GOOD: Crowdfunding Meets Small-Scale Farming

“Check out my Kickstarter page! If you donate, I’ll send you some fresh cheese. If you tweet about it, you’ll get a wool cap.”

I either love this or think it’s a really bad idea.

Good reports:

“Farmhopping is the brainchild of recent business school graduate Rossi Mitova, a 25-year-old extreme skier and self-proclaimed ‘city girl’ who only recently fell for the charms of the countryside. “A friend of mine bought some animals on a farm in Bulgaria and started taking care of them,’ she tells me. ‘We started visiting the farm and getting freshmade yogurt and milking the animals and stuff.’

It wasn’t easy to explain the concept to the farmer Todor Georgiev, who runs Perun. Fanatical about protecting Bulgaria’s endangered heritage breeds—including Karakachan sheep and long-haired mountain goats—he’s less connected to the latest internet trends. ‘He’s not at all digitally savvy. It takes him, like, an hour to take upload and send us some pictures.’ Also tricky was explaining concepts like ‘crowdfunding’ and ‘collaborative consumption’ to a farmer from the old school, but according to Mitova, Georgiev is really excited, not just for the “finances but also about connecting with people around the world.’ Read more

Design Impact Reflects on its First Year Launching a Social Enterprise in India

Design Impact's fellows apply a grassroots design approach within community organizations in India

At Dowser, we were excited to recently reconnect with the leadership team of Design Impact at the end of their pilot year launching an innovative social enterprise across India. Per the name, Design Impact addresses social problems using the toolkits of design in a grassroots way. Ramsey Ford and Kate Hanisian, the co-directors of Design Impact, have been working with small businesses in India to develop sustainability-produced, fair trade products for international markets.

In November, Hanisian and Ford were joined in India by six international fellows with design backgrounds, who received funding from Design Impact to work with community-based organizations, fusing design and social enterprise. When Dowser spoke to Ford, he and Hanisian were in Thiruchuli, Tamil Nadu, where they were working to develop a fair trade soap that is now being sold in stores in the U.S., including Whole Foods. Ford shared some takeaways from their pilot year, as well as thoughts about their vision moving forward.

Dowser: What’s the update on the products you are developing?

Ford: We have launched one project—we’re selling fair trade glycerin soaps—the glycerin is made locally with biodiesel energy, made from a local nut, and we’re hoping to scale through a connection through Whole Foods. We worked with ODAM to put together a shipment of about 1600 soaps that arrived in the States in December last year. We’re starting in some Ohio stores, and then got into our first Whole Foods just a few weeks ago—and as a small producer, we start out in a store or two, and if we do well we’ll move up to regional or national. Sustainable production level would be about 1000 soaps a month—so that would work if we were in about thirty Whole Foods.

How are you determining whether the soaps qualify as ‘Fair Trade’?

One of the reasons the village wanted to do this was to support the biodiesel program, but another was to create good jobs. The product is not certified fair trade-you have to be in products for about 1.5 years before you apply. But we put into practice fair trade—the primary one is that wages are about four times what people might make as agricultural labors–$5 a day, roughly, as opposed to $1.50 per day. And the women who work there have rights, they have a say in how things go, and they have benefits. The women who are working there are happy to have the jobs, and ODAM is excited to have the project—it’s a profitable intervention and for them, it’s been a big learning experience, and they’re trying to look at other places where they can do similar work, and find  ways to use social enterprises to deal with local problems. Read more

Loan Modification Program Helps Homeowners Stave Off Foreclosure

ESOP is helping homeowners in Cleveland, where 25 percent of homeowners there have underwater mortgages, with an innovative approach.

