Thursday, April 12, 2007

Back to the Future: Local Resilience in a Global Economy

Hanging Mountain Farm in Westhampton, Massachusetts presents a case study in clashing global and local economic forces and sensibilities. It is a story of outsourcing, enterprise, niche-making, community, state support for family farms, innovative "green" architecture and landing on your feet. We in Michigan can learn from the experience and perseverance of the Aloisi family in western Massachusetts.

Owned and operated by Nita and Leo Aloisi, Hanging Mountain Farm specializes in maple products and features the Strawbale Cafe, a unique straw bale structure, designed by their daughter, architect Missa Aloisi, and built by friends and family over a three year period.

The Aloisi family's connection to the farm goes back to 1930 when Leo's father began work there. He purchased it in 1947 and Leo acquired it in 1983. According to Leo, the sugaring operation dates back at least to 1917.

In 2002, the family began construction of the cafe while Leo was still employed fulltime in IT with Dow Jones. But late last year, after 16 years with Dow Jones, Leo was "downsized." His job was sent to New Jersey. Other colleagues were "outsourced," their positions being sent to India.

Fortunately, Leo and Nita had been working to diversify their sugaring business to include a cafe. Although they had planned to develop it at a slower pace in retirement, downsizing compressed their timeline. They originally planned to serve pancake breakfasts during sugaring season, but neighbors urged them to remain open year round. Now they serve breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Sunday. This has proven a boon to the farm and created a community gathering place.

The Aloisis were able to obtain state start-up funding for the building and most recently, Leo attended a business course geared toward small farms and sponsored by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources Farm Viability Program. Leo said, "It allowed me and others to develop a business plan for where we wanted to go with our individual farms. There were 15 in that class and there were 15 different plans."

A big issue for farmers in Massachusetts is determining a niche product or market in order to sustain viability. Leo described the situation of dairy farmers as a case in point: "Farmers need to become competitve with products from across the country and are doing so with products that are specialized, locally grown or unique to an area. In order to remain competitive, milk producers are selling raw milk and organic raw milk. Organic raw milk is one of the cornerstones of the new dairy market in Massachusetts. It is sold locally on the farm or delivered to customers' homes." Instead of trying to beat Big Ag at its game, small producers are creating something that Big Ag cannot produce--a specialized locally-based product with the added service of home delivery.

I told Leo about the economic difficulties in Michigan and asked him what advice he might have for workers who have been downsized or outsourced. His words were encouraging and action- oriented: "Small business is the backbone of the U.S. economy. The innovations that small businesses create are necessary to the country's economy. Find a niche. Small businesses can find and develop a unique niche more cost-effectively than large businesses can."

As for the challenges of starting a new small business, Leo emphasized the importance of a positive attitude,"The one thing that has always helped us is trying to keep a positive attitude about what is going on. It really helps you keep moving forward. Lots of things happen that can definitely throw a monkey-wrench into what you are doing. And all you can do is just smile at it and keep going forward and try not to let it overwhelm you."

Chin up, Michigan. Get local. Be positive.

And wipe that darn frown off your face. . . .