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People, Place & Prosperity & the three-legged stool that supports us: Private Sector, Public Policy and Personal Transformation

In her October 9, 2015 Voices of Industry article “Hemp, Industrially”, Adele Stafford eloquently describes the subtleties we must attend to as we re-awaken hemp farming after 70 years dormant. We must take care that we don’t build hemp into another extractive ag industry as we have done with corn and soy. I could not be more aligned with Adele’s thinking, love her writing and am excited for her Kentucky visit in November. She has also unwittingly permitted me to pen my own swirling and colliding thoughts on hemp, abundance, Appalachia, biocultural diversity and People, Planet & Prosperity meets Private, Public & Personal. FB, I thank you in advance for this archive.

Speaking at Hemp X Asheville NC a few weeks ago, I may have startled a few folks by saying that hemp was not going to save the family farm. No single crop is going to save the family farm – it’s not a silver bullet, it’s buckshot, and it’s complicated. For the sake of our land, our farms, our families, our health, vibrant rural communities, our resiliency, our way forward must be diverse – diverse people, cultures, indigenous wisdom, food crops, hemp, forest farming, fiber farming, botanicals, and other thoughtful consumption of our basic needs in ways that regenerate us, our land, plants, animals, water and air. Resilient systems are diverse systems – mono-crops and mono-economies are subject to blight, famine, collapse – we’ve seen this with superpests that wipe out a 10,000 acre mono-crop and a monolithic trade agreement that ships half of our jobs overseas. Diversity = Resilience. Period.

When it comes to biodiversity, Appalachia is unparalleled, in the top 5 most biodiverse regions in the world. Southern and central Appalachia has recently been anointed as THE most AGRO-biodiverse (most diverse foodshed) region in the U.S, Canada and Northern Mexico. With over 1500 heirloom seeds under cultivation, we grow abundance. From anthropologist Jim Veteto’s “Place-Based Foods of Appalachia”:

“Let’s just go ahead and say it: People across southern and central Appalachia are crazy about plants and animals. In my lifetime of interacting with Appalachian farmers, gardeners and wildcrafting enthusiasts, I have never ceased to be amazed by their knowledge and love for all things green and growing. Whether they save seeds, graft fruit trees, dig roots and bulbs, can foods, harvest wild plants, hunt game, or raise heritage livestock breeds, it is a truism that older people and a smattering of younger people across the region have immense wildcrafting and agricultural skills. The deep mountain backcountry areas of North Carolina, East Tennessee, southwest Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia are pockets rich and diverse in food crops within the central/southern Appalachian foodshed. This should come as no surprise: Appalachian people live in one of the world’s most bio-diverse temperate zones. Global areas of high agrobiodiversity correlate with high degrees of economic, cultural and geographic marginality—conditions that are no stranger to the highlands of Appalachia. Additionally, most of the world centers of agrobiodiversity are in mountainous areas. Given these factors, southern and central Appalachia has the highest documented levels of agrobiodiversity in the U.S., Canada and northern Mexico. Appalachia is the longest continuously inhabited mountain range in the United States, and it has an extensive history of indigenous agriculture by the Cherokee and other American Indian peoples.”

Appalachia’s geography, geology, climate, elevation, latitude have birthed this abundance and it’s ours to revere or lose. Our craggy mountains, which have been frowned upon for their lack of ‘flatland” on which to build and grow, are actually a blessing if we care to embrace and nurture our unique place-based natural economy. Small holder farms growing a diversity of crops, owned by a diversity of people, are good for us, our place and planet. As pastoral and lovely this vision, there is plenty working against us: the not-so-free-market, onerous public policy and we, ourselves and us.

Private Sector: Millions of people across the globe are trying to disrupt the extractive, profit-by-any-means-necessary market by building social enterprises that do well by doing good, investing in those enterprises (impact investing), supporting local & regional, divesting from Wall Street and investing in Main Street and trying to make capitalism work for us and our place. There is wind in our sails: smaller, neighborly, local, even for some of the biggest organizations, is trending; Social Capital Markets, the largest convening of impact investors on the globe, is looking more like Be A Localist every year.

Accelerating Appalachia, Growing Nature-Based Businesses for Good, seeks to solve for our economy and ecology by supporting enterprises that do more good, pay a fair wage and seek to regenerate nature in their business design. Our businesses span the sectors of food, farming, forest products, fiber, clean energy, natural building, outdoor enterprises, wellness and botanicals and serve our basic needs of food, shelter, energy, wellness and clothing: they are models of collective corporal responsibility and not just an industry arm of corporate social responsibility. We iterate the new accelerator model with old wisdom – the wisdom of nature, the wisdom of diverse and indigenous cultures, the wisdom of generations of families that know and love the land. We help these nature-based businesses quickly iterate their business model, saving them years of trial and error and connecting them quickly to a expanse of problem solvers. Our accelerator is new, just over 2.5 years in, but our team has been doing good work in Appalachia for over 70 years. We have gained traction with applicants from all over the world and plenty of folks from across the globe to help build an accelerator for nature-based businesses. But mostly, we are gaining traction in Appalachia, faltering and succeeding, just as with any start-up.

