Sunday, November 22, 2009

Child as Father to the Man

For three days this week, Terry O'Keefe (of Asheville NC) and I were visiting Acorn, an income-sharing community in central Virginia which operates Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a mail order business specializing in heirloom and organic vegetable seeds. We were conducting a preliminary examination of SESE operations with an eye toward seeing if we could offer them substantial help in improving both their bottom line and their member satisfaction. It was the initial field trial for GREEN EGGS—Guild for Relational Economics: Experts in Neighborly & Entrepreneurial Growth that is Green & Sustainable [see my blogs of July 26 & Oct 17, 2009 for more on this budding consortium].

Acorn is a community of about 23 members. It was started in 1993 as a spin-off of Twin Oaks, when that well-established income-sharing community was full to overflowing in the midst of the nation-wide surge of interest in community living in the early '90s (which was the last surge before the one that erupted in 2005 and continues today). Rather than build another residence, Twin Oaks decided to build another community—and Acorn was the offspring of that inspiration. Located just seven miles away, Acorn is an easy bike ride away from the mother ship.

Twin Oaks fronted the money to buy the land and create the initial infrastructure for the fledgling community. For its early years, Acorn's economic base was doing contract work for Twin Oaks' robust hammocks business (for decades, Twin Oaks had the main contract for supplying Pier One, which was the largest hammock retailer anywhere). Thus did the parent offer economic sustenance to its child.

Acorn has not had an easy history. Most of its 16 years have been characterized by high member turnover and a lack of clarity about what it wanted to be in the world. Throughout the uncertainties however, it was sustained by Twin Oaks' benevolent attitude toward the long-term debt and its steady offer of income work in Twin Oak's businesses.

Ten years ago, Acorn made a b
ig decision: they bought Southern Exposure Seed Exchange and committed to building it into becoming their main business. SESE was launched in 1982 as a sole proprietorship. Over the course of 17 years, the owner had painstakingly nurtured the business from a seedling (that had co-opted the homestead kitchen table for seed sorting), into a flowering business featuring heirloom seeds with about $100,000 in annual sales. Happily, when the owner wanted out, Acorn wanted in. Thus did the community begin to emerge from under Twin Oaks' economic skirts.

When an intentional community operates a business (which most income-sharing groups do, but which most non-income-sharing groups do not), one of the trickiest challenges is finding a profitable enterprise that is a solid enough value match. Understandably, groups are chary about being associated with products or services that don't align well with the values they're espousing, and
recruiting members to rally around.

In buying SESE, Acorn had a winner. Here was a business providing the seeds and knowledge to help people grow their own food—a basic need if there ever was one. It was dedicated to protecting heirloom seed (varieties that had been established prior to 1940 and the genetic manipulation spurred by World War II and the Green Revolution) and genetic diversity. SESE sells only non-treated seed, almost no hybrids (only four in the 2009 catalog), and as much organic seed as it can find or grow. When it contracts with other growers to supply seed for them, they're offering meaningful income work at home for gardeners all across the country, helping to make it possible for them to remain where they love being yet struggle to find work. What's not to like? On value scale of 1-100, SESE probably scores about 99.

Over the past decade, as it turns out, Twin Oaks and Acorn have been moving in opposite directions
economically. Twin Oaks lost the Pier One account (as that giant of the leisure furniture industry abandoned the tried and true in favor of fresher products) and the community is still groping for a business mix that will replace lost revenues. Meanwhile, Acorn posted steady progress in building up SESE and was perfectly poised to benefit from the 70% jump in the demand for garden seeds that ensued from last year's economic nosedive. For the first time, in 2009 SESE's gross sales will top half a million dollars.

When Acorn scrambled to find enough people to grow seeds for them, they contracted with Twin Oaks, which is now growing as many of SESE seeds as Acorn is. In the face of last year's rocket ride in sales, Acorn turned to Twin Oaks to help them package seeds, and even has some of the senior community's veteran gardeners conducting germination tests and fielding customer queries about horticulture.

While Acorn is still paying down its mortgage to Twin Oaks and the older community is still asset rich, when it comes to income work today, it's Acorn offering steady work to Twin Oaks, not the other way around. The child is hiring the parent, and it's working well for both. It's a feel-good story about cooperation a grand scale. Now if we can only get Democrats to see Republicans that way, and vice versa…

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