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Retrofitting a Small Town

For the last four years, I have been dreaming of retrofitting a small town with a group of like-minded individuals with a diverse set of skills. I talk a lot about this in my courses, and it always gets a group of people charged up. It seems as though there are a lot of people that are tired of living in these massive, hyper-urban environments that meet our basic needs of food, shelter, and water, but do a terrible job of meeting our need for self realization, community, peace and quiet, and debt-free living.

North America is full of small dying towns that are loaded with perfectly good infrastructure, cheap lots and small homes on large lots. They have commercial centers, water systems, parks, social structures and are surrounded by cheap to rent – and sometimes own – agricultural land. They are walkable, bikeable, quiet and usually human-scaled. It would seem that these would be bursting with young families trying to make a go at a new way of life. There is certainly the interest, I see it all the time in our students. So what is stopping folks from taking the plunge? I believe there are two major barriers that stop folks from pouncing on this opportunity:

  • apparent lack of jobs and/or economic opportunity
  • lack of community

In order to reinvigorate a small town, both of these issues need to be dealt with. However, if we create a model, we can re-vitalize any small town. Let’s use Sedgewick, Alberta as an example.

I recently talked to Don Ruzicka, a farmer near Sedgewick, about the county of Killam. He told me that the planners in this county are enacting all sorts of new policies to try and get young folks to reinvigorate these towns. One of the policies that interested me was the one relaxing the restrictions on subdividing quarter sections around the town to encourage local farming and food production. I am not sure if this is the policy that is needed to achieve this end, but it shows a willingness for the local authorities to make change.

If we do a needs and yields analysis on every small prairie town it might look like this:

Needs:

  • People of all ages, sexes, races, skills
  • A purpose that drives its economy, based in what the local ecosystem does well
  • Tax base to run town infrastructure
  • Reduction in town operating expenses
  • Progressive leadership, willingness to change (understanding that things are broken)
  • Diverse economy, diverse business base that is built around synergies, like an ecosystem.

Yields

  • Cost effective shelter
  • Inexpensive land access surrounding the town to build a tertiary economy
  • Nutrient from citizens, compost, etc.
  • Labour
  • Underutilized infrastructure
  • Debt-free living
  • Low-cost living
  • Roads
  • Large volumes of run off from hard-scaping to establish green belts
  • Urban heat island effect to enhance growing

The way I see it, these towns are just waiting for armies of young people with diverse skill-sets to converge on them. So how do we grow jobs and the economy to get people to make the leap?

In my last two PDCs, I have had a welder and a machinist/welder and these two gentlemen were more excited about permaculture than 90% of my students, which is saying a lot because our students leave these courses sprinting. After talking to both of them, I realized that they were the missing piece in the skill-set. One of the reasons that these towns have dried up is that the agricultural model has shifted from small diverse farms to large industrial ones. Industrial farms are highly mechanized and require much less human input to run them. What is scary is that this trend appears to be getting worse.

As humans get out of agriculture entirely, the feedback loop will be eliminated. The feedback loop I am referring to includes soil erosion, GMO foods, pesticide limits (robots don’t breathe or drink), biodiversity loss and on and on. One thing that I learned growing up in a small food manufacturing company is that the small guy always has a competitive advantage over the big guys, but only if you learn to play a different game. You can’t compete at a volume game, but you can compete and win at a value game. As food has become cheaper and cheaper, the net effect has been that land rental rates have gone lower and lower, because you can’t grow commodity food that inexpensively with high land rental rates. This gives the small farmer a huge competitive advantage to hit the proverbial agriculture venture out of the park. How do we do this and how does this tie into taking over a small town?

