Recent News:

Fish Farming in Recirculating Aquaculture Systems
This article is of particular interest to Biosphere Farms...

The High Price We Pay For Cheap Food
Arthur Potts Dawson discusses the disconnect between healthy food and affordability and explores visions for sustainability

The Biology and Business of Biofuels
A 50 minute video presentation From the University of California San Diego



Soil Definitions

Soil and Climate Change

Soil Sustainability


Oil Seed Data Spreadsheet
An Excel spreadsheet for comparing oilseed crop information for making biodiesel. Includes average yield per acre, percentage oil, crop weights, oil and mash weights, seed and oil prices, and information sources.

Email Us:


Version: 2.0
(October 6, 2006)

The Power of Localized Currency

Over the past twentyfive years, Berkshire County has witnessed an increased interest in economic and environmental sustainablity. The E.F. Schumacher Society (located in Great Barrington) has been at the center of this movement, collaborating with local businesses and organizations to promote and strengthen the Southern Berkshire economy. On July 19, 2006 I interviewed Executive Director of the Schumacher Society, Susan Witt, to discuss the organization's origins and its plans for the future.

AC: How and why did the Schumacher society come to the Berkshires?

SW: The Schumacher society was started by Robert Swann and myself - Robert Swann was a friend of Schumacher's. In fact, he brought Schumacher in 1974 to this country on a tour to promote the book Small is Beautiful. At that time Schumacher asked Bob to start an organization that would be a sister organization to his in England, but Bob didn't think it was the right time. In 1980, we moved to the Berkshires to help start a community land trust. In the process, we fell in love with the Berkshires and decided to stay here. In that same year, the English E.F. Schumacher society (that had formed in 1977 following Schumacher's death) [sent] a representative to the US who gathered together a board if directors and asked Bob and myself to form an American Schumacher society.

AC: The Schumacher society has initiated several local initiatives. What is the current status of those efforts? For example, what is the current status of the "BerkShares?"

SW: One of the things that Schumacher spoke about was the importance of producing locally for local consumption . . .[Another thing that] the Schumacher society works on is to try to find ways to link consumers more closely to local businesses and local production - to help bring that about so that the responsibility is not fully with producers to just risk it all. [However], the responsibility for creating viable, sustainable local economy is in large part [dependent upon] consumers initiatives. One of the drawbacks to starting small local businesses is the flight of consumers from our local economies to internet buying [and] to big-buck store buying. How can we foster fun ways for consumers to again support their Main Street businesses? One of those vehicles could be a local currency that would be a commitment from consumers that they are going to look for local venues when they shop.

Back in 1989 the Schumacher society helped a local deli - "The Deli"on Main Street, Great Barrington - with a financing problem. They needed financing to move from one location to a new location. And [they] weren't bankable. In large part they weren't bankable not because everyone in town didn't know that Frank spent every minute of his life taking care of his business and would be dependable, but because a lot of the profits were going into the care of his son who was sick with cancer. They weren't bankable according to the kind of tests that even our local banks are forced to make. The community believed in the Deli and we suggested that Frank turn to his own customers for a loan. He said "How do I do that?" And out came Deli Dollars. Deli Dollars were really a way for consumers to purchase meals at the Deli in advance. We suggested to Frank that he sell a ten-dollar Deli Dollar for $10. He said "That's too good of a deal for me." So he sold a ten-dollar Deli Dollar for $8 to be redeemed once he moved to his new location . . . However, he wouldn't want all the deli dollars coming in the same month because that would be a cash flow problem. So the deli dollars were actually dated to come due over a year's period. Essentially, Frank structured his own loan repayments. More of them came due in the busy summer months than in the slow months of March and April. The result: Frank raised $5,000 from his customers within a thirty day period. But it was more than $5,000. It was vote of confidence for Frank from a group of consumers wanting to see him there. He felt it, they felt it. It was quite marvelous.

Deli Dollars got coverage on the front page of the Washington Post - a front page story for a $5,000 loan! . . . It was a story of good old Yankee ingenuity and what consumers could do to change around the story of small businessmen. With the front page of the Wall Street Journal came all the major tv networks to the little town of Great Barrington covering what Frank had done (along with Danny Tawczynski at Taft Farms and Don Zigler at the Corn Crib also issuing Berkshire Preserve Notes). I remember calling up Frank and saying "ABC is here, Frank." And he said, "Not at lunch time.". . . The merchants of Great Barrington saw this happening and said, through the Chamber of Commerce, "How can we get involved?"

