Retrofitting a Small Town

 In Built Environment, Community, Design, Featured, Retrofit

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 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 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 don’t require humans 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) food production systems. 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!

With this equipment innovation, here just some 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 bio fuel 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 Bernard Lietar video .

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
  • Hop production
  • Organic grain production and stone milling
  • Herb production

Secondary Businesses:

  • Herbal Medicine
  • Meadery
  • Mirco distillery
  • Abatoire
  • 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
  • Microbrewery from locally grown hops and grain
  • Rain water 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. 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
  • 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, disconnected from nature and dehumanizing spaces. I know that some will disagree with this, but that is the subject of another blog.

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  • Martine Piebiak

    Our local hamlet needs you and your family to move here. Houses suitable for retrofitting and land available. We have at least five permaculture minded families here already. Grow your resilience in the beautiful Peace Country where pioneer times and the “old” ways are still in living memory.

    http://www.point2homes.com/CA/Real-Estate-Listings/AB/Eaglesham.html

  • Great Article Rob. Can I reprint it for those who are not logged in to your website?

    I am moving to a place in BC that has potential for just this type of microeconomy. In fact it has already begun out of necessity. Every time I visit I hear about more and more resources and connections being made. Our ecovillage is 7 km away from Lumby and we have received positive feedback from the district.

  • Charlie Green Bus

    Are you familiar with the Global Village Construction Set (and open source ecology)? They are developing a variety of open source farm machinery that would enable people anywhere to create a post-scarcity village.

  • greg

    They are still looking for people to create an eco village near Viking Alberta
    LInk:
    http://arsan.ca/our-projects/conservation-village.html

  • richard

    Great Thoughts, Rob.
    And a call out to anyone south of the border looking for a suitable place. Since reading this article, we’ve been trying to incorporate these ideas as we look to relocate our own farmstead/homestead to someplace that might be permanent for a couple generations. That seems to be something we’ve come across, is that the incredible mobility of our culture allows many folks to abandon ship for greener pastures. So instead, we are trying to be more intentional about where we not only want to live, but where our kids (and their kids if we make it that far) will want to live as well. Selecting a town that has been or can be “retrofitted/re-tooled” like Rob describes seems to be key.
    We did find a fairly nearby Colorado town, named Fowler, that seems to be on the right track:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/26/fowler-colorado-to-go-off_n_552624.html
    Plus the weather there is mostly mild, so even as it gets more extreme with climate change, it should still be livable. The residents seem to have grasped the idea that the farming that founded their town needs a little bit of extra alternative energy to sustain it into the future. And if the solar plant idea doesn’t turn out, maybe the cannery could again become a cannery 🙂
    So if you’re looking for someplace like Rob suggests, and don’t live in/near Alberta, check out Fowler Colorado. We certainly are.

  • Carmen Lamoureux

    The important thing is to get the conversation started- to increase the awareness in these types of towns that there are individuals and guilds out there who are seriously interested in moving to smaller centers to create the lifestyle they desire for themselves and their families, and who want to add value to the local economic and social infrastructures. Working with existing town councils would likely be essential to creating a harmonious revitalization/re-imagineering process, so that a mutually beneficial outcome is realized.

  • Jim

    Brilliant article Rob!

    Some of the tool designs for this brave new future are already being designed. Check out http://opensourceecology.org. With open source plans for many farm essentials available and others being developed, the vision of revitalized villages with local manufacturing and small scale, responsive resilient businesses is possible.

    I foresee micro manufacturing sprouting up in repurposed shipping containers supporting all the local industries a village requires. These can be mobile, expandable and easily modified compared to traditional stick built (wood, steel or concrete) facilities.

  • kai

    Great words! All the ingridents are there waiting for some chefs to spice it up.
    http://www.transitionnetwork.org/ingredients

  • shelaine sparrow

    Great ideas Rob. I am originally from Sedgewick (which is in the county of Flagstaff actually). I am glad to hear there may be some policy changes – that is not what I have heard – rather only hearing about few larger farms getting larger and larger. I hope that is true that there is an openness for change – there is indeed loads of potential.
    Thanks for all you do.

  • Tim Dowling

    My concern is that this is an approach coming in from the outside. We have to be very careful when messing with nature and that includes towns that already exist outside of our designs. Inundating a town with newcomers with an agenda is a dangerous proposition, especially if you are going to use existing infrastructure that those in the town have built over generations. If this is going to be done properly, it must be done with respect to local culture, traditions and perspectives. Towns need to not only want this change but lead it, with new recruits filling in where they are needed.

    Got me thinking, thanks for the read.

    • rob avis
      Rob Avis

      Tim,

      Without question there needs to be respect. I think that these small towns are dieing for new energy, a lot of them have very few young people, children, families. Just having a larger population of this demographic in these dieing towns would change things on its own. I believe that the older generation has so much still to teach us, and they are waiting for their students to arrive. If young people do not re-engage these small towns, they will end up where they are going and we will continue to have larger and larger unsustainable mega-cities. Thanks for posting.

      • Lora P

        Have lived in a small town called Irricana and my vision for this town is to make it affordable for people to live here by going ‘green’ so to speak. Adding solar and wind power to light up the night – ie street lights. We have a few now lining our walking paths. Composting. We have a community garden but we could do more with providing courses for the newcomers to town. Encouraging alternative building methods ie, strawbale, cob etc. Irricana could be built into a ‘model green community’ that will bring tourists and interested people from far and wide to see how to live frugally but happily. I like your ideas, worm farms, composting teas etc. etc. we can do this.

    • Gilles Leclair

      I totally agree that small, formerly agriculturally based towns, are dying. Crop farms get bigger and farm worker populations decrease and little hope that cattle feedlots will make up the difference. Towns and villages commonly look for that one big business that will move in and give them jobs, revenue, and a ‘place on the map’. They crave an influx of energy especially when many residents commute out of town to work. What they need, even if they are not aware of it, is greater economic self-reliance and immunity from the vagaries of a bi-polar global financial system. This article sufficiently highlighted that need. Thanks Rob!

  • Vince & Louella

    Love the Idea, Dinsmore is a small community that is looking for some development .. Where to start is the question?

  • Sherri Morrison

    Rob – that’s a brilliant idea and a solid, viable plan that is incredibly appealing to me. I especially love the revitalization element because it makes use of infrastructure already in place. Town healing, land healing, soul healing, family healing, community healing… it’s all there 🙂

  • kurtis

    As always, you cut the edge of the way things can be.

    Well done ser; keep it up!

  • Carmen Lamoureux

    I completely love this idea, Rob! I’ve thought about this so much since our class, and do believe it’s the way to go. So, how would we go about getting something like this started? One idea might be to create some form of “registry” of interested parties, some of whom have the skills and financial ability to participate in the initial stages of the project, others who have the desire to participate in other ways. Various types of guilds could be created through the use of the “registry”, which might include information on various towns throughout the province that are potentially ripe for revitalization.

  • Alla

    Hi Rob! Excellent blog post and very relevant to seekers of meaningful work! I’ll be sharing this through the Meaningful Work Project. And I look forward to catching up soon.

  • Tayler Krawczyk

    Awesome blog rob!

    Very well articulated. My only thought is that cities, I think, could still sustain us, but only if they became more like a collection of smaller villages (neighborhoods) like you describe. More greenspace for growing crops, trees & animals.

    Keep up the blogs!

  • richard

    These are great ideas that I hope come to pass. Of course the obstacles we face are not the doing of these things, but those that would try to stop or control the doing of them so that they siphon off the value without any contribution.

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