The fishy thing about Scale
I recently posted a video I produced of The Peconic Land Trust’s local food series called “Long Island Grown”. I came away from editing these conversations with local farmers and producers feeling optimistic about the future. That future, it seems to me, hinges on families building their lives, and staying together here on Long Island’s East End.
The Town of Southold, New York, is settled like an old sherry in the farmlands, vineyards, creeks and forests of Long Island’s North Fork. Just over twenty-one thousand people live in the ten hamlets—some of the time. The summer homes are silent in winter.
According to the Southold Town Demographic Inventory for the Comprehensive Plan (Nelson, Pope and Voorhis), permanent residents are mostly farmers, empty nesters and retired people. Although my wife and I are none of the above, we also stay to brave the deep snow and sometimes hear the grunt of the snowy owl across the creek. With the spring, permanent residents celebrate the thaw and the return of their kids, visiting from New York or some large American city they now call home. This is a fiercely protected way of life, though there’s something new going on.
A small but growing band of farmers, artisans and producers are daring to create their own way of life, where their children will stay on, year-round, to support and become a part of the local community. These are the Makers, the doers, the DIYers and the inventors. These innovators belong to vast and highly connected group of global Makers who have the access to tools previously found only in manufacturing corporations. They are combining their ingenuity with knowledge resources tapped from the free market of ideas. On the North Fork they are collaborating to create an emerging class of Maker farmers and producers who are changing the way we think about food and farming. In keeping with the nine-year-old Maker movement, a term first coined by Mark Hatch in his book, The Maker Movement Manifesto, these local innovators embody the spirit of making, by applying it to local food and farming. The unexpected consequence is that the Maker way of getting things done leads to incentivizing their children to stay, because the ebb and flow of tourist summers and deserted winters here offers opportunity to innovators. Watch the video here (8:39 minutes):
Local Makers are finding a way to create a demand that scales only to the needs of the community. Their approach to economy of scale, the traditional keystone of economics, is turned on its head. They use a different form of scale; to them, scale is a tool to be used, not for operations–which sounds fishy to them–but for communication. They recognize the immense power of communications scaled to reach millions of people in no time at all, and to access know-how from anywhere on earth.
The actions of these pioneering innovators might be prescient. Theirs is an ambitious goal; and it is not, one-day, to open a franchise in Dubuque, Iowa. Their goal is simply to sustain their way of life with their families intact. They’re figuring it out.
Farmers have always been innovative. They’ve had to adapt to climate conditions, new crops, insect infestations and better methods. Driving east on Route 48, you get used to seeing the grapevines covered by netting to keep the finches out. You see preying mantis-like like tractors harvesting grapes with wheels perfectly spaced between the rows. Indeed, viticulture itself was new in 1974, but now it seems traditional.
But innovators know that change is a process, not an event. When a new micro-greens farmer wants to expand his greenhouse footprint, he runs into regulatory hurdles. When a farmer wants to process heritage beef from cattle that graze in open fields, he must ship the animals (who have never been caged) to a processing facility in upstate New York. When a farmer wants to open a commercial kitchen for food products the authorities take eight months to get to the paperwork. So prices escalate and demand dies. These are heady challenges that the independent, small-time entrepreneur with a Maker mentality must solve.
In the meantime big box stores and supermarkets undercut them. Yet, in spite of the challenges, demand is growing. Now, although people can shop at King Kullen with its convenient parking, they can’t complete with the farm-to-table food and products available here on the North Fork. The small farmer and artisan/producer has found a way around economy of scale. The farm stand is alive and well, even when you can’t find parking. What they sell is simple: fresh, wholesome quality—with an innovative twist. You can’t find homemade pickled dilly beans in a supermarket.
The nascent innovation culture on the North Fork can assure the naysayers that because something is new, their innovation is not going to be expensive. The fear is that the cost of living rises when we indulge “progress”. But this is anathema to the Maker philosophy. Peter Diamandis, in his visionary book, Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World
describes how demonetization has delivered free services. He cites smart phones having $900,000 worth of free services (in 2011) in the form of video conferencing, GPS, voice recorder, digital watch, camera, medical library, video player, music player, encyclopedia, and video game console.
The ‘go big” part of the title is what frightens folks, but what I am suggesting is that we learn from the methodology, then apply the alternative scale rule: Scale to Local. Learn from Go Big, then scale it back to the extent that the solution is sustainable to families and the environment.
As if creating and marketing a product is not challenging enough, local Makers need to think about the environment they share with townspeople. The long-term health of their children, the economy and the farming is at stake. Fertilization, water and waste management are in desperate need for innovation. Doing things the traditional way perpetuates the nitrogen loading into our wetlands and tidal zones. Flushing our toilets into the same aquifer achieves the same result.
These are not problems we can expect Makers to solve, but they can help. Sure, the town has engaged research labs, “studies” and pilot programs to analyze these issues. But, like the Long Island geography itself, studies materialize at glacial speed, if ever. What we can expect from the Maker culture are solutions that leverage the flip side of scale that can be applied when innovating. Yet, while the Maker movement rejects the usual bulk buying, overhead-spreading, space-efficient modes of scale, they do embrace the economy of information—a type of scale that makes the Maker viable because of their crowd sourcing research and development. For example, because they have no need for scale, the greenhouses that are approved on the North Fork will not morph into the 10,000 lettuce-heads-a-day behemoth found in Japan, but the greenhouse farmers could probably benefit from knowing how software manages photosynthesis, atmosphere and temperature, and how nutrient recirculation uses only 1% of water required by outdoor farming. The point is: I accessed this information from being selective about subscribing to a group in Google Plus. The same selections are available in Facebook Groups or Twitter hashtags—you get the idea.
