A view of greening alfalfa at Living Lands in Eastern Washington
On Tuesday evening, Heather and I hosted a gathering at our house for the members of Living Lands I, an LLC that we formed three years ago in collaboration with a group of farmers and investors. Together we wrote our purpose and legal documents to place the highest priority on soil health. Under the astute guidance and leadership of Jim Baird, a longtime farmer and businessperson in Eastern Washington, we purchased a 100-acre piece of farmland in the Columbia River Basin. Jim manages the land in conjunction with his other activities, including Cloudview EcoFarms, an educational and experimental farm project with operations in Royal City and Ephrata.
Our conversation was wide-ranging and spirited. We talked about soil and carbon and the best way to figure out whether we are improving the health of the soil. We are all concerned about water, and it was enlightening to hear from Jim and Sam (another investor and also a farmer based near Ellensburg) about the history of Washington’s water districts, irrigation programs, and farmer involvement. We are currently in the process of transitioning the land we purchased to certified organic status, an important element in our pursuit of soil health, although by no means a silver bullet. This year, we leased the farmland to a young couple Jim has been mentoring. They have been part of Cloudview and are committed to lives in farming. By leasing our land and raising commercial crops (currently alfalfa), they are able to make a living as farmers while continuing their explorations of farming practices.
The next morning, I attended a breakfast meeting here in Seattle. The sponsor was The Nature Conservancy’s NatureVest, a relatively new division that is bringing private and public capital to conservation through various kinds of investment. If I thought 100 acres of farmland in Eastern Washington was complicated, then the work of NatureVest is off the charts. Our state’s land commissioner spoke about the scope of the need for conservation and at the same time the intimate, personal nature of every transaction.
Living Lands and NatureVest are each, in their own ways, vibrant, exciting and multi-dimensional investment opportunities. They are moving the needle toward sustainability in very specific ways, in very specific places. With Living Lands, it’s one piece of land at a time. And the same is true of NatureVest. They’re just dealing with bigger pieces of land!
The vocal financial mainstream is dismissive of “one off” approaches like Living Lands and NatureVest. They want to invest in things that can “scale”, because, really, what’s the potential value of an enterprise that can’t aspire to exponential growth powered by an algorithm or financial model or standardized service model? But when we talk about scale, we should be sure to ask, "Scale for whom?" It usually means a scale that would make investors happy, and, unfortunately, happy investors are often inclined to ignore or minimize employees, nature, communities and families, because their underlying motivation is almost inevitably connected to increasing profit margins.
I say “often” and “usually” because clearly there are investors (and more and more of them) who want to prioritize those other areas rather than exploit them. But even then, there is something in our culture that makes the concept of “scale” difficult to escape. Both inside and outside the mainstream, the obsession with scale is also rationalized as a way to reach more people or “make more impact”. In fact, even an employee of The Nature Conservancy had the audacity to say that he really hoped we wouldn’t need TNC someday—that the goal is to “figure all this stuff out” so the real money can come in and get all of this “to scale”.
Scaling inherently means making a product, service, or solution more uniform and repeatable. This may have been a novel and critical approach in the industrialization and manufacturing eras of the 19th and 20th centuries, but we have gotten stuck and carried away in a world that is drastically different from 100 or even 50 years ago. For people who are so proud of our innovations and creativity, we are really quite old-fashioned to believe the same principles that brought us through the industrial age are going to see us through this next era.
We seem to think it’s appropriate to scale everything—farms, education, healthcare, and even relationships. Yet, people and places are so much more diverse, nuanced and interdependent than assembly-line products or software code. When we scale enterprises that directly serve people and places in all of their uniqueness and weirdness, we must inevitably standardize our understanding of those people and places. In the process, we surely fail to engage them and ourselves fully. We sacrifice quality for quantity.
My reaction to scale is visceral and intense. I find it dehumanizing, single-minded, and boring! We are not going to “scale” Living Lands. We may form Living Lands II and buy another piece of farmland. When we do, we’ll need to pay as much attention to it as we have to Living Lands I. We’ll need to ensure that we raise the right kind of crops for what’s in the soil. We’ll need to find the right person or people to lease the land. It’s a complicated endeavour, but that’s what makes it meaningful. It’s personal and place-based and unique. We are forming relationships that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. We are placing the highest value on the land and the people who know the land.
Likewise, I cannot imagine TNC “scaling” its work, and I fervently hope that is not the intention. Rather, I see it experimenting, trying out ideas, sharing what works and doesn’t, spending a lot of time and energy on design and detail, and putting together fascinating, compelling conservation investments that address what is uniquely applicable and needed in each particular ecosystem.
These are the kinds of investments that should take over the world—not by scaling so that VCs and Wall Street can swoop in and do their “magic”, but by inspiring the participants, engaging the public and working at an essential level—real dirt, real trees, real plants, real people, real understanding and real value.
P.S. – For further exploration of the economic aspects and implications of this subject of scale, I highly recommend Jeremy Rifkin’s latest book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society.