My report on ESOP’s innovative approach to helping underwater homeowners, for Dowser:

In 2010, when Antonio Martin, a 36-year-old husband and father of three who lives in a suburb of Cleveland, was laid off from his job at a Verizon retail store, he could no longer afford his $1,132 monthly mortgage payments. He had previously struggled with his mortgage, years ago, when he found that the adjustable rate loan he had taken on was making his payments skyrocket. (An adjustable rate mortgage loan comes with a variable interest rate tied to an index that effectively transfers risk to the borrower instead of the lender.) An organization named ESOP had helped Martin renegotiate that loan; now, unemployed and in fear of losing his family’s home, he turned to ESOP again. The result, after a consultation and application period that led to Martin’s enrollment in a principal reduction modification loan from Ocwen Financial Corporation, was that his mortgage payment went down to $640 per month. On top of that, the principal loan on the house—which is rapidly depreciating in value—will be reduced by$34,000 each year for three years, for a total reduction of $112,000.

“I went to ESOP and filled out the packet for the loan modification program offered by the Obama administration—we had to try that first. But I didn’t get approved for that, for some reason. Then ESOP told me that they would approve me for a modification to my loan,” Martin explained to Dowser. “It was pretty simple because the relationship that ESOP has built with these loan companies—working with them on behalf of homeowners—makes the process easier. This is the easiest process I’ve gone through in dealing with the loan companies.” Read more

Doing The Math

The FY2012 Defense Authorization Act will bring the total military spending to about $670 billion.

About fifteen percent of the U.S. population relies on food stamps.

American Airlines recently filed for bankruptcy, with four billion dollars in the bank, because they didn’t feel like they could pay their bills.

Unemployment is around nine percent.

There is a total of around $5 million nationwide in defaulted student loans.

We no longer have a free public university in this country.

It doesn’t add up.

A Politics Outside Washington Unites A Generation

Occupy protesters in front of the White House last week

Today, the religion writer and editor of Petrolmag.com Jonathan D. Fitzgerald wrote an essay that compared my Killing the Buddha piece on Occupy Wall Street, “Mic Checked,” with a Washington Post essay by Iraq War veteran and current graduate student Thomas Day reflecting on the Penn State sexual harassment scandal. In both cases, Fitzgerald says that we are both similarly describing the overall pessimistic view of our generation, and disillusionment with the older generations that are supposed to be guiding this country. He says that my piece, which seems to end on a positive note by describing the power of Occupy to transform an individual and foster activist communities, is actually still pessimistic – because, to Fitzgerald, to occupy isn’t “everything,” as I wrote. For him, it’s not enough. It’s not enough to occupy space; we need more concrete, “creative solutions.”

But I think Fitzgerald underestimates what Occupy Wall Street has done for the nation. It has not created legislation, that’s true. Nor has it brought, say, Goldman Sachs to their knees, begging for mercy. There were too many cops around for that to come to pass. But Occupy has awakened Americans who were either drifting through life in consumerist slumbers or who were too isolated and depressed to speak out about their hardships. It was also a collective, generational proclamation to predecessors (our parents, perhaps), who fought for environmental justice and civil rights. It was our way of saying that we are continuing those unfinished fights, to the best of our ability: even though we are overwhelmingly underemployed and in debt.

Fitzgerald’s piece reminds me a bit of George Packer’s recent blog post, where he compares two equally distant extremes in American society: Peter Thiel, a wealthy, libertarian Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Ray Katchel, a former tech worker from Seattle who decided to take a bus to New York to join Occupy when he found himself unemployed, broke, and losing his apartment. Packer says that these two represent a “politics of dissolution” that unites Americans in a sense that they are both looking for something, anything, other than the existing order of things. “Something about the turbulence of this age, the deep sense of dissatisfaction with things as they are, prompts people to discard the stale verities and invent new ones,” Packer writes.  Read more

Great Example of Solution Journalism In NY Times

I am really pleased by my friend Sam Loewenberg’s recent NY Times op-ed about the East Horn famine crisis: he not only outlines the severity of the problem, pointing out specific instances of international failure to prevent or mitigate it, but he also suggests a potential example of a solution. This example is a small farm that uses localized funding sources and local knowledge. Last summer, we did a series at Dowser about similar efforts to prevent future famines that revolve around local communities and small shareholder farms. It’s great to see this idea presented in the mainstream press.

Here are the stories I did for Dowser on existing or potential solutions to the East Horn famine: