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Growing Beyond Growth

Much of the work of grant writing involves the interpretation of a really good idea, an idea that is going to change things, for either the individual or the organization that came up with it, or for a larger system. If it’s a really really good idea, it might do both, and it might even spread and grow to reach the masses! That’s what we want, right? When it comes to the work that we do at Refonte Ventures, the really good ideas that clients bring to us focus on doing things differently in agriculture. Differently from conventional ag, or “big ag.” Differently in the sense that, rather than seeking to do only what is best for their pocketbook, our partners seek to do what is best holistically for all entities involved. That includes the pocketbook, yes, but it also includes human nutrition, our health, the health of the land and the soil, and the animals in our care. Differently because, rather than the many ideas that developed into systems that have come to govern so much of our world, the ideas brought to us at Refonte Ventures are not defined by tunnel vision. These ideas revolve around doing one’s best to see the whole.

The whole becomes clear after much needed rain in the midst of a drought.

Seeing the whole is not a simple or straightforward thing to do. We live in a highly individualistic society that values the one over the whole, the individual over the community. In this fast-paced culture, the success of the individual (success being the most important thing) hinges upon that individual’s ability to make money, and making money means maximizing efficiency and streamlining processes. Products must be made with as little effort as possible, and they must be made in excess. In order to maximize profit, production should be vertically integrated, singularly owned. This is not a holistic model, but rather a greed-based model. Or in nicer terms, a growth-based model.

The word “growth” is most often seen in a positive light, and rightfully so - in most contexts. However, in the context of our human existence through the lens of our societal narratives and structures (i.e. economics, political power, property ownership, resources, etc.), growth has come to equal greed. Growth has been used to justify limitless expansion. Limitless land and power acquisition. Limitless resource extraction. We have come to accept these things as fact, we go to the grocery store and pick out vegetables that are out of season. The human quest for more, for greater success, and for greater convenience; the human quest for growth, has led us here.

A positive perspective on growth.

Here we are, many hundreds of years of growth down the line, and we are finding that this level of endless growth is unsustainable. In response, communities are trying to do things differently, and we arrive once more at the beginning of this whole rant. There are people working to try and solve this conundrum, and luckily, the work of Refonte Ventures allows us to help in this effort. Everything we do is in service of making meaningful change possible in the realm of holistic agriculture, which, to me, is one of the more tangible ways to touch all of the many systems that are in need of change. As a society, we rely deeply on the agricultural sector to supply us with the food we need to survive. We’re talking about basic, fundamental needs. Therefore, when we work to make the agricultural system more holistic and regenerative, and push for environmental, social, and political accountability in agriculture, we are working towards whole systems change - beyond just agriculture itself.

Some hanks of blended wool yarn from Montana.

In gathering resources and building connections for a project I am working on, I spoke with Laura Sansone, the founder of NY Textile Lab and a professor at Parsons School of Design in New York City. She is an activist in the fiber and textile space and has played a major role in organizing designers and fiber producers so that they are able to meet and conduct business directly. I learned about a purchasing cooperative that she built that flips the idea of growth on its head. Within the cooperative, the more yarn you produce, the more money you must put towards the purchasing of fibers. This goes against the capitalist expectation that “the more you produce, the lower your input costs will be”. We spoke at length about the importance of bioregionalism, localism, and small scale production for the benefit of the earth, and as necessary parts of building a regenerative textile economy.

Like all good meetings, by the end of it, I had more questions than answers. Our job as grant writers is to interpret big, exciting ideas in a way that makes them digestible and understandable. Then we bring the ideas to funders, both private and public. When we go to investors with our projects, it is often important for them to know that they are putting money into something that can grow, that can eventually generate a profit or become self-sustaining. It is often important to show that a project is scalable. This is the nugget at the heart of all of the work– in order to make meaningful projects that bring about actual positive impact on our planet and allow us to live sustainably long term, we must push the boundaries of the status quo. What do we do when the status quo also defines the structures we must work within to acquire funding?

At the end of the day, if continue to prioritize growth in the short term, we might run out of time. If we run out of time, what exactly did we grow and scale for anyway? How do we convince private investors or federal funding that our projects are viable even if they do not fit into a scalable model? Maybe this is not a question at all, but more of a hurtle with a question mark attached. Whatever it is, it is not stopping our momentum, but exerting its effect on our work. It can only be described as the incompatibility between the hegemonic systems we all live within, and the change that we desperately want and need.

I am listening to an episode of the podcast Food Futures as I write this. The episode is a conversation between Jamie Tyberg and Lexie Smith, both activists in New York, talking about “degrowth.” Degrowth is the idea that in order to flourish and thrive as communities, we need to reorganize our systems and our priorities around care, reciprocity, and interdependence, rather than growth. As a methodology this would require us to completely change our definition of success towards a flourishing interconnected deep ecological community. Jamie Tyberg makes an important distinction around two main pieces of this methodology – strategy and tactic. She defines strategy as the path we take to achieve the goal. Tactics, then, are small, short term items that advance the strategy.

Hearing these terms defined as such helps my understanding of where we might be heading, and how grant writing and project development fit into the larger goal of creating regenerative ecosystems and economies within agriculture. Each new project is part of the larger strategy, each funding opportunity then becomes a tactic, a way to advance ourselves towards our goals in agriculture and beyond. The tension between the change I want to see in agriculture and the larger structures at play has at times felt despairing, at other times, confusing. Recognizing that we might not have all the answers, but that every intentional movement that we can make towards the world we want to see does, in fact, make an impact, is comforting. There is no shortage of brilliant ideas and measurable ways to make changes to agriculture. As we continue to work towards those changes, we contribute small shifts to the larger structure. It is my hope that someday in the future we will look around and realize that we are at last living in the world that we built; a world with care, reciprocity, and interdependence at its center.

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