Small Businesses Are Backbone of Communities
Big businesses that dominate a town’s economy don’t have the community’s
interests at heart. For communities to thrive, they need locally owned
businesses, including farms.
Rural sociologist Tom Lyson holds up his U.S. Department of Commerce
badge and says that it’s his ticket to the inner sanctum of the Census Bureau.
Lyson is the first sociologist to get into Census Bureau data files for the
purpose of showing that communities dependent on big business interests are
less well off—economically and in every other way—than those built on small
locally owned businesses.
“When the economy of a community is dominated by one large plant or nationally
owned business, it has a dampening effect on organizational life which, in
turn, means less investment in the well-being of the community over the long
haul,” explains Lyson, citing an observation that was made in testimony before
Congress at the end of World War II.
As Lyson tells the story (that has taken him years to piece together),
Congress didn’t listen to the sociologists of the day, awarded munitions
contracts to big businesses, and the military-industrial complex was born. As
long as the United States dominated the world economy, businesses could afford
to enter into a tacit social contract with labor unions. As a result, towns in
the industrial heartland, Buffalo and Syracuse among them, thrived.
“But when the economies of Europe, Japan, and southeast Asia became strong
competitors, American corporations reacted by becoming lean and mean—they moved
out and left these communities to die,” Lyson points out.
That doesn’t happen to communities that have a strong, independent, merchant
class of small businesses and family-owned farms. Small business owners are
committed to their communities; they might be fiscally conservative but
nevertheless won’t let the schools or the roads go to pot. What’s more, locally
owned businesses spawn a rich associational life. Kiwanis clubs, bowling
leagues, hospital auxiliaries, church youth groups, and choral societies all
contribute to better social outcomes such as less crime, fewer out-of-wedlock
births, and better health.
“But if you’re working for Kodak, you are thinking about where you’ll be
transferred next. So your allegiance is to the corporation not to the
community,” Lyson says.
“I get really juiced up when I can make the big connections, when the
lightbulb goes on and I can push things a bit,” says Lyson, professor of rural
sociology, who, a dozen years ago, found in the college a home for his
controversial ideas. And a place in which to act on them, too.
Take the theory of civic community, which says that the goal of
agriculture should be more than producing low-cost food and making a profit;
rather that agriculture and food are inextricably linked to the community and
to the environment as well.
“And if the food costs a little more, then I’ll pay more for it,” he
adds, “because there is value in having farms out there, value in keeping
people employed in agriculture.”
Lofty idea, a holdover perhaps from Lyson’s early days as a warrior in
President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. But how likely is it to fly at a
time when the middle class in America is struggling financially to keep its
head above water?
Lyson has put the theory of civic community into action as director of
Farming Alternatives: Cornell’s Agriculture and Development and Diversification
Program. The program is a $250,000-a-year think tank that promotes community
agricultural development through sophisticated direct marketing of locally
grown, value-added products—what’s known as the New Agriculture.
Examples include fresh fruit and vegetable stands at travel plazas on
the New York State Thruway, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture
(CSAs) where individuals buy a share of a farmer’s crop, restaurants featuring
New York State–grown produce and wines, and agritourism operations such as
U-pick pumpkin farms featuring hay rides and homemade pies.
Lyson contends that in the Northeast we’ve paid a lot of attention to
industrial, mass production agriculture by increasing yields, increasing milk
output, making farms bigger, and making farmers into managers. But if this is
all we rely on, we’ll get beaten by global-scale processors from California,
Florida, Texas, and Mexico. Lyson says that instead of putting all its economic
eggs in one basket, New York should be simultaneously focusing on bringing
production and consumption closer together.
New York State imports an estimated 85 percent of its food and that
percentage would be closer to 95 were it not for milk.
“New York City is at the center of the biggest consumer market in the
world, stretching from Boston to Washington, and we’ve hardly begun to exploit
it,” Lyson says. “Why should the food eaten in Manhattan come from California,
when a lot of it could be grown next door in the Hudson Valley?”
By developing unique, regionally identified products and cultivating
local and regional markets, the potential is unlimited. Lyson points to cheese
as an example.
“The biggest economic multiplier is with a cheese plant,” he says,
explaining that in the manufacture of cheese, every dollar rotates back six
times through the community (to the farmer, the veterinarian, the feed seller,
the milk hauler, etc.). “So we need to think creatively about cheese just like
we did with the wine industry. Because of the Farm Family Winery Act of 1975,
there are more than 100 wineries in the state now. Why don’t we do this with
cheese plants and have a wine and cheese trail?”
In the long run, Lyson says, Farming Alternatives establishes an
agriculture that will be food for communities and the environment.
He points out further, “The New Agriculture isn’t an act of resistance to
industrialized agriculture; rather it’s an opportunity for a small, local,
consumer-driven food system that disappeared a century ago to come back and
exist with it side by side.”
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