Rural Sierra India

published January 10, 2010

I just read your excellent article on the similarities between the nation of villages and the valley of villages. I felt compelled to give you my input, so here it is:

As a young person living in the Sierra Valley, I see a lot of value in this article. When I first read the bit about India being a Nation of Villages and the Sierra County being a county of villages, I laughed becasue I often describe the place where I live to my more metropolitan friends as being "more of a village than anything". This is how I can relate to them, in a few words, that it is a backwards place that I would rather not be a part of. Sad, I know, but true.

As I read on I realized that, despite my constant efforts, I did not fullly understand why I dislike it here. And that is when you made it all clear for me. You wrote about people living in a self sustaining economy; buying local food, supporting local (small) businesses, and using what we have. This is exactly what young people like myself are after. When I fantasize about the place where I want to be, I think of Eugene, Oregon. I love it there because young people are excited about making stuff. They make it together, for each other. You may find this hard to believe, but my generation, as politically careless as we are, love to make stuff that we can use. We hate big box stores and would go to great lengths to not use them. I do believe that your plan to integrate this in to the economy of Sierra County is genius.

Two of my oldest and dearest friends in this Valley (who happen to be brothers) have recently shared their vision with me, and I think it is exactly what you are talking about. They have it in their plan to take over the family ranch and transform it into a place for people to camp, eat, drink and experience the great outdoors. Although the ranch would rely on some outside tourism, they want to make things for locals to buy as well. For example, they want to re-open the dairy that once existed on the ranch for cheese and milk. They want to install their ancient pelton wheel in the river above for power. They are going to grow hops and barley to make beer, and they even want to make available some soil for people buy and use in their gardens. If balanced correctly with the tourism (ATV, horseback, camping excursions, plus housing) the idea might work. As far as we can see, the only thing stopping them would be California's Goddamn Regulations. I have my fingers crossed, because I would love to be a part of that vision.

In summary, I believe that young people are looking for a something they can be proud of, something they can contribute to, and that something has to be local; it isn't cool to work for Home Depot anymore. Most young people I know believe that they have to move away to find such a thing. And even the ones that do think it is possible, like myself, tell themselves that they will move back when they are older and wiser, when making their own living is a possibility.

Young Freschi

January 6, 2010

Downieville, Rajasthan

2000 words; 9.4 reading difficulty

Recently the economic development committee approached the Board of Supes for "direction." The committee even suggested sample projects they should work on, sort of.

The Board spent quite some time in this last meeting not answering that question. They hemmed and hawed, nodded in agreement that the committee was important, and then decided to encourage the committee to keep up the good work.

Here is where we think the problem is: There is virtually nothing the group can do in the traditional sense of "doing" something.

Some Important Reasons Why

  1. There is a global recession
  2. Every little town and county in America has an economic development committee
  3. The ways the County government and the county imagine economic development are simply not appropriate for our situation.

The EDC can’t do too much about 1 or 2; they can do something about 3 if they take a new approach.


Viewers of the popular "Bollywood" movies know that namaste means "hello" in Hindi. Hindi is a direct descendant of Sanskrit, which is the "Mother of Tongues", or Indo-European tongues, anyway. They speak Hindi to a great extent in India, which is where the SCEDC should seek its models of economic growth.

At first glance, Sierra County doesn’t have much in common with India. We don’t, for example, have 1.17 billion people, 22 official languages and 1000 dialects. Indeed, people from Downieville can understand people from Loyalton with only a little translation problem. A lot of our older residents can read. Very few of our marriages are arranged, and it isn’t so easy to buy a nice plump Sierra Valley gal as it is to bride price a daughter-in-law in the Punjab. They simply don’t eat cows in India; we damn sure do eat cows in Sierra County. A big meal in India consists of rice and lentils cooked nine different ways, which grub unfortunately causes both of the Prospect editors to emit fumes that bring Air Quality over to check on the cogen plant.

However, in other ways, Sierra County and India have much in common.

First, India is a nation of villages, and Sierra County is a county of villages. The people of Sierra County and the people of rural India are deeply religious, for the most part. Family is very important, and multi-generational families are common. The main ways of making a living there are agriculture and logging. Residents of villages in India are highly related; ‘nuff said about the Sierra Valley. Water is a critical issue; land use is a critical issue. Though India is very populous, there is still the problem of young people leaving the villages.

