Will Earthaven Become a "Magical Appalachian Machu Picchu"?
Jonathan Dawson, a consultant in sustainable economics and recent past President of GEN, asked me to write this article for the “Economic Key” book in the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) Program of Gaia Education. —Diana
Earthaven, where I live, is a 15-year-old aspiring ecovillage in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, about an hour from Asheville. We govern ourselves with community meetings and committees; we live in small passive solar homes we build ourselves without bank loans; we’re off the grid.
However, in this economically depressed area of Southern Appalachia in the American South, we’re too far from Asheville to support commuting to jobs. There are no large employers within 20 miles, and local service jobs are mostly 10-15 miles away over winding mountain roads. Jobs must be available onsite or nearby.
While about 10 of our 45 members are retired, live on trust funds, or have other annuities, the rest of us must earn incomes onsite.
The Economics of a Rural Ecovillage
Many community members offer skilled or unskilled labor to other members and neighbors and sometimes for the community itself. This includes general labor, administrative work, bookkeeping, giving tours, cooking for onsite workshops, sewing, clearing trees, building roads, milling saw logs and cutting firewood, excavating roads and sites, and designing and building homes. It also includes designing and installing plumbing and off-grid power systems and repairing and maintaining buildings, roads, and utilities.
Several members work offsite — a tree surgeon, a plasterer, a solar system designer, counselors or teachers at an adjacent school for at-risk youth. Other members travel elsewhere: booksellers at conferences around the US, and workshop presenters and consultants. A few telecommute.
Because most onsite work opportunities require physical strength, the ability to operate heavy equipment, or skill in the building trades, men have a much easier time earning money here than most women. Thus young women sometimes move to Asheville to earn money. Sadly, we usually lose them for good.
So, like most rural ecovillages we need jobs onsite to attract and keep members and sustain our dream. And like ecovillages everywhere, we need other crucial necessities to live sustainably in community. Water, food, shelter. Waste management, electric power, a tractor, excavation equipment. Self-governance and agreements, social and cultural activities, community buildings. Education for our children. Tours, camping facilities, and indoor lodging for visitors.
The community itself supplies roads, a tractor, community buildings, and a campground, and six different onsite neighborhood water districts provide water. As individuals we provide our own electric power through off-grid PV systems, deal with our own waste by building composting toilets and constructed wetlands, and get additional water through roof water catchment. We co-create our governance process and agreements. As individuals and in small groups we generate Earthaven’s lively social and cultural scene.
Vehicle repair, welding, adobe bricks, honey, and goat milk are supplied by neighbors.
But it’s up to Earthaven’s social enterprises to supply everything else. In an ecovillage context, a “social enterprise” is a profit-making business or income-earning nonprofit set up to meet the group’s social and environmental needs, including the need to earn an income onsite.
Permaculture and Cottage Industries
When three of Earthaven’s founders who are also permaculture designers created the community Site Plan, they considered both ecological issues and potential income sources for members. The Site Plan took into account potential income streams, including forestry, lumber production, home construction, and “specialty agriculture, horticulture, and food production.”
The permaculture-based thinking of our founders, our Site Plan, and the need for social enterprises in a rural ecovillage, motivate some Earthaven members and groups of members to own and operate their own small-scale ecologically sound businesses, grow food for sale onsite rather than buying it from health food stores in town, and create a culture in which we hire each other for needed goods and services whenever possible. For example:
- Red Moon Herbs, which makes herbal products for women, and the annual Southeast Women’s Herbal Conference (both of which employ only women), provide income for the Earthaven woman who owns the businesses, and two Earthaven members, one full time and one part time, and a neighbor full-time.
- Useful Plants Nursery raises and sells organic fruit trees and berry bushes to local customers as well as to customers across the Eastern US, and provides income for two members.
- Road Warrior Construction builds passive-solar off-grid homes for Earthaven members and neighbors, and provides income for its two Earthaven owners and a full time job for one neighbor and occasional work for another Earthaven member.
- The Forest Children’s Program, a nonprofit homeschool enrichment program organized by a group of Earthaven parents and neighboring parents, serves Earthaven and neighbor children aged three to nine, and provides part-time employment for an Earthaven member and a neighbor.
- The new Alcohol Co-op, comprised of Earthaven members and neighbors and inspired by David Blume’s book, Alcohol Can Be a Gas, will collect the brewers’ mash from local breweries, and use grain and carbohydrate-rich crops grown by neighbors to create needed products and jobs. These will include 190-proof ethanol for use in chainsaws, the tractor, and vehicles, and the income-opportunity of owning an ethanol-powered vehicle fleet to provide car-pooling and a shuttle service to town. And wet ethanol mash for use as nutrient-rich food for members’ and neighbors’ chickens, turkeys, and pigs; as the fertile substrate for growing mushrooms and creating mushroom compost; raising worms and collecting worm castings; and raising tilapia and creating fish fertilizer — and the income opportunities for those who run these businesses.
