Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A Home and Honest Work for the Homeless

Common Wealth Farm is a working name for a project that popped into my head a couple of years ago. It is an updated version of what used to be a fixture of American life from the late 1800s until the introduction of Social Security made it obsolete, the "county farm" or "Poor farm." If you aren't familiar with the term County Farm, it was a farm on the edge of a large town in each county, where the indigent and aged were allowed to live. The farm largely supported itself through food grown there.

I believe there is, once again, a need for a place for some portion of what we generically call "the Homeless" to live. Rather than have those who are able-bodied and willing to work living on the streets of our cities, why not acquire abandoned farms and arrange for the farms to generate revenue through the sales of organic fruits, vegetables, eggs, etc., that could be grown.

Residents would need to be carefully screened for attitude, talents, and sociability. They would be offered a place to live, food, and medical care, plus a share in the farm's profit in return for a reasonable ammount of work, contributing to the "common wealth."

I am seeking a mastermind group to help flesh out the concept, so some parts are still fuzzy. One possibility would be to obtain start-up capital (perhaps a foreclosed farmstead?) from the county in return for reducing their cost for servicing this portion of the homeless population. This would seem to be a win-win situation, but it would also draw in a potentially contentious partner in exchange for their money. It might be wisest to find some other way to acquire the land and facilities.

A couple of current trends make this project appealing. One is the growing demand for organically grown produce. Another is a new wave of working Americans who may soon be losing their homes, due to subprime loans' low interest rates being re-set. Yet another is the growing cost and diminishing supply of fossil fuels which make possible our industrial-scale food production - without the expense of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, nor the need to transport and store farm produce, organic farm goods may become much more competitive in price. (A book that explains this rationale is The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler.)

One other trend that would favor this project is the loss of high-paying American bluecollar employment to cheaper labor-centers offshore. A lot of workers with skills applicable to farming are unemployed; they are a cost to society, when there is a growing need for locally grown foods. Common Wealth Farm brings a solution to many changes that are occuring in the modern American economy.

It should be mentioned that many market gardeners are earning handsome incomes for what is essentially a part-time job. While I haven't yet done a business plan for the Common Wealth Farm, anecdotal reports of earnings on existing similar farms are very encouraging as to the positive economics of this venture.

My projected location for the Common Wealth Farm is somewhere in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, ideally near Corvallis, one of my favorite small cities and home of the Oregon State University, with a large Agriculture & Forestry school. I'm planning to move there in the Spring of 2008 and begin researching this concept with the OSU Extension Service and whatever help I can find at the university. SCORE and the Small Business Administration might also be good sources of expertise in planning, organizing, and financing this project.

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