Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Working on Work

I’m in North Carolina right now, having just finished up a weekend of process consulting with Eno Commons in Durham. (I’ll be working next weekend with Pacifica in Carrboro.) The topic we examined at Eno was Participation: how much are residents expected to contribute to the cmty’s non-monetary maintenance and development. This is an excellent topic—by which I mean a lot of communities struggle with it. I’ve been the outside facilitator for this conversation at least half a dozen times in my career.

Participation is a good-sized chunk of a larger conversation about what it means to be a member, and there are a number of known swamps you can get bogged down in:
—Should you quantify what’s expected or not (and if you do, will you record it)?
—What counts (is serving on a cmtee valued equally with cleaning toilets; how about making desserts for birthday parties?)
—How do changes in work assignments get made?
—How do you handle disgruntlement about who does what, how much they do, and how well they do it?

Rather than address any of the specific knotty questions I’ve just enumerated, today I want to lay out my thinking about how cooperative groups can best manage Participation as an important, yet predictably messy and pervasive aspect of cmy life, I think it deserves its own standing cmtee. (For some reason, almost all groups have a Finance or Budget Cmtee, yet few start with a Work Cmtee. I think they should.)

Fresh from my work at Eno, here’s my generic thinking about a mandate for what I’ll style here the Contribution Cmtee (Note: none of what’s written below presumes particular answers to the swamp questions listed above):

This cmtee's primary purpose is to facilitate productive and good-feeling responses to addressing the cmty's non-monetary needs. It is expressly trying to help all residents be more accurately understood and better connected around cmty contributions. The cmtee will not have authority to impose solutions or sanctions—it is advisory and coordinating only—yet it will be expected to:

o Meet periodically with all residents to find out their skills, availability, and desire for making non-monetary contributions to the cmty.
o Periodically canvass all cmtees and managers/coordinators to get a current sense of labor/skills needs.
o Match-make to the extent possible.
o Keep the cmty regularly informed of what people have agreed to do.
o Submit an annual assessment of how well the cmty is doing in meeting its non-monetary needs. Among other things, this report will include an assessment of the balance of member contributions, tensions among members relating to participation, and how well members are cooperating with the cmtee.
o Regularly celebrate and make known accomplishments by members.
o Try to fill all holes, with priority attention given to tasks that are "needed." (Note: if the group has not already done so, it will need to explicitly determine what jobs it considers needed or most important.)
o Be the shepherd for all questions and concerns about non-monetary contributions to the maintenance and development of the cmty. (That means they'll be the ones making sure the unresolved questions come forward in an orderly sequence for plenary consideration.)
o Be available to help people surface and constructively work through tensions and concerns relating to non-monetary contributions. (Note: this cmtee is not obligated to be the ones facilitating the conversations at which attempts will be made to name and resolve tensions; rather, they are responsible for seeing that it happens. If there's another cmtee that specifically serves to help members work through such tensions [Hint: that's another good idea for a standing cmtee], the Contribution Cmtee can hand matters over to them.)
o Periodically set up a forum for the cmty to have a "Martyrs & Slackers" conversation to clear the air. (The concept here is that it's basically inevitable that groups will experience over time a gradual build up of tensions and misunderstandings around perceived imbalances of what people are contributing to the cmty. Every so often—perhaps every couple years—it's a good idea to set aside time explicitly to tackle this head on. See the spring 2008 issue of Communities magazine for a full article devoted to this dynamic and how to address it.)
o Manage a budget for training or hiring outside help to accomplish the prior two tasks.
o Manage—if the cmty desires it—a budget for hiring outside help to do needed tasks that members are not getting to (in some groups, members have more money than time, and this is an atrractive option—but it depends on the group).

For their part, all cmty members agree to:
o Cooperate with the cmtee in answering questions about their skills, availability and desire for doing cmty tasks.
o Make themselves available for a good-faith attempt to resolve any tensions they have (or others have with them) about non-monetary contributions to the cmty. Note: all parties should be given reasonable options around when such conversations will happen, who will be in the room, and how the mtgs will be set up. The priority here is to find a way to proceed that all concerned parties feel is the most friendly and constructive they can agree to.

• • •
Warning #1: Setting this cmtee up will not eliminate problems with Participation, yet it will create a solid basis for a conversation when tensions arise, and it can help enormously to have a group of members empowered to go around asking well-intended questions about what people are doing now and would like to do in the future.

Warning #2: Be careful about how members are selected to serve on this cmtee—it's typically trickier than just asking for volunteers and taking the first five people who put their hands in the air. It can be important to the cmtee's viability that the cmty feel there's a representative balance of pro-structure folks with those who favor a more informal, let-people-come-forward-as-they-are-moved-to approach to getting the work done.