Most importantly, though, the social structure of economic opportunities in rural India and those of Sierra County bear a striking similarity. That’s what might interest the Economic Development Committee.

A village’s structure of economic opportunity is composed of physical, technological, and cultural elements.

Physical elements might be weather, terrain, and distance from market centers. Those physical things we get pretty well here. We know when to change to trap-door longjohns, and which turns on 49 to slow way down for. We get that it’s a long ways to a Costco, and that it’s cheaper to get something shipped to Juneau, Alaska than Calpine.

That is part of the similarity between Sierra County and a village in Rajasthan, the ratio of the relationship between their means and standard of living and that of core population areas. That relationship determines our link to the larger economy. Right now it is mostly one way; in through government, and out through the urban areas.

Technologically, there are literally thousands of villages in India with better cell phone connectivity and high speed internet than Sierra County. Rural India, like rural China, is being revolutionized by cheap cell phones and high speed internet. In some places, the prime motivation for older people to learn to read is the internet. Here in Sierra County many of our older people know how to read but far too few are internet literate.

Photo from Shubhyatra

Culturally, we are very different from the nation of villages in that we do not know our own identity. Villagers in India understand that they will not be allowed to play with the big boys; their participation and economy must be local. They understand that disputes happen when resources are low, but everyone benefits from cooperative action. Villages in India would love to market their rice and lentils to the wide world, but they often can’t, due those physical and technological issues. Instead, they work on a different principle. For them, as for us, fuel is a major consideration, and as a result it is more cost effective for them to purchase local food; for us locally grown food costs more because we can car pool to Costco. There is a second reason we do this, though. In Sierraville’s sister village in India, a sufficient amount of good food year round is wealth. We are enthralled to a consumer market. It’s that reliance on name brand merchandise which forces many of us to the city to shop.

Photo from here


Indeed, we suffer several disadvantages. The over-regulation dominating California is one series of disadvantages, but our consumer culture is a second very significant hurdle. It goes beyond the "home and beauty" products which fill the aisles in supermarkets and pallets at Costco, it’s a syndrome I like to call the "big white truck." Let me say right off that many of my best friends drive a big white truck, and I’d frankly love to have one, preferably one with two big diesel engines and enough ground clearance that a Prius would just hit the front differential. Every one of the people I know with a big white truck works their butt off. Still, the BWT is the perfect symbol for our cultural problem.

You see, the market forces drive one to the big white truck.

First of all, it’s been several generations of pickup trucks since one was produced that would run forever. Those that will run forever suck gas and wear out tires because they are made of iron. Likewise it has been several generations of pickups since you could lift the hood at the side of the road and have a fair chance of knowing what was wrong. Lift the hood on many models today and you have to follow wires to figure out where the pistons might be hiding; there are more computer parts than moving parts.

We don’t want to complain too much; those parts keep those big trucks sipping fuel, and you can start a modern truck without tickling the choke and pumping the accelerator before finally popping the hood to blow hazardous ether fumes all over the engine. Still, between the market pressures of fuel costs, maintenance costs, tax breaks and social status, people are spending a huge part of their lives to support a big white truck. The successful villages of India know that a dependence on the products of mass production is part of a formula for failure.

Indeed, the thousands of suicides of farmers between the ages of 20 and 45 in rural India are directly tied to a tragic reliance on consumer farm goods. Notably, global farm seed corporations have been taking illiterate farmers to court for "seed saving". When you purchase seeds from a modern agricultural supplier like Monsanto, you are actually paying a license fee, like on computer software, for a ONE TIME right of use. Saving seeds and planting them again the next year is against the law.

Indeed, here is a comment from an Indian agricultural expert discussing the problem in India, though it applies in Sierra County, too: "We borrowed a technology that did not fit into our socio-economic milieu. The tractor is today a symbol of suicides. Fertilizers and pesticides have destroyed our natural base. Farmers in Vidarbha and elsewhere are the victims of policies that have siphoned money from the rural economy." -- Devinder Sharma, former journalist, agriculture expert 

Finding the proper cultural fit for the community is key to forming a successful, sustainable economy, and creating a place where children can afford to stay and raise families. That is the challenge for nearly every rural economy.



