Traditional salaried work is less and less reliable. In rural Colorado, young adults are experimenting with another economy, based on barter, collaboration, and mutual help.
Look around. The systems we have counted on for generations — like government, a stable climate, and a sustainable economy — are becoming less dependable each day. As reliable structures disappear, many of us are trying to build resiliency in our own lives. Here in Montrose, Colorado, we are figuring out how to do that affordably and efficiently through an endeavor of teaching, mentoring, labor and residency. We call it Transition Lab.
I was inspired to take this work on after some personal experimentation. Despite the fact that nobody in my family has grown their own food for generations, I count myself among the thousands of young people who have taken a recent interest in sustainable farming. But you only have to get your hands a little dirty to find there are enormous economic obstacles to becoming truly food-self-reliant. Growing your own food is a lot of work, and while I have become an avid gardener, I am nowhere near self-sufficiency.
It was reading about Kipp Nash that changed everything for me. Nash had wanted to become a farmer but land was prohibitively expensive. So instead of buying his own property, he went to a bunch of neighbors up and down the street in Boulder, Colorado, and convinced them to let him cultivate their yards and buy into his Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) endeavor. The homeowners didn’t have to worry about lawn maintenance any longer, their water bills would be the same, they got fresh organic veggies, and Nash got his farm – on 13 different plots of land that first year.
I envision that the future of our economy will look a lot like this: people using innovative approaches to provide for our basic needs. There will always be people who work in traditional jobs with steady incomes – like the residents who owned the land where Nash farmed. They will use dollars to pay for health insurance, iPods, and the mortgage.
But a second group of folks, like Kipp, will find creative ways to use existing resources more elegantly, and to offer others something in the process. This kind of exchange happens in a collaborative economy rather than the traditional one. In Kipp’s case, he used an existing resource to make money while benefitting the homeowners, too. In the process, he did something else, too: Kipp revitalized the rural virtues of stewardship and self-sufficiency in a place where farms used to be: the suburbs.
My wife and I decided to take Nash’s model a step further. By exchanging rent in our guest bedroom for labor in our garden, we could take money out of the picture altogether while providing affordable housing and employment to a young farmer. Through our local CSA, we had become friends with an intern named Evan Lavin. Once the growing season ended, he was looking for something to do. We proposed that he put 15 hours of labor a week into our garden in exchange for rent.
That autumn, Evan moved in, and over the next seven months we converted 3000 square feet of lawn into a forest garden and five low tunnel greenhouses for just $500. Evan saved $4000 on rent, and we got free produce throughout the winter and spring. The experiment proved that we could build resilience affordably and efficiently by simply re-imagining our relationships with one another and our resources.
As Evan says, “The gardens are not a magic wand, but they have gotten the household further away from dependency on others and created a more self-sustaining lifestyle, which is really the most American thing to do.”
When friends started asking us if we could find skilled residents for them, we realized that this approach could be a game changer for sustainable living. In particular, we noticed that most of the folks seeking skilled residents were retirees. They were not just willing to exchange food for rent; many of them were willing to pay for help with simple tasks like driving them to the store, cooking a few meals a week, and being there in case of an accident.
If we could use our model to provide basic affordable eldercare, we might make a lot of money, produce a lot of employment, and address a huge need in our community. But finding the right people, facilitating their relationships with the employers they would be helping, and making sure they had the right skills would be the biggest limitations. After all, nobody wants an unemployed 26-year-old just to move into the house and promise to garden.
To meet these challenges, in 2012 we founded Transition Lab. In addition to teaching food production, our curriculum includes instruction in basic medical care, conflict mediation, advanced democratic citizenship, and much more, providing young people with a diverse skill set for self-reliance once they graduate.
Rashyll Leonard, who attended one of the first courses at Transition Lab, has gone on to study engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. She writes, “Lack of motivation and frustration are the two biggest hurdles I have to face in college, but because of my experience with Transition Lab, I have the skills to overcome them. I now know how to slow down and actually look at what is going on in my own head. Because of this, I am able to find the root of the problem, fix it and finish my work without pulling out my hair or losing sleep.”
Like Leonard and Lavin, our students will be the co-creators and investors who commit themselves to the economies of the future. As Lavin points out, “The educated worker is utterly essential to the survival of humanity.”
This year we’ll be bringing together students, teachers, and potential hosts together all summer to facilitate relationships and begin transforming our community. To be frank, we have only proven our models viable on a small scale, and working to reproduce them on the scale of community will be a grand experiment. But as the traditional economy continues to destabilize every part of our world, spending our time and energy figuring out how to build resilience is the only sane thing to do.
Russell Evans lives in Montrose, Colorado, where he taught Spanish for six years before founding Transition Lab. When he isn’t playing with his daughter, he’s working in the garden or wandering through the woods.