In 1992 that the Chamber of Commerce Main Street Action Program (which I was a part of) issued BerkShares. It was a summertime promotion only - it was a give-away. . . It was limited to Main Street, Great Barrington and the immediate area. Seventy businesses participated for a six week period. Every time someone spent $10 at a store they were given one BerkShare. . . . In that six-week period, 75,000 BerkShares were given out, representing three quarters of a million dollars in trade. The redemption period was a three-day period in the middle of September - traditionally a slow time. School has started; the back-to-school buying has happened. The summer visitors have gone home. . . It was a three-day period in which people could spend their BerkShares like cash at participating stores. Those that planned it had hoped for a consistent redemption policy, but in fact that's not what happened. In fact, every store had a different redemption policy, but 28,000 [BerkShares] were returned. Thatís 28,000 on a giveaway item. There was a spirit of festivity. Consumers were helping other consumers. Someone would be at the cash register of a participating merchant and ask, "How much is this?" And they were told [the item was] thirty bucks (thirty federal dollars) but that they could pay for fifty percent of it with BerkShares. And they said, "Oh, I only have twelve BerkShares." The patron next to them would say "Oh, you can have three of mine." Places like the Snap Shop had a 100% redemption policy. People were buying cameras with BerkShares. It was quite extraordinary.

Out of that we thought of doing a holiday time promotion where you would get a 0% loan in BerkShares for holiday spending, which would mean that - instead of taking that holiday spending to the mall, to the internet - it would be spent in our Main Street stores. A program like that works in many towns - in small towns across the Midwest close to Canada where it spread. The banks actually make the loans in a local script, it circulates and then merchants redeem it at 97 cents on the dollar, thereby sharing the costs with the banks. We went to the banks sat down and said "How about doing a similar program?" It was the bankers who said, "Why are we fooling around with another part time issue of a local currency? Let's go for a full time local currency." We said, "How would that work?" The bankers said: As a 10% discount note, you come into the bank and put down 90 federal dollars and get 100 BerkShares. [The BerkShares] will circulate at full volume until the merchants find that they have too much in their till- they bring it back to the banks and exchange 100 BerkShares for 90 Federal dollars. Or the merchants could find local places to spend it: local farmers, local suppliers of wood products, goods from a local cannery, goods from local cottage industries . . .

Our commitment at the Schumacher society was to raise the first-year funding for a full time BerkShares program. We knew from experience that we would have extraordinary press at our doorstep. The program could actually be launched for much less if we weren't viewed by the nation through the press. The managing of national press is expensive - it needs a staff, it needs an office, someone answering the phones, and it needs a very professionally run program with a lot of material available for the press as well as for consumers and merchants. It was this year that the Schumacher Society secured the funding for first-year issue. We are working with a new non-profit called BerkShares, INC. (the website is and a local board of directors that includes. . . It's a wonderful board of directors who are taking on this initiative.

AC: Is the public aware of the BerkShares arrival?

SW: Not yet. We have been working to secure the involvement of local banks and then form local banks who are going to be BerkShare exchange banks. [Those banks] would include the Great Barrington office of Berkshire Bank, the Great Barrington office of Lee Bank, the Lee office of Lee Bank, the Sheffield office of Salisbury Bank, the Egremont office of Salisbury bank, and the Great Barrington office of Pittsfield Cooperative bank. Those arrangements are in their final stages as of July 19th [2006]. We have met with the designers for the currency itself and the currency will actually be printed by Excelsior Press in North Adams (which is an arm of Crane). . .

Instead of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson on the face of the currency, we're celebrating local heroes including - not all the details have been confirmed on all these individuals yet - Herman Melville (the author), Norman Rockwell (the illustrator), Robyn Van En (who started the Community Supported Agriculture Movement right here on Indian Line Farm in South Egremont . . .) and also W.E.B. DuBois (an international spokesman on civil rights and social issues who was born right here in Great Barrington) and also the Mahican Indians of Stockbridge (on whose land we are all on). These are the five we hope to [honor] - we're working through the details of permissions, etc. The themes of the currency will be community, ecology, sustainablity, and economy. The currency will also honor some of our local contemporary artists with some of their paintings on the currency. So it's pretty exciting.

Beginning August 1st, we will be signing up merchants and developing a catalogue of the merchants and small businesses that are willing to trade in BerkShares. We're also encouraging the non-profits to create multi-venue events for the BerkShare launch - that's September 29, September 30, and October 1. The catalogue will include those multi-venue events that non-profits and others will be putting on to celebrate our local economy, community, ecology, and the creation of a sustainable future. We're very excited.

AC: You should be. That's wonderful. What is your current relationship with Indian Line Farm?

SW: Robyn Van En came to the Berkshires in the early '80s and purchased Indian Line Farm. We [Robert Swann and I] moved here in 1980. We became involved very early in the Food Buying Club where families gathered together to buy bulk supplies. Much of the interest in the Food Buying Club was in organic produce. As the food delivery was at this location it meant that I became the one seeing the full order, paying the bill, and then helping to divy it up. So the order was very visible to me every time we ordered and I saw the amount of carrots, for instance, that our food buying club here in the Berkshires was ordering that were being delivered from California. I thought "This is unnecessary. We have a perfectly suitable conditions to grow organic carrots here in the Berkshires, as well as garlic, beets, squash, and many crops suitable for storage through the winter." Robyn was at that time trying to think how best she could take on farming at Indian Line Farm. I recommended to the food buying club that we actually contract with local farmers in the spring to grow the quantities of (especially) winter storage crops. . . That began a project we called "Sharecroppers." There were several farmers in South County that grew for this food buying club. Rodale wrote it up in one of their publications and also wrote about a loan fund we were running called "Share." It's first loan was to Susan Sellew who produced Rawson Brook Goat Cheese, a very fine cheese that's kind of a signature cheese of the Berkshires. As a result of that article, a young man named Jan Vandertuin came to the Schumacher society to tell us about this wonderful idea that he had. He had seen something like it working when he was in Switzerland where consumers pre-purchased their food from farmers. He thought it was such a good idea that we at the Schumacher society should start it. We pointed out to him that we weren't farmers so couldn't start it. But we did turn him to our neighbor Robyn Van En and that started a partnership and partnership with other local people. . .

