Growing local economies like snap peas and green pepppers

I was recently sent a narrative explaining a unique approach to economic development called “economic gardening.” Sure, this is one of many different buzzwords going around now but I thought the description was worthwhile, and relevant to some of the ideas about economic innovation here on the Iron Range and throughout post-industrial or rural communities in the U.S. Here are some highlights I’ve selected:

Even though we knew the tools and techniques that helped make entrepreneurs successful, there was another intangible (but very real) factor keeping local economies from improving. For the lack of a better word, I initially called it the “culture” of a community. By this, I meant the way that entrepreneurial activity and risk and innovation and even diversity and newness are viewed by local people.

In communities that lived with these twin pressures of commodity pricing and natural disasters, evolutionary selection favored people who did not take risks. Those who took risks failed or moved or died in poverty because of the unrelenting and unforgiving nature of commodity businesses. Thus the very characteristic that ensured their survival in a harsh economic environment was the same characteristic that prevented them from fostering entrepreneurial activity. 

We by no means have solved the economic development riddle. We cannot patent it, put it in a jar and take it to any community and guarantee results. But we do think we are closing in on the answer. We think it involves slow, painstaking community development with an eye on the innovators. 

After over a decade of very intensive experimentation, investigation and observation, we have come to a sobering conclusion: economies are massive biological organisms and not very amenable to control by anyone. Neither economic gardeners, nor economic recruiters nor politicians nor anyone else is running them. At best, we are adapting to everyone else’s adaptations. 

That’s why saying “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” is a little like going on a hunting expedition chanting “Food, food, food!” You can say it if it makes you feel better, but it won’t get you the food. Read the whole thing for some of the ideas inherent to the “economic gardener” model.

(h/t Jennifer Armstrong)


  1. You’ve hit on the key issue Aaron, and it’s not complicated – “It involves an eye on the innovators”.

    And what are the “innovators” concerned with when looking to invest? That’s not complicated either.

    An innovator looking for a place to start up their business has five criteria “top of mind”.

    1) Operating costs
    Competitive labor & benefit costs
    Competitive tax structure
    Low utility costs
    Effective, competitive regulation
    Low in/out transportation cost
    Raw material availability

    2) Work force
    Positive work attitude
    Open to variable schedules
    Willing to work with management to improve productivity, reduce waste

    3) Living Environment
    Pride in community
    Low crime rate
    Community active in civic affairs
    Active churches
    Arts & entertainment

    4) Good secondary and post secondary education system

    5) Pro business environment

    Get the community focused on these five criteria and innovators will thrive on the Range.

  2. If you click through to the link you see that they actually talk about many of these. They warn about the risks of rushing to ‘”lowest common denominator” with commodity-based economies, so there is a factor to consider. I’d say that the first four on your list would qualify as “pro business” to the point where you don’t really need to go down the rhetorical rabbit hole of “pro or anti” “business or labor.” Thanks for the comment! It’s always nice to see the areas we agree on.

  3. We’ve concluded quickly on this one Aaron…so at the risk of sounding sophomoric – trust me, the subjective “pro-business” environment issue is a big deal. It’s a subjective “smell test” issue, a gut feel issue.

    There are many places to locate in the world…many, that meet the first four criteria. I’ve been there..

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