April 2, 2009 - Personal Community Investment

A nice young man called today and asked if he had reached the Madsen Ranch, and would I agree to participate in a university survey on barriers to small farm success. There was a bummer kid bleating in the laundry room and I needed to get on the road to a local Chamber of Commerce meeting, but I agreed to his promised 15 minute survey. My sister-in-law works for a company that contracts for surveys on natural resource issues, and I know what it means to get a willing participant on the line.

I was also curious about the questions. How survey questions are phrased and the range of responses allowed will color the results, and I wanted to see what bias I could detect. The surveyor was open to fill in the blank answers, diffusing the most glaring biases, other than to “do something.” Humans seem hard-wired to want to “do something.”

Several questions focused on marketing and distribution. We sell quite a few goats directly to local individuals who value fresh goat meat and do their own butchering. My biggest marketing problem is that I don’t speak Hmong or Burmese. As for distribution, our biggest barrier to retail markets is lack of access to USDA slaughter facilities for small carcass animals. It’s pretty ridiculous that local goat and lamb can’t compete economically with New Zealand imports.
There were a few questions about insurance, and I confirmed it was difficult to find coverage. Only one insurance company would write the kind of commercial coverage we needed for our unique custom farming operation. Insurance competiton in Washington is squelched by a system that emphasizes regulation over competition.

The last series of questions centered around transportation and delivery barriers, focusing on what kinds of equipment we used and distances traveled. Then it took an interesting turn, with a question about borrowing equipment. Yes, we do occasionally borrow equipment from neighbors or trade labor, the usual neighborly favors people do in the country. No, we don’t have any formal agreements, it’s all on a handshake. Then he asked how much time per week we spent “managing” these kinds of cooperative arrangements. The question seemed to be fishing for justification for a formal co-op, with managers and grants and a bunch of paperwork.

The neighborly system works just fine, thank you very much, and the worst thing we could do would be to institutionalize it. We operate on trust, shared values, and the natural interdependence that exists in rural communities. It works because that’s how you live in the country, but I figured he needed a more university style explanation. I asked if he’d ever heard of the concept of an emotional bank account, a metaphor developed by Stephen Covey, author of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” We don’t spend time “managing” a co-op, but we do invest time in our community, as do our neighbors. We look out for each other and lend equipment because we all have a personal investment at stake in the health and survival of our community.

I asked for a copy of the final survey results, anticipated later this summer. I hope it doesn’t become a justification to scratch that urge to “do something,” for yet another stimulus program to convert volunteering into a paid profession. That truly gets my goat, but that’s a subject for another blog!