Building a Community of Trust

In late May of this year, I had the fortune of attending five days of intensive study at the E.F. Schumacher Society workshop, along with fellow Distributist, Tim Ehlen, founder of Building Catholic Communities. The Society, located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is well known for, among other things, the Berkshare local currency program, the Community Land Trust model developed by Bob Swann, and S.H.A.R.E. micro credit.

Susan Witt, Director for the Schumacher Society, was delighted to see Distributists attending the workshop. She didn’t hesitate to introduce me to the library’s broad selection of Distributist books. Like a kid in a candy store, I salivated at the sight of a nearly pristine copy of Harold Robbin’s “The Sun of Justice,” Cmdr. Herbert Shove’s “The Fairy-Ring of Commerce,” and two rows complete with the works of H.J. Massingham, Hilaire Belloc, and William Cobbett.

Our fellow students came from across the country. Among them were progressives, left-libertarians, cooperative and credit union representatives, and heads of nonprofit organizations. All of us were there for one reason: to experience the work of Schumacher and to learn how to incorporate the Society’s successes to our own movements.

E.F. Schumacher was a German economist who believed in small-scale economics, and, like Father Vincent McNabb, argued in favor of local production for local consumption. His book, Small is Beautiful, is considered one of the top 100 books of the 20th century.

On our first stop, we visited Indian Line Farm. Indian Line Farm has the distinction of being one of the very first CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) in the country. The workers approached the E.F. Schumacher Society about maintaining the farm after the unexpected death of the original owner. Wishing to save the CSA, the Society, along with a nature conservancy group, decided to apply the Community Land Trust (tenant/landlord) model developed by E.F. Schumacher Society founder Robert Swann.

But what exactly are CSAs and CLTs?

Community Supported Agriculture

A simple definition may be “community farms with an established local clientele.” Basically, one pays up front for produce (flowers, plants, meat, vegetables, eggs, fruits, etc., in any combination) received on a weekly or monthly basis during the Spring-Fall period. The advance payment, usually in lump sum, ensures the following year’s operational costs, including the farmer’s salary.

The CSA is an investment and as with any sincere investment the farmer and consumer stand to gain or lose.

Community Land Trust

There are over 100 land trusts in America. CLTs are 99-year lease agreements recognized by the owners of the land (the Trust) and the tenant. Why 99 and not 100? Well, in the United States anything beyond 99 years is considered ownership. The Trust purchases the land, while the tenant buys any buildings on the land (house, barn, etc.), reducing the cost of land ownership for the tenant. The CLT collects a small monthly sum from the tenant throughout the course of the lease, and a portion of this rent is allotted for the establishment of future land trusts.

The lease may be bequeathed and renewed, and it may come with conditions. For example, if the tenant is a farmer, the contract may stipulate certain areas remain untouched to preserve the eco-system, or perhaps the lease may insist the farmer only grow organic food, etc.

A CLT isn’t limited to farms. Trusts may be incorporated for a variety of things, including residential areas like co-housing developments.

After visiting Indian Line Farm, our next stop was the local bank. There the friendly tellers exchanged our U.S. Dollars for Berkshares.

Local Currencies

There are over 80 local currencies across the U.S. Of course, all of them are backed by national fiat money, because it is illegal to produce and print competitive currency. In the case of the Berkshare program, for every $9 exchanged, 10 Berkshares are received. That is a 10% savings at the small shop, a nice incentive for the local community to support the program. However, Berkshares succeeded in sharpening the education of citizens regarding the importance of money flow within the community.

Perhaps Berkshares are only band-aids to the wider problems of monetary reform, but these short term fixes have had surprising results. Currently, in Great Barrington there are over 230,000 Berkshares in circulation.

While at the bank, Susan Witt shared with us a bit about the E.F. Schumacher Society microloan system.

SHARE Microcredit

The SHARE (Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy) was a program designed to build self-reliance in the Berkshire region. Microcredit accomplishes this by lending money to those considered “high risk” either due to poor credit or because of their unique business plans.

The program works like this. A CD is set-up at a local bank. Passbooks, or their contemporary equivalent, are issued to all those shareholders who deposit money into the SHARE program. These are not your average investors. They are socially conscious neighbors who wish to become stakeholders in the community. To collateralize a loan, a board is set up to evaluate and approve loan requests based on character, reputation, and other areas usually ignored by lending institutions. The bank, with deposits of equal or lesser value already in the CD, grants the loan, takes 40% of the interest payment as an administrative fee, and the rest is deposited back into SHARE for future loans.

The size of these loans is small. They are usually no larger than $3,000 and are only awarded for projects that are productive, i.e. ventures bringing new wealth into the local community. Microcredit is on the cutting edge of rebuilding the cottage economy.

As Susan Witt recalls,

“Sometimes a modest amount of money can produce big benefits for the loan recipient and the community.”

The SHARE program ran in the region from 1981-1992, in response to insufficient financial support for small businesses. SHARE issued 23 loans without one deferral. Today, thanks to the efforts of the E.F. Schumacher Society and the success of the microcredit program, banks in the region offer alternatives to SHARE, at even lower rates.

Prior to the workshop, I had read about the Society’s work, but there was nothing like seeing it work in action. While most of the attendees had never heard of Distributism, they were interested, and the exchange of ideas during those few days was fruitful.

When asked how we can make Distributism happen, our readers should take note of the wonderful work being done by the E.F. Schumacher Society. The components outlined are relevant in the pursuit of our future goals. Community Land Trusts, local currencies, and microcredit programs are a step in the right direction towards the stimulation of Distributist communities.


John Médaille Monday, December 15, 2008 at 8:13:00 PM CST  

Bravo, Richard. Your meeting illustrated something that has always bothered me, namely that many of the people who know distributism have no way of putting it into action, and many of those who are putting it into action haven't heard about distributism. Your efforts help to bridge that gap. There may be a lot more "distributists" out there than we know about.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 9:38:00 AM CST  

I thought the whole point of distributism was that it's the closest thing to what people would like to do in an "informal" and practical way - hence it has a religious side to it, in that Chesterton and Belloc both thought that human flourishing per se happened most comprehensively in a Christian society (in terms of ideals, not always results!).

In that sense, you only need to walk down the street for 10 minutes to find some distributists; the only problem is that in our modern culture, what comes naturally (in the sense of rational human nature!) is directly opposed and "censored" by culture, economics etc so it never becomes very big and visible.

But it must be happening anywhere a few people share some normal life together.

Richard Aleman Tuesday, December 16, 2008 at 9:48:00 AM CST  

Hi DV,

I am not sure I would agree that distributism would be simply informal, if that is what you mean. After all, the early League did call for political action, had 24 branches across Britain, supported the implementation of guilds, in particular The Guild of St. Joseph and St. Dominic, and encouraged the Catholic Land Association actively.

Sure, Distributism is a philosophy, but it is also an economic model. And while for sure some people may live a distributist life, that life requires -as Dr. Carmine Gorga puts it- "interdependence".

For that to happen, initiatives are required not only to change the lives of individuals, but of society at large. These "schemes" were always advocated by the early movement, and so, we continue today to advocate organization.

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