While North American agriculture was getting bigger and more ‘efficient’ (more throughput) but less effective (lower value), Europe went the other way. Eliot Coleman talks a lot about this in his book The New Organic Grower. Europe went smaller, more efficient and effective, which drove innovation in agricultural equipment. The game changing piece of equipment is the BCS Earth Tools walk-behind tractor. This machine combines a solid power plant on two wheels with a light frame and a power take off (PTO). This is nothing short of revolutionary for three reasons:

  1. The PTO is universal and allows machinists and equipment manufactures to build machines that can be driven from this power plant.
  2. It is small, so it is portable
  3. It is cost effective, the opposite of big agriculture

With cheap land rental, cost-effective equipment and hyper-local agricultural production that focuses on growing high value-based crops, young families can hit it out of the park. This does not even consider all of the innovation that we can and have to do to make agriculture sustainable. These innovations include water harvesting, innovative rotational animal systems, compost teas, biochar and advanced cover crop systems to name a few. While Big Ag is focusing on growing wheat at $300/acre we can focus on garlic polycultures at $15k – $45k per acre and fresh greens at $100k/acre for boutique consumption. Playing at the volume game is a fool’s game and it is contingent on endless soil and oil which are both coming to an end. We need small-scale, human-centric, soil-building food production systems which are right outside our back door (peri-urban small town). We can use SPIN farming as a model to build from. To make this happen, we need passionate machine builders that can build innovative equipment to run off of the BCS walk-behind tractor that lets small farmers do things like plant 1000 cloves of garlic in an hour instead of 200. This in itself is a small business that has a global reach. We have tried big and it has failed; it is time to get really good at small scale!

In regards to this equipment innovation, here are just some of the ideas I have come up with:

  • Garlic planters and cleaners
  • Soil block makers for seedlings
  • Sub-soilers
  • Power harrows
  • Fruit presses and juicers
  • Oil presses for biofuel production for our BCS tractors
  • Seed drills for pasture cropping
  • Combine harvesters
  • PTO pumps
  • Compost turners
  • Adobe brick maker
  • Coppice harvesters

A lot of these machines can facilitate individual agricultural businesses in and of themselves. What is even more exciting is the fact that the internet has enabled every business to gain access to the same tools that Amazon has for marketing. In other words, you don’t need bricks and mortar to sell your wares. Each of these businesses could support a family and most of them would have synergistic needs and yields to help buttress each other. A key strategy to making this a success would  be an alternative currency system, as proposed in this video by Bernard Lietar.

Businesses that could thrive in small prairie towns could be broken down into primary and secondary type businesses. Primary businesses would form the foundation of the town. These are businesses that capitalize on the assets in and around the town and they make way for the secondary businesses that can add value to the primary products.

Primary Businesses:

  • Organic seedling production
  • Heirloom garlic growers
  • Apple cider from unpicked urban fruit trees
  • Small scale bio-fuel producer for non road based fuels
  • Small scale farm equipment manufacturer/machine shop
  • Apiary
  • Hops production
  • Organic grain production and stone milling
  • Herb production

Secondary Businesses:

  • Herbal Medicine
  • Meadery
  • Micro distillery
  • Abattoir
  • Pasture chickens, beef and pork
  • Artisan bakery

These businesses provide the foundation to the economy and from there tertiary businesses will start to emerge:

  • Artisan butcher and charcuterie master
  • Arborist
  • Micro brewery from locally grown hops and grain
  • Rainwater harvesting business
  • Renewable energy
  • Natural builders and natural building education
  • Permaculture and ecological education
  • Compost, compost tea and extract supplier

The litmus test for each of these businesses would be the following. They need to be businesses that:

  • require low capitalization
  • produce high value-added products with a readily available market
  • meet an existing niche need that is not being filled
  • are not dependent on land ownership so can take advantage of low rental rates
  • are earth repairative
  • capitalize on local resources, biome and town assets.

With the right choice of town, group of people and skills, people living in the city would be able to reduce their current cost of living by selling their city assets, freeing up capital to buy a cheaper home in a town and providing a little bit of capital to build their low capitalization business and hit the ground running. I really think that this is a viable option for any North American who wants to eliminate their debt, pursue their passion, get out of the rat race and rebuild their lives around the reconstruction of small vibrant towns. Instead of building ecovillages, we should build business guilds that can re-vitalize small towns. If you get this right, this model could be applied around the globe. Cities are ultimately not going to sustain us as a species: they are energy hogs and dehumanizing spaces that are disconnected from nature. I know that some will disagree with this, but that is the subject of another post.

