Journal

I can’t express enough how valuable the Small Farmers Journal is for anyone who wants to live more self-sufficiently and sustainably. It contains so much wisdom and more information than I can read in an afternoon. Pulling it out of my mailbox is like finding a brand new book that I know will change my life in very profound ways. If you value good food, right living, and a connection to the natural world, subscribe.

Here is Andrew Plotsky’s take on his experience with the Journal.

Tech Focus on Farming

Nine years ago, the first Focus on Farming in Snohomish County was held in a cold building on the county fairgrounds. I believe there were 10 people in attendance. This year, on November 15th, it was held in the Comcast Arena Conference Center and there were over 600 attendees. In less than a decade, small farming has become an important force in this county, and both politicians and businesses have taken notice.

For the first time since World War II, small farms are growing in number. The growth in farmers markets and organic grocers reflects this trend. More businesses are serving the needs of farmers, including those in the high-tech sector. I’ve previously talked about companies such as Farmigo, whose program manages CSA business models end-to-end, but there is now so much more out there.

AgSquared demonstrated their new farm management software, showing some really innovative tools. They incorporate Google Maps in order to measure the square footage of your cultivatable land and to give you a ton of information about it. They add crop management and forecasting tools, in addition to comprehensive reporting options. All this is priced very reasonably, at $60 per year, with the first year at only $36. Their future components will include livestock management and a CSA planner.

There are now so many ways for small farmers to reach their customers online. In addition to Facebook and Twitter, there are a number of low-cost, easily configurable web site options, including Intuit, Go Daddy, Word Press, and many others. Many incorporate blog options and ways to connect to social media.

There are online financial management software packages, from Mint (which is free) to Quickbooks Online (which requires a monthly charge). None of these options require that you install software on your system, so they can be used by a number of devices, including computers, tablets, and smart phones.

How do you decide what to use? You consult your two planning tools: your business plan and your marketing plan. The information you glean from going through the process of developing these plans will really guide you to the proper tools you can use to grow your business and connect with your customers. You’ll want to put your efforts towards the tools that your customers access most.

In my next few postings, I’m going to talk about cutting costs for access to broadband and wireless systems. There are now new ways to access the internet in most places and you don’t have to go through the big, expensive companies. (Unfortunately, a full third of the country still doesn’t have access to wired broadband. That’s slowly changing…very slowly.)

Doc Hammill’s Draft Horse Workshop…

…or how to drastically challenge the limits of my comfort zone.

Cathy Greatorex and Dr. Doug Hammill drive a Forecart with a Cultivator

Two weeks ago, I attended Doc’s workshop to learn more about driving and working with my horses at home. It was an eye-opening experience and, after so much time spent in the technical world, a great way to reconnect with a more natural system of thinking. In so many ways, I had to rearrange my methods for solving a problem. I had to think much more like a horse.

Horses predominently think about two things: protecting themselves and getting along with their group (that is, when they aren’t thinking about food). By keying into that mindset, we can start to eliminate the confusion of communicating with another species. (At least, that’s how the theory works in my head.) Theory and practice are, in the real world, quite different. Doc’s workshop takes you from theory to practice, in a very safe learning environment. (I didn’t get a single bruise or scrape the whole time I was there, unlike working here on the farm.)

Three Fjords!

After adequate preparation, I was handed the reins on the very first day. I drove Ann, the Suffolk Punch, down the road, up the hill, and back. Then I remembered to breathe. (I should do that once in awhile…) As I got used to handling the reins over the next week, the actual breathing part got easier.

Doc and Cathy teach four workshops a year at their ranch in Eureka, Montana. Each workshop has no more than five students. This means that we had a big enough group to learn from each other, yet each of our personal questions were addressed. In the six days I spent there, we learned how to:

  • Following the side rake.
    Side Rake in the hay field.

    bring the horses in from the pasture,

  • groom the horses and care for hooves,
  • put on the harness, including fitting and adjusting it
  • hitch to carts and wagons
  • ground drive
  • skid logs (little ones, mind you)
  • rake hay
  • use a walking plow with a single horse
  • cultivate with a team

That’s a great deal of information for one week. My head is still swimming, I tell you.

Since I’ve been back, I’ve been able to change a few things to make working with the horses a bit easier. They are now coming in from the fields a bit more readily and I’m understanding their actions and motivations better. My blind quarter horse will take more work, but I now have, I believe, better ways to deal with his confusion. Because he can’t see, he’s very sensitive to both sound and touch which makes training him a delicate operation. I’m working on having him stand quietly and we’re very slowly making some progress.