Also, I recommend taking a moment to reflect on whether the proposed cmtee composition is such that you believe every group member will feel there's at least one person on the cmtee whom they can approach and trust to hear them accurately. To the extent that you have disgruntled and estranged folks in your group, this can be a challenge. If you don't handle this well,
the disenfranchised will tend to view the Contribution Cmtee as the "Work Police," and it won't be pretty.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Grandpa Laird

Last Saturday, my first grandchild was born—Taivyn Mae. Apparently everything went normally with this blessed event, which was anything but normal for me. Though it occurred two time zones away (in Las Vegas, where the happy parents reside), through the miracle of modern technology I had a couple jpegs of the wee one in my In Box just hours after the birth, snapped (if that’s the right word any more) on my son’s Blackberry. Sure enough, Taivyn looks just like a baby.

In the days (and years) to follow I fully expect a steady stream of photographic updates, as Taivyn begins her long and steady climb through all the hoops of developmental accomplishment, faithfully witnessed and recorded by parents with a low threshold of delight and a near-limitless supply of memory chips.

I’m very happy for my son, Ceilee, and it was a joy to connect with him just hours after the birth, while he was still blissed out—a euphoria entertainingly augmented by extreme sleep deprivation. I had hoped to visit my granddaughter in situ next month, right in front of the FIC’s Art of Community Southwest weekend (starting May 30 in Albuquerque), but it turns out that Tosca will be showing Taivyn off to her relatives in the St Louis area while I’m in the Southwest. (The little rascal will only be 30 days old and already she’s got a travel schedule that I have to adapt to—what happened to seniority?)

Plan B is to rendezvous with Tosca & Taivyn in Missouri in about a month (right before I head west), so that I can look on the child live and hold the next generation of the Sandhill gene pool in my very hands. It looks like I’ll have to wait until July to see Taivyn in Ceilee’s arms. I can hardly wait. (It brings moisture to my eyes recalling that first nap I took with my son on my belly just an hour after he was born in 1981, and I’m eager to see the love in my son’s eyes while holding his daughter.)

Happily, my wife Ma’ikwe was with me when we got the joyous news. By dint of marriage she’s now a grandmother at the tender age of 38. Although she insists she’s sprouted her first gray hairs in recent months (befitting her new appellation), I’ll be darned if I can find them and she still regularly gets carded buying wine. It’ll be fun to observe the double takes when we start introducing her as “Grandma’ikwe.”

It’ll be no problem remembering Taivyn’s birthday: it’s just one day before my wedding anniversary... the last few days have been good ones for celebrating.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Yearning for Sanity: the Community Raid in Texas

April 3 the Texas Rangers raided a fundamentalist Mormon community in west Texas, removing 437 children based on concerns that the children were being neglected or abused. One of the main charges was that underage girls were being forced to marry older men.

[In the last year the FIC has launched a media blog that highlights mention of intentional communities in the media. This raid stirred up a flurry of stories and we’re struggling with issues of sensationalism, negative publicity, and not censoring the news. How do we report this?]

While there is no way for me to determine at this remove what actually was happening at the Yearning for Zion compound (I have no personal knowledge of the group and media reports vary), I have a lot of thoughts about the reports and the societal response.

Did a Wrong Occur?
Our society is predicated on a fundamental right of individuals to make their own lifestyles choices. At the same time, society reserves the right to limit those choices whenever it judges that the individual is doing harm or wrongfully restricting the choices of others. The challenge is discerning with wisdom when that line has been crossed and the appropriate response.

In Texas, the Rangers clearly felt the line had been crossed. If indeed underage girls were being forced into marriages with older men, then I concur. There are laws against this and I agree that the potential for harm (in the dynamic of a 13-year-old marrying a 45-year-old for instance—regardless of whether forced or with consent—the power imbalance is dangerously skewed) outweighs whatever argument might be mustered in favor of pursuing a religious rite. While I don’t believe this practice is inherently wrong, I believe it is inherently dangerous and worthy of banning on that basis.

Was the Response Appropriate?
My understanding is that all the children were removed from the compound in the raid, with no attempt to determine which were being harmed or abused. I imagine that the rationale was that all were deemed at risk once it was determined that the cmty lifestyle was dangerous. However, what is the potential damage to children who are forcibly removed from their parents and cmty “for their own good”? When do reports of one kind of forced action justify force of another kind—this time by the "protectors"?

It seems to me that wholesale removal of all the children is guaranteed to be traumatizing all around, and that
state action could have proceeded much more selectively and with far less disruption to the lives of most of the children.