As founding director for Accelerating Appalachia, I’ve spent 20 some odd years solving for the ecology and economy of our region, with some success. Besides being an entrepreneur, geologist and policy developer, I am an artist, musician and love to write, and tho my songwriting has been somewhat dormant as we launch and grow our program, it’s easy for me to type away and prescribe this resilient/regenerative path, knowing full well the huge challenges that “sustainable farming” presents, that a “regenerative economy” presents, knowing full well that the “free market” is not at all a free market, that in fact the market is stacked against small farms and stacked against most of us. I love our work and am excited about the global social enterprise revolution that is happening and am proud to be a small part. But the big missing piece from our “triple bottom line” of people, place, prosperity, and which I see consistently in social enterprises, is that pesky “prosperity” part, and especially small farmers: how do farmers make a living and afford to stay on their land? We need them on our land and we need more farmers, as we are constantly reminded by Mary Berry of the Berry Center in New Castle, KY.

Policy: As much as I love working with the private sector, with hopeful social enterprises and regenerative agriculture businesses, I know its going to take more than the private sector to resettle our economy and regenerate our ecosystems. We are up against corrosive Policies and Laws, with huge corporate incentives for agri-business and big business that create a deeply unjust market – food deserts in rural farmlands, where moderate to low income families living in the midst of natural abundance can hardly afford to support their equally low income local farmer, even though they want to. The equation is fixed and not fair and we cannot ignore policy or our policy-makers – we have entrusted them to manage our money and make our laws and they are failing. Yes, I vote and you should too. Yes, I write and advocate for better farm policy and I wish you would, too.

While employed by N.C. Department of Commerce, I was working to help rebuild Appalachian western NC counties that had lost half their jobs when textile and furniture industries fled for cheaper labor. A practically impossible task, given that state incentives were only available to those same large industries that had gotten us into the dire unemployment conditions we were trying to solve for, industries creating 100 jobs or more. Ever the pollyanna, I had the bright idea to establish incentives for a collection of small businesses that together created 100 jobs or more, building a truly diversified economy that would not crash if one or a few of those businesses did not succeed. Crickets. And bumfuzzled, since 70% of U.S. jobs are created by small to medium enterprises. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and soon after the 2010 elections, my program and many others met the budget axe. But, ever-determined, I still hold out hope that we can make this transition within federal, state and local policy to provide more incentives for small to medium enterprises creating good jobs locally. I stay active in policy discussions and actions in my community, and nationally as a BALLE Fellow. I’m active in opposing extractive, local economy killing trade deals.

Policy CAN work: during my 13 years in environmental policy, I wrote the first draft of what many consider to be good legislation – the Kentucky Pride fund – for the clean up of dumps, remediation of landfills, implement recycling programs and cleaning up litter. I testified before the legislature, and with a team of 22 committed folks, built consensus across counties and the private sector and we got it done. And we built a fund that has made a real difference to counties, cities and across the state. Costing only about $1 per month per household increase in garbage bill, we made real progress over 5 years: illegal dumping declined by 85%, recycling increased by 25%, millions of waste tires cleaned out of rivers and hollers, roadsides & rivers observably and consistently cleaner and began the long delayed task of remediating old landfills. This could not have been accomplished had we not worked to repair previously strained relationships between counties and state government, who had previously enforced an unfunded mandate on the counties. I distinctly recall this conversation and the first briefing to my cabinet Secretary that if he wanted to clean up Kentucky, we could not put that burden entirely on the counties without also funding the program. And I distinctly recall the fear in the pit of my stomach in presenting to my new boss (a former Army general who had moved back to Kentucky after being away over 30 years and was appalled at the state of the hillsides and rivers in his childhood home, Harlan County, Ky). Fortunately, he saw the wisdom in this, as did the counties, as did the cities, the private sector and the legislature. The bill passed unanimously. Policy can and should work for us, but we have to make it so.

Personal: It’s work to appreciate this life I’ve been given, make meaning of it, to feel deeply grateful for it and to be still enough to let the joy in. Finding and rooting out my biases, blocks, preconceived notions, unhealthy patterns, while discerning what is good, what is true and what are the takeaways. Remaining open to the unlimited possibilities of the “yet to be known”, reminding myself that what I know pales in comparison to what I have yet to learn. Giving myself time to grieve the pain, the losses, the abuses and reminding myself that it’s a trick of our ego to think we are alone in our pain, that in fact everyone is in some kind of struggle and someone can always one-up your misery or joy – don’t waste your time on that useless competition. To be hopeful around my creative capacity, to be quiet, to love, be loved and to forgive.

It’s work to be human, and as such we mimic the very tension of the universe: we are here on this planet because of the state of tension in which our planet is held, enough balance to allow for life. Tension is just in our nature, and it’s uncomfortable and painful and forces us to grow. At least that’s how it appears to me at this juncture – there could be a blissful nirvana that I’ve not yet achieved that will change everything I’ve just written 😉

So like this lovely hemp plant that’s been pent up 70 years and now being released to be PART of a diverse healthy farm system, and 70 year pent up rivers released to help build Appalachian outdoor economies and river ecosystem restoration, and like many of us, pent up and wanting better for ourselves, our families, our neighbors, our communities, our world – we have to get in there! It’s complicated and it takes commitment, but what else are you going to do with your wild and beautiful life? Plant some heirloom seeds, trade with your neighbors, buy local, invest local, vote with your pocketbook, speak up, take care of yourself.

This triple bottom line of “people, place, prosperity” can only move forward if we engage in solutions and support for good businesses in the private sector, pay attention and stay active on policies that impact our lives and freedoms and attend to our personal lives. All three legs of the stool are essential to hold us up. It’s not a silver bullet, this life, it’s buckshot.