Small is Possible

Last week I had Tuesday off from work to take care of the kids while Mia was away for work which means that I had 7 extra hours of free time whilst they were at school.  That typically means a busy day at the farm or gardens, but as I am fighting off my perreniall deep chest infection (bronchitis) I instead chose to dig into a book and drink tea all day.  Poor me…

My brain needed a break from technical books on ethanol and biodiesel production and  the mail woman had just dropped of Lyle Estill’s Small is Possible which is only a few hundred pages of anecdotes so into the recliner I went.  The book tells the dual story of one man’s (Estill) journey from Big to Small combined with a similar  journey for the small community of Chatham County, North Carolina.    I found both very interesting and was amazed (having never been to Ithaca, NY) that there was such a place.  In the past decade Chatham has forged close ties with their community college and started a sustainability program, founded a local Food Co-op, a vibrant advocacy group, and even started a successful 1,000,000 gallon biodiesel social business that also acts as an incubator for local eco-businesses including greenhouse greens and organic farming on what was once a brown field.  This is my dream for our Wisconsin Sustain Jefferson program.

As inspiring as the community in the book is, (and trust me its got me fired up!) I found the story of Lyle the most intriguing.  He is obviously incredibly gifted and was able to start from a level of financial success that I do not possess so on one hand he could be written off as a savant that others can’t compare to.  But while he is certainly gifted and blessed, the most important attribute that he has is a lack of risk aversion.  Seemingly a dozen times in the book he completely shifts careers and starts a new one -often from scratch as an entrepreneur.  This is something I find almost incomprehensible.

My father retired from a job he held for 30 years despite the opportunity to potentially make more going freelance because he choose stability for himself and his family.  I have always respected that descision, and my 10 years with one company has alot to do with that.  While I jump from project to project in my free time with reckless abandon, my work life is rock solid.  It also provides very little meaning to my life (other than providing me with the base to do other things), but the paycheck is good and virtually gauranteed.  But working for a Fortune 100 company whose mission is Feeding the Beast is not making the world a better place.  It is NOT Being the Change.  

The counterpoint is that I only work 4 days a week which lets me farm part-time, and the good income allows me to buy $5000 hand tractors and build gasifiers and biodiesel processors on a whim.  The amble vacation gives me flexibility to do presentations seemingly monthly around the state.  It is safe, stable, and allows me to do Good in the world.  But the more the World needs good, the more my 4-6 hours of weekly work Being the Change starts to feel like I am coming up short.  Managing retail distribution feels (and is) pointless and shallow when you are staring down Peak Events in Food, Energy, and Population.

At the end of Small is Possible Lyle Estill leaves the reader with this conversation he had with a close friend:

I often ask Gary when he is going to abandon his commute, and his livelihood, and jump into Life’s Big Adventure — doing something that is infused with daily meaning.  He plays with the idea.  We need all the players we can get.

This afternoon I have called a meeting to discuss my CSE proposal for our community.  I need to learn more about what zoning, permits, etc will be needed, as well as get more input into the fundamentals of the idea: space, equipment and energy needs, time commitments and try to drum up addition support for people to actually make it a reality.  My hope is to have a running prototype up by next fall in a dedicated structure… somewhere.  If we can get a small scale one running, I feel we may be ready to pitch it Big – and shoot for a business that would dually support many of the needs of the community while providing employment for several people.  Maybe then I will finally more fully commit to Life’s Big Adventure.  Thanks for coming along for the ride!


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