Building Stronger Communities
Building Stronger Communities

Building Stronger Communities

by James E. Shaw of Brookfield, WI

If we are truly committed to building stronger communities it is going to be necessary to take a look at our most basic presumptions. The enemies of local economies are deeply ingrained. Permit me a short story to illustrate. A few weeks ago I was attending a banquet honoring inductees into the Hall of Fame of a small town that I formerly called home for ten years. In the presence of these fine people who have lived extraordinary lives benefiting their community, a bit of inspiration rubbed off.

It was a good evening. The introductory speeches were witty, charming and insightful. The acceptance speeches were spiced with laughter, reflection and even a few tears as the children of these septuagenarians were introduced. The food was excellent – a delicious tasting cut of locally-grown Colorado lamb. In the glow of the evening, the conversation at our table turned to the fine wine that we were enjoying. It quickly became obvious that the gentleman sitting next to me knew a little more than most about wine.

We soon discovered the reason. Coincidentally, the gentleman sold this particular wine in his shop and personally knew the winemaker – his vineyard being less that a two hour drive away. He raved about the wine, and told some interesting tales about the winemaker. Everyone at the table enjoyed his stories. Having a keen interest, even a passion for farming, especially small sustainable operations – locally produced, locally consumed food, I asked how the wine was doing in his shop.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for what he said because he obviously liked the wine very much. He shocked us by saying he had to recommend other wines to his customers because he could get California wine cheaper. He said that he felt he owed it to his customers to sell them wine that made their money go the farthest. He is indeed doing just that. By using the cheapest price as his primary guideline, the shop owner is sending his customer’s money out of the state and all the way to the coast, instead of sending the customer’s money to a nearby community. In addition, he is also sending trucks the farthest too – over a thousand miles to the coast to pick up the wine when a trip to the nearby vineyard would have netted him as good or better vine.

We all need to get involved in changing this deep seated assumption that low price should be the primary factor by which we judge what we are going to buy. I failed my newly made friend and the spirit of the evening. I only raised an eyebrow. I should have challenged his supposition. We all should challenge such thinking when we, or our friends, drive miles out of the way to buy something at a discount when the same product or a similar product is available at our local hardware store, or market, for a few pennies or dollars more.

If we want better, stronger communities we don’t have to do things worthy of being inducted into our local Hall of Fame to be doing our part. Every day in our seemingly insignificant decisions and in the presumptions we live by, we affect our world. We need occasionally to challenge our ways of thinking – examine the consequences of our world views and ask if we are not contributing to the very things we say we hate – global warming, too much traffic and unhealthy food. Each of us need, as one of the inductees mentioned in her comments, enough humility, to do as Pogo did, to look in the mirror and recognize that the enemy that we should be conquering is not some unseen, unknown enemy but our own short-sighted and ill-formed ideas – the enemy is us.

A very good place to start is to debunk the idea that it is in the best interest of society, or even in our own best interest, to always buy at the cheapest price. Our lives would be very different if we questioned this deeply-held belief. The consequences reverberate through our communities and our country.

In this instance, promoting California wine instead of a regional wine makes it harder for the local person to make a living – to make a fair profit on his time and his investment – and it makes our own lives a little less interesting. It is just down-right fun to know the people who produce our food – to have an on-going relationship with those people who sell us what we need, be it groceries, hardware, or clothes.

Buying the out of state wine also contributes to an often over-looked cost to society of consuming food from distant farms. Much of what is wrong with America’s approach to growing food is our presumption that it is to our country’s benefit to use massive amounts of petroleum to grow, fertilize and distribute our food. The untold costs of such thinking are devastating, both to petroleum reserves and our precious topsoil. To the extent that I can, I need to counter that thinking, even if it is only to the point that I have the nerve to challenge the assumption behind a casual comment during a dinner conversation.

When we see an injustice or short-sighted thinking – we need to take a stand. If enough of us do it, the world can be changed for the better. No matter how big our world, we can do our part to make it better, if we will commit ourselves to finding the right measure by which to judge wine or anything else. Rarely is it in ours or the world’s best interest to judge anything solely by the “almighty dollar.”