Was Due Process Observed?
Probably not. It now appears likely that the original report to authorities—which served as the basis for the raid—was a fabrication. The Rangers apparently did not exercise prudence in assessing the veracity of the report. It is not hard to imagine that officials were pleased to have an excuse to step in, and perhaps not too anxious to look very closely at the quality of the evidence.

Regardless of what is eventually found to have happened in the cmty—and I am not condoning illegal or dangerous practices in any way—this haste to act on the part of overzealous Rangers is appalling. This time it didn’t lead to an escalation of violence and tragedy. Back in 1993, with the Branch Davidians at Waco, it did.

Is Yearning for Zion a Cult?
Whenever subgroups live in isolation from others, they tend to be poorly understood and the main society tends to think the worst. (Lack of information always undermines trust.) It can be a Catch-22 in that groups with unconventional beliefs or practices often move to isolate themselves in response to bad interactions after attempting closer association with the main society. Tragically, the isolation they subsequently embrace inadvertently furthers the misunderstandings and diminishes overall tolerance. It’s a downhill slide.

In essence, “cult” is a pejorative label that people apply to others whose practices are unacceptable or abhorrent to the labeler. There is an implication of brainwashing and people being held against their will, yet that rarely happens. People often engage in casuistry of this kind: I don’t understand how a person could reasonably choose to do X; therefore, if a person does X, they are either malevolent, being forced to it, or have been brainwashed. This is bad thinking, and makes no allowance for substantial and incredible variety among worldviews and individual lifestyle choices.

• • •
Do I think the Texas cmty was engaging in practices it shouldn’t have? Probably. Do I think their practices should have been investigated? Perhaps, though I’m not clear there was probable cause. Do I think they are evil (read cult)? No. This rush to judgment and trying others in the court of public opinion is the very thing this country was founded in opposition to. Will FIC report on the media stories? Yes. In the end, we have to let people sort this out for themselves and it is not for us to decide what views are worthy of their attention.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

40 Days in the Wilderness

Yesterday I picked up my wife, Ma'ikwe, at the La Plata train station. Outbound from Albuquerque, she'll be in northeast Missouri for two weeks, to participate in the first Dancing Rabbit visitor period of the 08 season. In addition to her enthusiasm for the upcoming visit to her prospective cmty, her arrival was noteworthy because it marked the first time we'd seen each other since March 10—a (nearly interminable) stretch of 40 days and 40 nights.

While some subscribe to the theory that distance makes the heart grow fonder, mostly Ma'ikwe and I experience separations beyond two weeks with crankiness (for a fortnight we can more or less happily occupy ourselves with the myriad other portions of the full lives we already had before we got together). We hope to avoid doing 40 days in the Wilderness of Spousal Separation again. No fun.

Agonizingly, we only have about 55 hours together before she needs to head over to DR and I race around to wrap up loose ends at home before a 15-day road trip to North Carolina. Then it's another month apart before Ma'ikwe and I rendezvous next (in Albuquerque, just ahead of the FIC's Art of Community Southwest weekend that Ma'ikwe is coordinating May 30-June 1). These precious hours are an oasis in a desert of deprivation. Luckily, after we reconvene in late May, time apart will be more the exception than the rule—that I'm very much looking forward to.

When Ma'ikwe finally settles in as my neighbor (perhaps in July), we'll need to work out our routines of involvement in our home cmties interwoven with our lives as a couple. While it's not yet obvious how that will play out so that no one will feel short-changed, we're eager for that challenge to replace the one we're in now—trying to maintain regular contact while living in different time zones. Compared with what we've weathered so far, having Ma'ikwe just three miles away looks might good.

It happens that today is also the one-year anniversary of our wedding. Despite all the crazy logistics, it's wonderful to be together on this propitious day, and to celebrate that we're still very happy to have made the commitment we did last year. In the end, there's no substitute for having a partner you're totally into and who's totally into you. I'm a lucky guy.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Wearing of the Green

Every spring there are a few days (maybe a week) where the grass is far enough along in its vegetative resurgence that it is lushly green, while the deciduous trees, in their lumbering way, lag behind. Here in northeast Missouri we are in that brief window now. The yards look like they're two days away from their first mowing and the trees are still wearing their winter countenance.

To be sure, if you take a close peek, you can see the tree buds are swelling and the leaves are just about to explode out of their cocoons. (Yes, the buckeyes are already leafed out, but those precocious Sooners are exotics in these parts and our woods today are, in the main, still being brought to us by the color Brown.)