I am not suggesting that the North Fork should be home to in-your-face industrial parks that develop exponential innovation in the new technology of networks, sensors, robotics, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and genomics, but I imagine innovators here borrowing from these disciplines and contributing their pioneering mindset to help solve our water and waste management, infrastructure, and tick problems.
Yes, one solution may be centralized sewer systems. After all, isn’t there something wrong when the quality of life falls into a malaise and ignores the fact that everyone is pumping their own water and allowing septic tanks and cesspools to leach wastewater back into the same aquifer it came from? Cost prohibitive solutions must be replaced by a simple, easy-to-implement, innovative solution, which can be solved if the Makers lean into the problem. But don’t be surprised if the solution they come up with requires no plumbing and actually makes money. Impossible? Not according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that sponsored the Reinvent the Toilet Fair—in India.
How about our tick problem? Notice, I don’t call it a deer problem. (Actually, it’s our problem—the ticks and deer are just fine.) Impossible? Perhaps a bright thirteen-year-old walking around with a fifty-cent origami microscope and will post her discovery on Instagram, and the solution will become one for the history books. (See the TED Talk)
Southold’s problems are not unique; it’s solutions can and should be shared with communities, worldwide.
I see the start of a mindset shifting from Agri culture to a Maker-centric culture. Communication is the foundation of innovation. When everyone is informed because they have free access to information, knowledge sharing and crowd sourcing becomes a powerful force for addressing glaringly obvious problems. These methods do an end-run on corrupt information brokers, gatekeepers and interest groups that stymie openness and transparency. This is as prevalent in business and health care as it is with regulators. In a recent article, Joseph Pinciaro, the editor of The Suffolk Times stated that. “the use of social media as a vehicle to get things done through government is rather limited on the North Fork.” Nevertheless, Makers here have an interconnected, interdependent relationship with his suppliers and a sustainable eco-system is emerging: poultry farmers source from maize farmers, wine makers source from apple farms and produce quality hard cider, cheese farmers supply whey to pig farmers—all made locally possible by the (appropriate) scale of their communications. The progress has begun: aquaculture is on its way and greenhouses are at last being approved.
What keeps these new Makers making, is the quest for a viable business that can sustain generations of families. Isn’t that the American dream? The Makers dream is to be able to offer his offspring an incentive for staying, growing a family and building the business through continued innovation. It doesn’t matter if they’re just starting out as a zero-to-maker, as Dale Dougherty of Make magazine calls them, or a maker-to-maker collaborator or a maker-to-market innovator, they all want to make something themselves—of themselves. And they’re prepared to earn their own way. While the older generation of residents and farmers may not know how to tap into the open-source, information-sharing world, their sons and daughters will, because they aspire to joining the Maker culture. More importantly, this is a culture that applauds self-empowerment. Our future depends on this, and the innovators will welcome the opportunity to bring the Maker movement to Southold.
The Maker imagination must be nurtured. But, this is not code for throwing the proverbial baby—that comfortable malaise, also known as a quality of life—out with the bath water. Rather, the baby must be taught how to shower. Yes, it will be a little uncomfortable at first, but it’s healthier and uses less water. A quality of life does not imply perfection. Perfect, compared to what? There’s room for improvement. We must open up and allow Makers to participate in a strong supply and demand model that results in a sustainable local economy.
Like the Peconic Land Trust, which is encouraging conversations and exploring new opportunities for agriculture through its Long Island Grown series and its Farms for the Future Initiative, we as a community need to encourage the conversation with the Makers. Let’s trust the new Makers and give them a soft place to fail, and when they win, we all benefit; that’s how it works: Fail fast, win fast. This notion should not be a plank for a particular political party. Ironically, some say that the Utopian vision of the Maker culture evokes rugged individualism and libertarianism. Funny, because that’s what I see touted on bumper stickers here, so the Makers fit right in, though their vote might be hard to win in right versus left elections. Which is a discussion for 2016. The Maker only cares about the politics of their own micro-economic viewpoint.
This year, to cheer us all up, I’m hoping to see families celebrate the holidays here, so that the innovators can see that this is more than a place of open spaces, fresh air and healthy soil. It is a place for Makers to grow a family and realize the dream of making a quality life. Until then, I wish you a merry holiday.
Geoffrey Wells is preparing his second thriller, THE FACES IN THE RAIN for publication. Music, elephants and cybercrime are themes drawn from his life experiences. Wells spent years playing the piano and studying music theory and has spent much time in and around elephant game reserves in southern Africa, where he grew up. He made a career in Information Technology as VP and CIO of two major U.S. television networks, where he managed a cyber security staff, and wrote policies to protect the privacy of employees.
Geoffrey Wells writes about privacy, elephant conservation, cyber trends and music. And of course, updates on his latest thriller, Atone for the Ivory Cloud.