Cashing in on cow shares!

There are local alternatives to the excesses of global capitalism

I am so excited. An investment opportunity I have been anticipating for some time has finally opened up. Nick Rodway, a local farmer who along with his wife Pam has devoted his working life to the production and promotion of organic food and ethical farming, has just called to offer me a share in his dairy herd.

Nick and Pam launched the "Cow Shares" scheme some years ago as a way of raising capital so that they could expand their dairy herd. The herd of 18 head of Ayrshire cattle produces milk of the highest quality with which Pam and Nick make wonderful traditional Scottish cheeses.

Nick and Pam were disinclined to go to the bank. This was for both pragmatic and ideological reasons. On the one hand, there was a natural desire to escape punitive interest rates and bank changes. On the other, Nick and Pam are dedicated to supporting their local economy and to promoting resource flows locally rather than seeing the community’s wealth haemorrhaging out.

So, rather than applying for a bank loan and facing the prospect of watching their interest payments wander off across the globe to finance all kinds of destructive, industrial practices that they have dedicated their lives to replacing, they turned to their home community.

The idea is very simple. A £500 investment buys a share in the dairy herd. This is a five-year loan to the farm, with eight percent annual interest paid in the form of a combination of cheese and manure, according to the preference of the investor. This system creates bonds of affection between the farm and its neighbouring community, raises capital for the farmer and helps in the reconstruction of the local economy – keeping resource flows local and on a human scale. Perhaps even more important, this kind of scheme represents a playful alternative to the anonymity of global markets, providing a gentle reminder that people can still take a measure of economic power into their own hands.

Today, there are many such shares systems operating according to similar principles all over the world. The idea originated in the celebrated case of Deli Dollars in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. When a local delicatessen owner was refused a bank loan to finance an extension, he turned to his clientele. He issued "deli dollars" – refundable over the course of the following year – to the value of $5,000. In this way, his customers pre-financed the extension. In return, he was guaranteed $5,000 worth of custom and his delicatessen grew even more in the affection and esteem of its local community. What is more, the deli dollars started doing the rounds as an alternative currency, even turning up in the collection plate of a local cleric who was known to have a taste for the deli’s pizzas.

From Manhattan to the Moray Firth, local economic experimentation is alive and well. As the monster that is global capitalism gorges on the obscenity of its own excesses, small-scale, decentralised alternatives are already at work, re-weaving the web of community and ecology. Long live Cow Shares!