It's an odd juxtaposition that I marvel at every year: as if the artist in charge of background scenery was undecided between a somber leafless setting, or something up-tempo and verdant. It's hard to believe that the grass and the trees are participating in the same weather.

This also signals the beginning of the end of our long views, especially over the river valley to our west. The late-to-the-party legions of leaves will soon clothe the bare branches and mask the horizon until the fall denuding. Today we can see the weather we'll getting 30-60 minutes from now just by looking out the window. After the trees leaf out, we'll only be able to see 5-10 minutes ahead, unless we walk down the lane where the drop-off is sharp enough that we can peer over the copse of oaks that define our western boundary.

• • •
March 1 I was in Texas, driving through the night from Albuquerque to Houston. Arriving late morning, I got my first 08 glimpse of this green-grass/brown-trees phenomenon. It's taken six weeks for this road show to creep north—about 100 miles a week. Driving north-south this time of the year is like being inside a Walt Disney nature movie displaying the progression of the seasons through time-lapsed photography. If I were headed to Minneapolis I could see the grass retreat backward into dormancy; a road trip to Memphis would showcase leaves on steroids.

A few years back I had work in North Carolina in late April, two weeks home in early May, and then a trip to New Hampshire following that. I got to see lilacs blooming in all three places. Not bad. (Kind of like experiencing spring with TiVo.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Tax Man Cometh

It's that day: 1040s are due. It's the one sure day in the year that everyone in the cmty will thank me.

As the "Designated Tax Matters Partner" at Sandhill, I mailed out seven envelopes today—a full three hours ahead of the mail pick-up. This evening, I got a request from a friend in Toronto asking if I could handle her US return. (How did she find out I had an opening so fast?)

It's not so much that I like doing taxes. It's more a matter of minding it least. It's like a jigsaw puzzle trying to get all the pieces to fit together, and I like puzzles. I also like knowing what's happening to the cmty financially and there's no better way than by delving into the bowels of our ledger books and teasing out the trends. This afternoon—with the tax returns safely consigned to the US Postal Service—I put together a dollar-per-hour analysis of our tempeh business. This evening I logged quarterly contributions for the Federation of Egalitarian Communities' self-insurance fund. (Once you get on a roll with this accounting thing, it's hard to stop.)

Doing taxes for the cmty is a great example of one of the prime benefits of group living: there's an excellent chance you'll be able to legitimately avoid the tasks you find most odious—because you'll be able to do something in exchange that isn't that big a deal to you but gives others the cold sweats just thinking about it. With luck, no one will have to do the things they dread the most. Whether it's cleaning the gutters or cleaning the toilets; changing oil filters or changing diapers; processing hot peppers or processing hot emotions, in cmty there's a terrific chance that you'll wind up doing less of whatever you find most vile than you would if you were living alone. And that makes everyone's life better (both because you don't have to do unpleasant things, and because you don't have to listen to others whine about their doing unpleasant things).

Handling taxes reminds me of all this, and over the years April 15 has become an opportunity to both be thanked for my doing cmty returns, and to be thankful in return for my doing cmty.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Community Blooms in the Desert

One of the most fun things I do is participate in cmty events—gatherings where people come together to share information and swap stories about cooperative living. I've got five such gigs lined up this year (I did one in Houston last month, with four still ahead). The next one is coming up in Albuquerque on the campus of the University of New Mexico, May 30-June 1: the Art of Community Southwest, sponsored by my home team, the Fellowship for Intentional Community.

My wife, Ma'ikwe Ludwig, is the main conference organizer, and—in the subtle way she has—she nudged me last night to post this blog, so folks can take advantage of the seven days remaining for early registration discounts:
—Early Bird ticket (sliding scale): $95-200 until April 20th
—Tickets can be purchased online at: www.brownpapertickets.com/event/26402
—To register with a check, contact Syd at 206-679-5342

We are offering a weekend immersion in the evolution of cooperative, sustainable culture. Major themes include Residential Intentional Community, Guerrilla Community Building, Urban Regeneration, Permaculture, and Ecovillages. We will explore "community" from many angles:
o As part of peace and social justice work
o As a cooperative lifestyle choice
o As a spiritual path
o As a laboratory for social change
o As an antidote to global climate change.