AC: Do you think that Community Supported Agriculture is capable of serving a community's food needs?

SW: Well, it certainly can serve a significant part of the food needs. Not every consumer is suitable for a CSA share. There need to be companion sources. But what one thing CSAs do is take the burden off the farmer of marketing. A lot of uncertainty that goes with marketing is taken off their shoulders. It helps create sustainable conditions for new farmers to enter into growing food - it's an important step. When Robin Van En tragically died in 1997 of an asthma condition, her farm came up for sale. And what that meant and what that pointed out was another problem - cost of the land. In that case, the Community Land Trust partnered with the Nature Conservancy and two farmers to purchase the farm. The community - working through the community land trust and the Nature Conservancy - subsidized or paid for the land cost. . . So a one-time investment by the community working through those two non-profits purchased the land value at Indian line farm. Two farmers - two extraordinary farmers - Alex Thorp and Elizabeth Keen, purchased the building and lease the land through the community land trust on a long-term lease. That meant that their organic farm operations didn't have to pay for the high cost of land. Their organic farm operation pays the debt on the buildings, but not the land cost. That makes it sustainable or possible for them to, instead of pushing the land to its maximum [capacity], have sustainable farming practices.

AC: What happens when these two farmers retire?

SW: The lease requires that they sell back the improvements to the Community Land Trust at no more than replacement costs of the buildings, adjusted for deterioration. All the hard work that they have put into fixing up the home, the big barn, the many outbuildings, the fences, the greenhouses - all of that is fair equity. They retain that equity. They sell that equity, but the land value is never again capitalized in resale. So that means the next farmers coming in are buying out the home, the barns, the fencing, the perennial stock, but not the high land value of Southern Berkshire County. It makes it affordable for the new farmers. The lease agreement also requires organic practices and minimum production practices. The next farmer coming in - it can't just be a home for a gentleman farmer who's here part-time. It must be year-round residents actually farming the land.

AC: How did Schumacher propose to care for the marginalized people of society?

SW: Some of Schumacher's work and essays address that, but what the Schumacher society as a whole has decided to focus on is new economic institutions of land and money. One of the greatest disparities in wealth in this country has come about because land - which is our common inheritance - is commoditized. That means that the few people who own land can benefit from many people needing land. It's what the philosopher/economist Henry George would call an "unearned increment" - they do no work, just sit on land and watch its value go up. An economic system that permits the commodification of what might be rightly called the commons. - the land, our air, the water - creates injustice and inequality of wealth. One of our key roles is to work on new land tenure systems. The Community Land Trust (being such a new land tenure system that puts the land again in our commons) is held by a nonprofit community-based group that allocates [land] through resale, develops a land use plan that includes social objectives as well as ecological objectives, leases it, and then never again is the land value included in the resale. So that addresses one huge inequity and discrepancy -that's one way.

The other is control of access to credit. [Credit] is now largely a function of an international currency system that is managed by nation states and a group of private banks. Instead, how can we as a community create financing and credit systems that are appropriate for our region and actually favor the small, locally-owned businesses that are producing/using local resources for local consumption? . . . When you have an international monetary financing system, it actually benefits favors larger businesses (which is again an inequity). How do we put the community and the small local businesses back into being the main drivers and shakers of our local economy? We see a local currency system not just benefitting the local businesses in the Berkshires but, once it's up and running and shining then that means that other regions can develop their own currency systems. Not just other regions of this country, but village after village around the world. The US was built on a system of decentralized currency issue. In the 1800s and early1900s every commercial bank issued its own currency. [This] meant that the various regions of the US developed at their own pace because the financing necessary for growth was available in that region. And that became the basis of the strength of the US economy. Because we had appropriately varied growth in each region. Since 1913 and the development of the nationalized currency, you began to see more centralization of credit and therefore more centralization of business activity. [Consequently] our once thriving regions are often just third world countries to major industrial city areas. The very strength of our economy is beginning to unravel. We [the United States] are exporting a system of economic development that says, "Borrow first world money." . . . Local currencies are a powerful tool at the regional level for economic development. They are appropriately scaled to that region and make the effort to make the strength, the flexibility, and the accountability of local currency systems.

For details about the Schumacher Society, visit The E. F. Schumacher Society. The BerkShares are set to launch on September 29, 30, and October 1. For more information on BerkShare, visit BerkShares, Inc..