These Days, Money Grows on Trees

Pecan trees gracing the D-Block skyline
A couple mornings before Christmas, my neighbor, Ms. Evelyn came walking by. She had her "grandbabies" in tow, two young girls probably 8 or 9. Ms. Evelyn, is-- my best guess-- probably 70, 75. Bending over every couple steps, she was picking up pecans as she was doing every morning for the past several months. Word on the street is that the "Pecan Man" is paying 40 cents a pound this year. Where other folks pick them up at peak season or when a storm blows through, Ms Everlyn's at it every day, 9am. (Though her skin color is a darker hue, she reminds me a lot of my own grandmother who rummaged for aluminum cans. When I was a child the recyling plant offered $0.26/lb.) Some might call it a "side job," or "supplemental income," but here on Dunn Street, picking up pecans is just another "hustle."

I live in Greater Frenchtown. If you asked an old timer, they'd tell you the house I "stay in" is in Springfield, but folks these days just call the area "D-Block" after the many streets that start with "D," Dunn, Dent, Dewey, Delaware, Dover, and several others. I'm just around the corner from old Ashmore's Antiques, if you know where that is. Interestingly, Old Man Ashmore was famous for buying the kids' pecans in exchange for candy money "back in the day."

You might think Ms Evelyn's hustle is a rariety, but truth be told, she's part of an industry. Pecans don't go to waste in my neighborhood, and it's not (just) because folks around here like pecan pie. It's an indicator, in my opinion, of my neighborhood's economic health. More than one of my neighbors live without utilities. For a while a brother was filling up a 5-gallon bucket with water at the community garden for personal use. Another gentleman up the street pushes a soapy bucket of water around in an old wheelchair. He's a windshield-washing entrepreneur. Last time I saw someone washing windshields to earn a living was in third-world Mexico. 

For the most part, the only jobs geographically available are those at externally owned businesses (Popeyes, Family Dollar, Timesaver). Typically pay is minimum or painfully close, and any wealth generated is removed to Tallahassee's outskirts at the best but more likely to corporate accounts far from town. But don't let me give the wrong impression: there aren't enough jobs to go around, even minimum wage jobs. So, how do folks make ends meet?  They hustle.*

A hustle is not a "real" job in the W-2 sense of the word, but a hustle can help patch up the economic gaps, put food on the table, keep the water running, provide the grandkids with Christmas presents. Having not one but two cars in my driveway (a sign of economic wealth around here), my doorbell is often rung by folks looking for a hustle. "Have you got any work I could do?  I need a few dollars, so I can get some chicken for lunch. Anything helps, two, three dollars."  I've hired folks to mow, rake, sweep, clean up my porch, and move brush. Kids get "little hustles" taking people's trash out. Next door, at the youth farm, folks stop by looking for hustles as well. They water, help build raised beds, weed, dig out stumps, shovel compost, anything that can justify a few dollars. Most hustles are temporary, provide daily survival income. Every once in a while, someone will find a hustle that repeats or lasts for a while, like a bumper pecan harvest.

~ ~ ~

Mr. Bellamy, President of the Frenchtown Neighborhood Improvement Association has been coordinating the Frenchtown Heritage Market for the past three years. His hope is that it could remedy the lack of access to healthy food in the neighborhood, provide a community cultural space and economic center of exchange that would improve the financial health in the area by cycling dollars internally as well as bring in outside purchasing power

From what I see, the trick to true economic development in a depressed area* is to build off of what folks are already doing, what they have, what or who they have access to and/or what they are interested in. It's asset-based business development. In other words, it's transforming hustles into businesses.  There is great potential. Pecans are but one food-based example.

[*Truth be told: it's a great economic foundation wherever you are. Read the books by Ernesto SirolliMichael Shuman and Jane Jacobs.)

Ms. Evelyn is earning forty cents a pound for her pecans. Meanwhile, pecan pieces are being sold at Publix, New Leaf, Winn Dixie for, conservatively, $10 a pound. Let's do a little math. Let's guess she picked up ten pounds every day for two months (a conservative guess). That's ~600lbs. At forty cents a pound, she made $240. Not a bad hustle.

Let's contrast this, however, with retail income. Let's imagine that half the weight that Ms Evelyn collects is shell or bad nuts, so we're assuming 300lbs of pecan pieces. 300lbs x $10/lb is $3000. Of course, there are expenses to shelling and packaging. I've heard from several sources that pecans can be "shelled and blown" for $0.50 to $1.25.  Let's say it costs 0.50 for a zip lock, and you'd have to transport your nuts to and fro the shelling location. Thus, liberally, for shelling, packaging, and transport it would cost Ms Evelyn $1.25/lb for shelling, $0.50/lb for bags, $0.25/lb for gas, or $2 per pound.* Suddenly, with 300lbs of pecan pieces at $10/lb retail with $2/lb of value added processing expenses, Ms Evelyn is looking at $8/lb profit or $2,400. A much better hustle!

[*Better yet, imagine for a moment that Ms Evelyn or someone else in the neighborhood owned the pecan processor! Then consider that they add further value to their pecans like Koinonea Partners.]

Now imagine for a moment-- because it's true-- that there are at least 15 equivalent Ms Evelyns collecting pecans in the neighborhood. Suddenly we're talking about $36,000 injected annually into a neighborhood by capitalizing on wealth that is, quite literally, falling from the sky.

As a food gardening entrepreneur and the start-up coordinator of the iGrow Whatever You Like Youth Farm, I'm surrounded by similar income projections for potential lettuce, collard green, bulk compost, and raised bed assembly hustles. Increasingly, I know the would-be entrepreneurs. My question is this:

Where are our enterprise facilitators? Where the people with an entrepreneurial spirit, a basic understanding of business finance, and a creative marketing mind who can hang at the iGrow Whatever You Like Youth Farm, in Frenchtown restaurants, groceries, and cafes and announce that they're available to "anyone with an idea" that they want to turn into a food-based business?

If you don't know about about Ernesto Sirolli's enterprise facilitation model, watch his TED Talk below. Tallahassee is ready for a food-based business economic renaissance. Current and would-be entrepreneurs just need team building and grunt assistance. The harvest is plentiful...