Food, Glorious Food!
Six onsite agricultural projects may someday earn incomes for the member-farmers (all who currently have other income sources), who provide food for other members, neighbors, and sometimes local farmer’s markets. Currently these projects just break even, or don’t break even yet. The farmers lease from Earthaven small agricultural sites from a half-acre to four acres. The farmers must abide by the community’s land-use agreements (which protect creeks from soil erosion and manure run-off by well-designed riparian buffer zones) as well as by the standards of California’s 1991 Organic Foods Act. The agricultural projects include a trout pond operation managed by two members, and a half-acre orchard project managed by two others which in five years will bear apples and other fruit. Yellowroot Farm, operated by two Earthaven members, provides Biodynamic vegetables, chicken, eggs, pork, Shiitake mushrooms, sauerkraut, and pickles. Imani Agricultural Co-op, operated by four Earthaven members, offers eggs, chicken meat, dairy products, and pork. Two Imani Co-op members also make and sell yogurt, and sell organic meat, butter, cream, and other products they get wholesale. The four and a half-acre Gateway Farm, run by the same members who own Road Warrior Construction, has so far provided lumber (from clearing the field), hay, lamb, turkey, and squash.
In fact the Gateway farmers, Chris Farmer (who goes by “Farmer”) and Brian Love, set up the Voison rotational grazing method (which builds soil by moving livestock around a pasture in moveable fences); a fishpond; and a market garden and fruit tree operation. Planned as a social enterprise with multiple benefits for Earthaven members over time, in three to five years, besides lumber and hay, Gateway Farm should produce:
- Organic eggs, meat (chicken, turkey, lamb), and fish; vegetables, fruit, and nuts.
- Value-added products: sheep cheese, sauerkraut, garlic spread, horseradish, wool, yarn, felt, knitted apparel, pelts and clothing, sheepskin rugs, and soap.
- Organic vegetable seeds for a planned mail-order organic seed business.
- Jobs for people preparing value-added food and other products or who will work in the planned mail-order seed business.
Ambivalence about Business and Agriculture
While most Earthaven members appreciate and support these entrepreneurial efforts, others believe that small businesses — which necessarily involve money and budgets, buying and selling — are antithetical to ecovillage values. Or that onsite agriculture means the community risks the excesses of industrialized agriculture and its inevitable pollution of soil and water, rather than seeing the farms as sustainable agricultural projects that build Earthaven’s soil and protect its streams and groundwater. Various projects have in recent years been slowed down or stopped completely, either officially by proposals being blocked in community-wide meetings, or unofficially through emotional advocacies in the day-to-day life of the community.
Yet a thriving rural ecovillage requires viable, ecologically sustainable cottage industries to provide needed goods and services and jobs, and onsite, ecologically sustainable food production.
However, increasing numbers of Earthaven members also began seeing that the way the community governs itself and the limitations of its mission statement contribute to the problem. Earthaven uses pure consensus decision-making (which requires a clear, common mission and purpose), yet its mission and purpose statement is ambiguous enough to be interpreted multiple different ways. Thus sometimes people have blocked a proposal because of their own unique interpretation of the word “sustainability” or how the proposal violated the community’s mission and purpose. People also began realizing that Earthaven’s unwritten criteria for what constitutes a principled block is vague enough to also be multiply interpretable, and blocks have rarely been tested against these criteria anyway. Thus blocking for personal reasons has gone unchecked. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, many have begun realizing that having a sense of trust for other community members is one of the major requirements for using consensus in the first place. Without trust, community morale soon breaks down.
Earthaven is now working on wording its mission and purpose statement more explicitly. It is also considering a series of proposals to modify its consensus process, including emphasizing more clearly the role of trust. One suggests clear criteria for what constitutes a principled block (which cannot be tied to personal interpretations of what “ecological sustainability” means). Another requires people who block to work with the proposal’s supporters to create a new version that addresses the same issues. If passed, these proposals can help eliminate “personal interpretation” blocking and “personal distrust” blocking.
Seeds of the Future
They also wrote:
“Earthaven is a living seed in which we store the best of our cultural heritage, and an incubator in which we will embrace our responsibility as humans during the impending chaos. We will pass our mythology, technology, and community skills on to our extraordinary descendants, who will plant a polyculture of survival strategies and help cultivate a sustainable renaissance. Through cultural exchange between tribes, they will create a world more abundant, beautiful, and peaceful than ours.”
In 2008 ecovillage activist and GEN co-founder Robert Gilman observed at a GEN meeting in Los Angeles, “There’s a way in which ecovillagers are visitors from the future, working on sowing the seeds here and now to create that future.”
Here in the mountains of western North Carolina, we’re doing our best to sow those seeds. May Earthaven — may all our ecovillage projects — become fertile seeds for many generations.
—Diana Leafe Christian
Reprinted with permission from the forthcoming GEN book on sustainable economics in ecovillages. Green Books, London, 2009.
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