Photo by Daily Mail, Uk.

Economies of Scale

One of the biggest reasons for buying all your neighbor ranches is to take advantage of "economies of scale". Most often "economy of scale" means you wait for your old neighbors to die and then buy the farm or lease it from the city kids and you can increase your input costs less than you increase your output. By that we mean that you only need one tractor and bailer to do both plots, so essentially the tractor costs half as much. You might also get a break on buying larger quantities of fuel or seed and on and on. Furthermore, you benefit from the general effect of "bigger is better" which means easier loans and so on.

But, there are other economies of the small scale, and these are being discovered by the rural people of India.

To enjoy these large-scale benefits you have to pay the piper. In the US that means the government and corporations who provide services (for example, the contract services Loyalton has been paying for engineers). The system is set up so small must fail. If that weren’t true the Sierra Valley would be filled with dairies again. This newspaper has often lamented that the means of survival open to people in the Great Depression are not available to us because of regulation.

The best example is Loyalton’s sewer system. There is literally nothing stopping a local engineer from designing, and local contractors from building, the very same system Loyalton now enjoys for much, much less money. Except, you can’t. Our modern world has been structured not so much for our protection or the protection of the environment, but for the protection of other experts like themselves. There is nothing we can do about that.

There are other problems with low tech, local economies. If we had to live only on what food we produced here, we would mostly eat potatoes, cabbages, carrots, and lentils cooked nine ways.

Even so, there are things we could do, and benefits we could enjoy.

Ayale kaha hai? (Where is the toilet?)

What can the Sierra County Economic Development Committee do? Perhaps it could actively seek technologies which are either de-linked from mainstream, meaning the profits generated here stay here, or which provide income from outside in very modest doses.

The first step is to work to create a culture of value for local produce and goods. It is so cheap to drive to Reno or the Central Valley and buy a sweater. It is fairly expensive to buy a sweater made locally from locally raised sheep. However, if you look through the product you will likely see chemical companies and global marketers through the first sweater, and local families, grass and sunshine through the other. Further, the dollar you spent on the sweater from town is gone; the dollar spent on a local sweater goes around and around our economy. There is a general rule that "saving a dollar is like earning a dollar and a half" because of taxes, overhead and marketing costs (or travel and day care costs for a family). Keeping a dollar in our economy is like spending a dollar and a half somewhere else, because no one else gets a cut from it except for our cousins.

One task the Economic Development Committee might take on is to study the products which might be made locally with the idea of creating a strong preference for locally made goods. We are blessed with experts on subjects from food production and preparation, to wool, to value added wood products.

The next step would be to work to create a help desk for people with small businesses, by which we mean cottage industries, local people making a few things. These could be sold through an internet coop, for example. We have local experts on that, too.

The EDC could set up such a service simply by coordinating users with volunteer experts. Empowering local people to produce at least some of their income (without losing benefits, and so on and so forth) is an important local need. The EDC could bring real positive change by encouraging such small entrepreneurial efforts.

Accha (OK, Far Out) Will it work?

The best example of "will it work" is the local cogen plant, which is again spinning. This is no small thing, it is renewable energy produced from our local biomass. It promises green jobs, and does both things, it markets power out but it also provides power locally. The cogen plant is running because people in the community including local supervisors put time in, made the drive, the phone call, sent the email and set up improved market conditions. The cogen plant is a very modest endeavor, but an important one to Sierra County.

So, yeah, it works.

Likely, the Board of Supervisors had no direction for the Economic Development Committee because they don’t know about the struggles of rural India, and don’t think beyond big companies, big payrolls and big taxes. They don’t see the connection between rural Rajasthan and Rural California.

Namaste, which also says "goodbye" and actually means "I bow to you".

The wrong direction for rural India: how to own a big white truck:



The Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) sector is a corner stone of the Indian economy. The sector is excited about a burgeoning rural population whose incomes are rising and which is willing to spend on goods designed to improve lifestyle. Also with a near saturation and cut throat competition in urban India, many producers of FMCGs are driven to chalk out bold new strategies for targeting the rural consumers in a big way. Read more HERE

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