The main speakers will be:
o Climate change author Albert Bates of The Farm's Ecovillage Training Center
o Urban homesteader and permaculturist Mary Lou Singleton of the Midwives Alliance of North America
o Earth Day organizer Mark Dubois of the Pachamama Alliance
o Community advocate and group consultant Laird Schaub of the FIC
o Author Margo Adair of Tools for Change
o Youth advocate Myra Murphy-Jacob of the Sustainable Global Leadership Alliance

Here's a sampling of workshop topics:
• Consensus
• Starting a Residential Intentional Community
• New Economics
• Pathways to Sustainability
• Aging in Community Successfully
• Spiritual Activism
• Biodeisel Basics
• Ecovillages
• Media, Community, and the Fate of the Earth
• Integrative Land Planning for Community

In addition to speakers, workshops, and networking opportunities galore, there will be a Saturday night banquet, followed by a raucous benefit auction. Whether you currently live in community or not, we hope you'll join us for practical information about living a more sustainable life now; for inspiration about creating more cmty in your life today; and for having a good time even as we're busy with the serious work of changing the world!

For more information, contact (my industrious wife) Ma'ikwe at 505-514-8180 or maikwe@solspace.net

I hope to see you there.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Good News for Ducks

It's raining. I mean a lot. St Louis just recorded their wettest March ever, breaking a high water mark set in the 19th century. The forecast for northeast Missouri on this drizzly Thursday is for 1.5-3.0 inches. Since it's falling on totally saturated ground and the streams are already running full, we're talking about water over roads. It's a perfect day for staying indoors (and composing a blog entry, for example). [If it keeps raining at this rate, I'll start writing about cubits and boat designs.]

Some years at Sandhill we've already placed most of our frost-tolerant crops in the garden
by this date—peas, onions, spinach, potatoes, radishes, and a wide variety of greens. This year only the poor, soggy peas have been sown. Most other crops are waiting patiently in flats, huddled in our new greenhouse, enjoying extra days of warmer, controlled-moisture conditions.

Some springs we fret over whether well have enough rain for the morels to fruit. Not this year. As we're only just now entering the traditionally wettest time of the year, the worry is when we'll be able to get into the fields to plant our sorghum.

On the good side, a cooler, wetter spring delays the fruit blossoms and that offers protection against damage from a late frost (last year we lost 90% of our fruit crop to this phenomenon, and we're really hoping not to repeat that experience). One of the truisms of homestead farming & gardening is that the weather is always good for something (though, of course, the obverse is also true).

Our average annual rainfall is 35 inches. If it came a half inch every five days, we'd never need a sprinkler, and there'd never be any flooding. Because Nature isn't that accommodating, we garden to conserve moisture (mostly by heavy mulching) and work the land in such a way that minimizes soil wash in heavy rains (mostly by only tilling ground with minimal slope and shaping fields on the contour; also, the mulch helps here as well, though this is only practicable in the garden). While we own 135 acres, we only actively farm about 15 acres—because only those meet our stringent requirements for what we feel we can farm sustainably.

Years ago, I recall walking down to a bridge on our property right after a heavy spring rain, to observe our intermittent stream (called the Sandhill Branch). While the branch tends to dry up in late summer, it reliably has water in the spring & early summer and small fish will work their way upstream to explore. The branch was full that day, and the flow was turbulent and heavily silted (hundreds of acres drain into the stream at that point, almost all of them not on our property). In contrast with the main flow, I was struck by the clearness of the water joining the spate from our adjacent field—which was tilled though not yet planted, meaning it was susceptible to maximal erosion.

Because we border our tilled acres with wide grass strips, and are religious about leaving sloped ground in grass or trees, we suffer modestly from erosion. This was in sharp juxtaposition with what must have be happening upstream on neighboring property, where soil was obviously being carried away—I was watching it merrily course downstream, essentially on its way to biggering the state of Louisiana.

The most lasting memory of that time on the bridge was observing one small fish, struggling desperately to swim into the unsilted outflow from our field, where it had a chance to breathe—without clogging its gills on the tailings of agricultural mining.

You can't just farm for the averages; if you want to be sustainable, you have to work the land in such a way that you can handle the predictably unpredictable ebbs and flows of the rain gods. Currently, it seems, they've decided to let it flow.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Whole Foods: Half a Solution?

Last Saturday I tagged along with my fellow Sandhill cmty mate Stan Hildebrand (we've lived together for 28 years now—amazing!) as he was driving to Warrenton for a board meeting of the Missouri Organic Association (MOA). Warrenton is about an hour west of St Louis, which means it's about three hours south of our farm in northeast Missouri. Always wanting to stretch our gasoline dollars as far as possible, we made four deliveries of Sandhill products along the way—sorghum to a grocery store in Quincy, honey to a buying club outside of Hannibal, sorghum to an orchard near Warrenton… and sorghum for the Whole Foods store in St Louis (which we didn't have to do any extra driving for, because there are two people from Whole Foods on the MOA board and they were happy to back haul the sorghum after the mtg).