Doc and Ann

I’ve gained new confidence to work with my horses (and not screw them up). I can drive a team now. (I know! It’s shocking!) I just need to learn to breathe while doing so.

Other students from Doc’s workshops have gone onto full-time farming with horses and even driving competitions. If you’ve ever considered animal-powered work, this is definitely a great way to start learning. You can find out more information at his site, http://www.dochammil.com/. Many times, during the winter, he will travel throughout the West teaching classes. Catch one near you!

The Value-added Middle Ground

My next stop on this 2,167-mile journey is Portland, where I had dinner with a clothing-designer friend of mine, Nancy. She specializes in organic fabrics and just had a show at the Bonaroo Music Festival.  Here are a few of her designs.

In creating these beautiful items, she found it quite difficult sourcing organic, sustainably produced cloth. At the same time, I’m talking with farmers raising heirloom animals that are trimmed every year for their fleece. These include sheep, alpacas, and goat fleeces. Yet they can’t sell them because so few mills are turning the fleece into cloth. We have supply and we have demand, but we are missing the small manufacturers crucial to filling in the puzzle.

This type of problem is endemic throughout the growing sustainable-farming community. This is why we are working on a project to create the Port Susan Food & Farming Center which will provide a way for farmers to create value-added products from the produce they grow. In other words, they can grow berries for a few weeks in early summer, process them into jam, and be able to sell that throughout the year. With the proper facilities, produce can be frozen, canned, pickled, cooked or preserved into all the fun things we like to have on-hand for year-round cooking.

So, my question to you is this: do you know of small mills where we can do the same thing for fleece? It would be great to bring producers and designers together, and what we need is the manufacturer who can do this.

The Project, with Details

A few posts ago, I mentioned a thought I was having about exploring the world of rural broadband in the West. That idea has now officially grown legs and is rattling about the house, searching for loose change. It’s time to get crackin’.

The main intention of this project (and it really needs a decent name) is to see how rural broadband is changing the nature of farming, ranching, and small town businesses. Some things to consider are:

  • How is the lack of broadband access holding some communities back?
  • Is there a substantial economic component to having broadband access?
  • Does the nature of farming techniques change with greater connectivity?
  • Is online learning, telecommuting, or social media helping rural economies? 
  • Are small farmers and rural businesses more empowered to influence the political process because of high-speed internet? 
  • Are you able to do more because you are connected? If you aren’t connected, how does that affect you?

In other words, does rural connectivity change the rural experience?

I plan, during the month of June, to travel through the following states: Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Oregon. While there, I’d like to interview any small farmers, dairy folk, ranchers, rural high-tech companies, local broadband providers, or rural businesses (especially those who cater to any of the above) to find out how they are using, or can’t use, broadband internet access. I want to do two things from those interviews: create a book and start a podcast series.

If you’d like to be interviewed or if you have any suggestions about a good person to interview, please contact me. My email is geek1@geekinthecountry.com. I can also be reached at @ruraltechgeek on Twitter or just leave a comment, with your email address, on this blog post. Suggestions for a good project name are always appreciated.

I look forward to postulating many pithy questions…

Country Living Expo

Short of researching all the different aspects of rural life, where can you go to learn all the things you need to know to be self-sufficient? Yesterday, I had a delightful time at the Country Living Expo & Cattlemen’s Winterschool, where they offered all manner of classes and chances to hang out with the community. I took 5 of the 160 classes offered and I learned a lot, everything from acceptable business plan debt-to-income ratios to how to get your dog interested in catching frisbees. 

Oh, Max just turned around and said, “Catch what? I think not.” Ah, thwarted before I’ve even started.

The Sister got some great advice on growing giant pumpkins and how to rid the garden of tomato blight. She found a gentleman who knew more about maintaining pastures than God and they talked about small tractor attachments. Then I found her stuck with all the horse people, loathe to leave. I chatted with members of Slow Food Port Susan, talked with a horse trainer, bought a book about Open Gate Farm, petted an alpaca, admired the latest Massey-Ferguson equipment, (all our tractors are M-Fs), found an exciting new magazine (Grow Northwest), and noshed on Prime Rib followed by cookies baked by FFA members.

In stark contrast to all the political haranguing I hear on the radio or read in the papers, this event combined groups that traditionally sit on both sides of the aisle. Everyone learned so much and had a great time celebrating the country life, whether vegan or carnivore, conventional or organic farmer. We all play well together.

Every year, this expo grows by a couple hundred people. The interest in self-sufficiency and small farming is becoming much more prevalent. Whether it’s from the economic times or an interest in healthier foods, it’s exciting to see.