Be Relevant

Relearning everything we've forgotten.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Simplicity is the root

"I do not think that any civilization can be called complete until it has progressed from sophistication to unsophistication, and made a conscious return to simplicity of thinking and living."

Lin Yutang, "The Importance of Living"

I seem to be on a theme here with the idea of simplicity.  The past week and a half I have been catching up on some much neglected reading and odd chores around the house.  No matter how many times I publicly state that I am going to blog more I inevitably don't.  However, my time has been put to good use and I've had some time to ponder new thoughts.

 I'm about done with "The Good Life" by Helen and Scott Nearing and it has me thinking.  Helen and Scott moved to Vermont in 1932 - a few years into the Great Depression.  Their goal was to create a "subsistence homestead economy" at which they were very successful.  They were unsatisfied with the state of affairs of the country and how big business had plunged the country into economic chaos.

"The Great Depression had brought millions of bread-winners face to face with the perils which lurked for those who, in a commodity economy based on wage-paid labor, purchase their livelihood in the open market.  The wage and salary workers did not own their own jobs, nor did they have any part in deciding economic policy nor in selecting those who carried policy into effect.  The many unemployed in 1932 did not lose their jobs through any fault of their own, yet they found themselves workless, in an economy based on cash payment for the necessaries and decencies.  Though their incomes had ceased, their outgo for food, shelter and clothing ate up their accumulated savings and threw them into debt ("The Good Life, Helen and Scott Nearing, p30.)"

Sound scarily familiar?  Now they were greatly principled people who had the will and conviction to stand behind their principles.  They believed in not making a profit and of a more social-centric viewpoint.  That doesn't mean that what they learned doesn't apply to all of us - seekers of profit or not.

Now its no secret that I want to start a farm.  That doesn't mean that I don't still enjoy things such as travel that require an outlay of money.  I also place a high value on financial security.  That too takes money in this world.  All in all I want to make a comfortable living farming.  So how do I start?  How do any of us start any business or begin becoming financially secure?

I think the answer is in starting first with a "subsistence homestead economy."  Whether you want to start a farm, a catering business, retail business, or just want to be left alone I think that this has to be the starting point.  Ideally this would be defined as land you owned outright with a home paid for that provided you with all your fuel, food, and income while minimizing your outlay of cash for necessities.  But as with everything in life one definition doesn't fit us all.  Not everyone has land, a paid for home, etc.

I propose a paradox - The more removed you are from the economy, the more you can interact with it on your own terms.

The closer you can get to a true "subsistence homestead economy" the closer you get to financial security and the more control you have in the economy.  The Nearings could have made a substantial profit over the two decades they lived in Vermont had they wanted to.  They had a Maple Syrup business going, they could have sustainably lumbered, they had the rights to the only gravel quarry in the county, and they had considerable skill at stone home building.  Any of those could have proved a lucrative income had they so chosen.  The key to those opportunities for them was the fact that they were virtually independent of the economy.  No bills and no debt save the tax man.

"Roughly 50% of small business fail within the first five years (US Small Business Administration website, retrieved October 2010).  Don't kid yourself - a small family farm is a small business just like any other.  Why do small businesses fail?

"In his book, "Small Business Management", Michael Ames gives the following reasons for small business failure: 
  • Lack of experience
  • Insufficient capital (money)
  • Poor location
  • Poor inventory management
  • Over-investment in fixed assets
  • Poor credit arrangements
  • Personal use of business funds
  • Unexpected growth "
(US Small Business Administration website, retrieved October 2010).

Starting first with a "subsistence homestead economy" helps someone solve each and every one of those reasons for failure.  Think of the management experience you'll get when you learn how to drive down costs and maximize your resources.  How can anyone run a successful business if their personal finances are a mess?  The quickest way to increase your income is to decrease your expenses.  If you sell a product for $1 a unit and you want to increase your income by $10 a month you need to sell 10 more units each month = 120 units more a year.  Or you could cut one of your bills by $10 a month (put a brick in the top of the commode and watch how much you start to save a month in water).  Which is fastest and easiest?

The point is the more we can do for ourselves - grow our own food, pay attention to our energy needs and the resources we consume, find alternative ways of getting the necessities of life - and the more we remove ourselves from the economy - get out of debt, save more, stop senseless consumerism - the more in control we become and the more successful we will be.

Joel Salatin says he's always being asked by a prospective farmer, "How do I start?" His answer is "What are you doing right now?"

I say, whether you're a prospective farmer or prospective CEO, start at home.