I dropped Stan off at the mtg spot in Warrenton and drove into St Louis for a rendezvous with Communities magazine's new Business Manager, John Stroup. John just joined the staff a couple months ago and needed an orientation to FIC organizational structure and culture, our editorial policy, and the magazine's history with advertising and distributors—in short, a 90-minute brain dump so that he'd feel more connected with both the people and his work. (Though I was away from home for 13 hours, that 90-minute mtg was worth it—you can only accomplish so much with email and phone calls; occasionally you need to meet face-to-face.)

In the discussion about advertising, John asked if he had license to expand the pool of folks he approached to purchase display ads. I gave him the green light, so long as the product or service was a reasonable value fit with our readership (this assumes that we know what that is, but that's a topic for another time). John tried: "How about Whole Foods?" I sighed and replied: "That's an excellent question."

• • •
In the world of community living, there is a strong correlation between cooperation and sustainability. That is, almost all cmties embrace both as core values. (I'm not saying that everyone means the same thing by this dual commitment, yet it's a useful lens through which to see the issue I want to examine.) Starting with that premise, I want to focus on the complex relationship of Whole Foods—far and away the most successful retailer of natural foods in the US—to cmty and sustainability.

The Case in Favor of Whole Foods
A large part of this company's meteoric rise has been its attention to service and quality. It is a market maker in the field of organic foods, and their success has been a boon to organic farmers everywhere. This directly supports a more sustainable food chain.

As one small example of this, Sandhill has been selling organic sorghum in the St Louis area for 25 years and no one sells more of it than Whole Foods. They have single-handedly boosted the demand for organic products, a phenomenon now so robust that even traditional food chains are installing organic sections.

(When Sandhill announced to our neighbors in 1975 that we'd be farming organically, we might as well have been from Mars. Everybody thought it was strange and amusing. Today, with organic soybeans regularly outselling conventionally grown beans by double, no one is laughing. And we're no loner the only organic farm in the county. Within a single generation the farming world has made a significant step in our direction, and Whole Foods has been no small part of that shift.)

The St Louis store regularly offers vendors the chance to come in and offer taste tests of their product as part of consumer education. Within the last year they paired our sorghum up with a purveyor of home-made biscuits. After several hours of handing out samples of sorghum on hot biscuits, our sorghum starting selling, well, like hot cakes.

In addition, Whole Foods stores have a major commitment to being of service to the communities in which their stores are located. Once a month is Food Outreach Day, and 5% of that day's net sales are donated to a
designated local nonprofit. Several months ago, MOA was that designee—receiving a much-needed $4000 shot in the arm.

Finally, the Whole Foods personnel who serve on the MOA board are doing so with the full support and encouragement of their employer. Impressive.

The Case Against Whole Foods
One of the key elements of sustainability is economics, and there is ample evidence that local businesses are far more helpful to sustainable, resilient economies than national ones (Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, Critchfield's Villages, or any of a number of books by Wendell Berry). For all of its enlightened generosity in support of local communities—which is a real thing—Whole Foods is a multi-national (operating in the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom) and the main flow of profits is to corporate headquarters (Austin TX) and to shareholders, not to the local community.

While Whole Foods has certainly eaten into the market share of traditional grocers, it (and its major corporate competitor, Wild Oats, now merged with Whole Foods) has been the Wal-Mart of the natural foods industry, regularly putting locally owned food co-ops out of business (just as Borders and Barnes & Noble have done with independent bookstores). It is very hard to see this as a plus for sustainability. Whole Foods is providing opportunities for local employment, but this is not at all the same as local ownership.

As an organic vendor—the kind of businesses Whole Foods says they have a strong corporate commitment to supporting—we've struggled with bureaucratic red tape, the kind of which we rarely encounter when selling to locally owned stores. I'm talking about restrictions on when they'll receive products they've ordered (sometimes we're turned away even though the store is open). Last year I was directed by the Customer Service person to walk a quarter mile around to the back of the store to hand two boxes of sorghum to someone in Receiving instead of walking 100 feet through the store to get to the same place. (Where was the commitment to service in that?)

After doing steady business with the Kansas City Whole Foods store for five years, we recently got "deleted" from their system (however that happens) and we've been asked to resubmit a sample of our product for consideration of reinstatement. Grr. The person in charge of approval had never heard of us and we had to start over—something that would never have happened at a locally owned store. Size does make a difference.
• • •
To advertise or not?
So what did I tell John, who was thinking about approaching Whole Foods to advertise in Communities? I told him it was controversial (for the reasons I've outlined above). I also told him I couldn't make the call on my own and that FIC's Editorial Review Board would have to chew it over.