16 Comments

  1. before you move out there, be sure you have a plan for a complete and self-sufficient town. such a plan should be shared – i’m sure many would be interested, including me.

    1. We live in Poatina, an ex-hydro electric village in Tasmania, and though in early days of planning there are some similar things being considered here. Would be happy to chat more. Rocksaltarts(at)gmail.com

  2. Excellent overview.

    •Tax base to run town infrastructure
    •Reduction in town operating expenses

    These two are critical. You also want to reduce town infrastructure to a minimum. The questions are Do we need it? Why? Is there another cheaper way to obtain it? Closely related are operating expenses. Other than service requirements imposed by higher governments, eliminate services wherever you can. The library may need a trained librarian but staff can be volunteers. If something is important to the community, the community can do for itself. Property taxes suck the life blood out of citizens. Keep costs down and you keep property taxes down. The biggest single expense in any enterprise is salaries/benefits. In small municipal governments, these are concentrated in public works depts. For example, does a town really need side-walk snow removal by the municipality or are citizens responsible for removing snow from the side-walks in front of their homes and businesses?

    The form of government is a closely related issue. Governments are not of the people, by the people, for the people but rather are above the people. Some form of direct democracy will be needed, probably legislative town meetings with the ability to recall representatives during their terms.

  3. the first level of designing a self-contained settlement should be physical needs – clean air and water, healthy food, comfy shelter, and plenty of sleep and exercise. money is not a physical need, tho embedded as we are in modern ‘civilization’ one can’t ignore its role.
    also, there are 2 key phases to such a project: construction/capital investment and operations/using that capital with minimum depreciation.

  4. the first level of designing a self-contained settlement should be physical needs

    I disagree with you! Actually, I don’t really but I want to make the point of how critical governance will be. Even with commonality of interest and vision, there will still be differences of opinion on what needs to be done, the order of getting things done, who is to do it, etc., etc. We do not play well together as a species. Or at least the males don’t. Perhaps, the females should drive the bus. That should eliminate an immense amount of head butting and show males a better way forward.

  5. i agree that governance matters. but survival matters more – no people, no governance. and it would be fine with me to put the women in charge.

  6. the global village construction set looks like it requires more than a few engines or motors. are they all truly necessary?

    1. The Global Village Construction Set requires only one engine, and it can be placed in any of the items you have built. You only need multiple motors if you want to operate more than one machine at a time.
      I’m a small town resident who sees them dying, despite the need for healthy rural communities. I’m eager to hear solutions like this and partner with other initiatives.

    2. I’d like to see an emphasis on a cooperative business model where power and wealth are shared through democratic means. Also, if we are talking about manufacturing within the earth care principle, there should be a focus on biomimicry and cradle to cradle production.

  7. Yes, open source manufacturing ala Global Village Construction Set or RepRap are one big developing trend to upset the existing order of the centralized global economy. Who needs WalMart if we can print just about everything we need in a garage? Community makerspace and tool libraries make a lot of sense in terms of making efficient use of resources.

    Decentralized energy production is another major potential income source in small towns. The German countryside is now filled with PV decked rooftops. Japan is following suit. Wind potential is good in many areas. Waste to energy also an option. Rural areas could, at the very least, produce their own energy if not a surplus.

  8. Great article. I love the practical approaches. We are embarking on a similar project but with the backing of “Big Ag.” While this is going to be interesting we are hoping to get them to buy into a hybrid of sorts with boutique farms close to the small town square and large scale farms on the massive tracts.

  9. I would tout this idea as a place where a person could retire at 18 years of age, and I agree. Why live in a city work all your life to get ahead, then buy a retirement home in a place you like. Pick your place ( a small town has huge advantages) and move there as soon as you can. The internet (could be shared)will keep you connected to the world. A few solar panels (also shared),a BCS tractor (definitely shared) with a Berta plow for the garden and a cart for transportation. Get rid of your lawn and put up a food forest. Vinay Gupta, the inventor of the hexayurt, (Youtube) has ideas along this line of thinking.

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