Still, I encouraged him to bring the idea forward and not shy away from it because it was challenging (that's the ERB's job after all, to field the tough questions). Over the years, we've learned that there is a strong relationship between our readership and the people who shop at natural food stores. In that regard, Whole Foods is a great fit. Yet we also believe there is a strong small-is-beautiful sentiment among our readership—people who will greet a Whole Foods ad with as much enthusiasm as opening a jar of kimchi accidentally left out in the sun for three days. So it's not obvious which way to go on this.

I'll let you know what we decide.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Awkward Clash of Violence & Parenting

I'm currently involved in helping a cmty wrestle with unacceptable behavior by a pre-teen, the son of a long standing member. In addition to provocative name calling, inappropriate sexual remarks, and patterned defiance in the face of attempts to rein him in when he crosses the acceptability line, in recent months his acting out has escalated to include physical violence (hitting people with fists and objects) and threats of worse (pulling knives and telling people to back off). He's one unhappy dude.

Though no one has been seriously injured so far, people are understandably nervous that this might happen. The mtgs are about trying to figure out an appropriate cmty response, doing their best to minimize the risk that someone gets hurt. Nobody wanted to be in this situation, yet here they are.

While theories about the roots of the bad behavior abound, the fact is that that's not the cmty's business. To be sure, the parents might invite others' thoughts about it, but that's their call. The cmty issue is safety, and responding effectively and nonviolently to violent behavior. This kind of dynamic can tear a cmty up, and I want to write today about two factors that predictably muddy the waters. Knowing that they are in play can help a cmty successfully wade through the morass.

Tough Factor #1: Diversity
Most cmties have a commitment to creating a supportive environment for their members. There are, however, limits to how much support a cmty can give. The well is not bottomless. At some point, members may feel they've been stretched as far as they can go and advocate for pulling the plug (because the attempt is consuming too much of the cmty’s resources; the needs require skills beyond the current members' abilities; the improvement is too meager; giving the support is too exhausting; living with the dynamic is too dangerous; or any combination of the above).

All people are not meant to live together, and you may have to ask the challenging person to leave, or to seek support elsewhere. This is an extremely awkward conversation in that it always takes place in the context of someone’s tenure in the cmty being on the line. (Imagine telling a parent—who is a long standing member—that their kid is no longer welcome in the cmty?)

It is important that the cmty be able to face this squarely and name it for what it is. Diversity has limits, and occasionally the situation demands that you define what they are (at least for this group at this time).

Tough Factor #2: When does parenting become a cmty issue?
In most groups the cmty only broadly defines acceptable boundaries of behavior (we are nonviolent: “no disciplining your kid with a tire iron”; we respect property: "no children playing with matches in the Common House"; we obey the law: "no illegal activities").

While general guidelines and good intentions can take you a long way, occasionally they aren’t enough. Such is the case with the cmty I'm working with, where the kid’s behavior got increasingly worse, to the point where everyone—including the parents—is now in agreement that the kid's actions have repeatedly been over the line and that that's intolerable. Yet when was the line first crossed? This turns out to be a difficult question to answer. Many cmty members have expressed anguish that the group didn’t deal with this sooner, when the behavior wasn’t yet that bad. Unfortunately, there are a couple of common factors that predictably cloud the windshield, consistently contributing to why it's hard to see accurately into the future when observing a disturbing behavior in a child.

First, it is extremely difficult to discern whether a particular incident is an isolated occurrence or a step in the decent to hell. Child behavior is a complex phenomenon and it can be hard to tease out trends needing focus in the midst of everyday life, where demonic and angelic behaviors are commonly commingled in the same child—even in the same day.

Second, parents don’t tend to welcome others raising concerns about their kid’s behavior—especially if that’s not the norm. The initiator may be nervous about the attempt (increasing the chances that the complaint will either be overstated [to make sure it penetrates the parents' defense system] or understated [to avoid triggering defensiveness]) and the parents will tend to be protective (both on behalf of their parenting and on behalf of their kid). What is projection on the part of the commenter, and what is a blind spot on the part of the parents? If these conversations don’t go well, it will be that much harder to attempt it a second time. You’ll tend to wait until the situation is clearly worse (in the hope that your footing will be that much firmer) before bringing it up again. For most parents, criticism about their kid's behavior cuts very close to the bone. It ain't easy to bring this stuff up, and it ain't easy to hear it.

Taken all together, it's important to keep in mind that reasonable people will disagree about the point at which the kid's behavior became a cmty issue, and that it will never be an easy conversation. Try to be gentle with each other about these awkwardnesses.

• • •
Remember: It isn’t the cmty’s job to determine underlying causes; it’s the cmty’s job to define the boundaries of acceptable behavior (for adults as well as kids) and to gently, yet firmly, insist that these boundaries be respected. While the parents have primary rights in selecting appropriate consequences when their children act unacceptably, they also have primary responsibility to respond to the legitimate cmty needs for safety and respect.

In the case of the situation I’m working with, we’ll need to identify markers that indicate whether the situation is improving, deteriorating, or treading water. We’ll also need to discuss how much time the parent and child have to turn the dynamic around. While it’s definitely awkward, not talking about it as a group is worse.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Room for 'Shrooms

This morning I finished mounting our biennial crop of shiitake logs just ahead of the rain.

It's a highly satisfying Sandhill ritual, ensuring a steady supply of homegrown mushrooms whenever the rain and temperatures are right (best times in Missouri are spring and fall). Unlike morels, which we only wild craft (during a narrow 10-day span straddling late April/early May), shiitakes are relatively easy to propagate. Starting in 1998—and continuing every even-numbered spring since—we secure spawn from Mushroom People at The Farm (a well-established and well-known intentional cmty in TN) which we then insert into freshly cut green oak logs about 42 inches long. it's important that the logs be green because the mycelium spreads through the soft cambium layer of the wood (not the heartwood) and depends on the moisture in the log to thrive.

It takes about 18 months before new logs start producing mushrooms, and then they continue producing for about six years. When the conditions are right, we harvest them by the 5-gallon bucket load and have enough to dry, or sell to our neighbors. While it can be a lot at one time, when was the last time you heard someone say, "it's a nice place you have here, except you've got too many mushrooms."? Some problems you can deal with more graciously than others, and mushroom explosions are our kind of problem.

Shiitake inoculation is an excellent example of symbiotic relations on the farm. Let me count the ways…

First, it takes place in March or early April, when our agricultural dance card is not so full. So there's room for it.

Second, I typically pick up the spawn in early Feb, when I'm in TN anyway for FIC mtgs at Dunmire Hollow, home to long-time Fellowship board member Harvey Baker. The Farm is only a 30-minute drive away. I can pick up the spawn, find out the latest on new varieties and propagation techniques, and save the postage.

Third, we depend on wood harvesting for heating our buildings and cooking down about 6,000-8,000 gallons of sorghum juice each fall to produce our main farm cash crop: sorghum syrup. So we need to be cutting lots of wood every winter anyway. When there's a shittake party coming up, we make sure to cut the enough oaks that winter to have the mushroom logs we'll need in the spring. Thus there's not much extra work in cutting the logs. We just have to plan ahead. We do about 90-100 logs in a batch (using about 4 kilos of spawn), yet that's no problem for us. We burn a lot of wood and we have about 60 acres in trees—more than enough to provide all of our wood needs (including construction) on a sustained yield basis.

Fourth, we have plenty of places near our residences with a suitable environment for shiitake development (you want shaded, moist places, out of the wind). Seeps are relatively common on our property and we're currently storing our logs in a boggy spot well-shaded by a grove of hard maples (which we're developing for a future sugar bush). It's a poor garden area, yet terrific mushroom habitat. In the early years we just laid the logs on the ground, but they rot too quickly that way and now we're going for a more aesthetic array where we place the logs upright, leaning against a rail. For the batch I placed today, I have used the logs to line the path between the main house and the Sugar Shack (where we cook down our sorghum and maple syrup, and also extract our honey crop). It'll be easy to keep an eye on the logs this way.

Fifth, it's important to protect the moisture in the spawn after it's been inserted into holes drilled into the oak logs. For that we use beeswax, a natural byproduct of our honey operation (we also make beeswax candles).

Sixth, the central post-and-rail system that we now use to lean the logs against is made out of black locust, a locally abundant hardwood that's highly rot resistant. Our primary use of black locust is for pole construction or fence posts. Sections that are too short for a fence post, may be perfect for a shiitake support post. Sections that are too thin for a fence post make superb rails. Thus, when I cut a dozen black locust poles for a building project for our neighbors at Red Earth this winter, I partitioned the tops such that I'd have the shiitake support pieces I'd need later. While digging post holes can be a booger in the summer, the soil is plenty wet this time of year and working down through the clay subsoil is no problem in April. In these conditions I can set a post in five minutes working by hand.

You can force mushroom production by spraying the logs with water, or even submersing them overnight in a trough of water, but life's too short and we prefer minimal management. We just let Nature handle hydrating for us, checking the logs for edible fungi whenever we're blessed with a good soaking.

It's all part of the good life.