We live in a world in which the complicated has been made simple and the simple has been made complicated.
Pushing the power button on your computer, simple. Having an authentic conversation with your neighbor, complicated. Buying a bag of potato chips, simple. Growing potatoes in your front yard, complicated. Owning a diversified portfolio of gold stocks, simple. Making a loan to a farmer down the road, complicated.
So, forget about matters of the Thoreauvian or fiduciary kind and think about the farmer down the road. And about Newman’s Own.
How beautifully simple. Giving away all the profits:
Our “100% of Profits to Charity” commitment is one of two founding values upon which Newman’s Own is built (the other being “Quality Will Always Trump the Bottom Line”). It’s a very important part of our story, it’s in our DNA, it’s why we exist, it motivates all of us, and it’s the true heart of Newman’s Own. We are proud of this commitment, and, especially in these times of so many promotional programs tying business sales to social purpose, want to be clear and unambiguous about what we mean when we say “100% of Profits to Charity.” It’s not something we just thought up to boost sales, it’s not a play on words, and one shouldn’t need an accounting degree to understand it. We have been doing it for close to 35 years, and as of May 2017, have donated over $490 million to thousands of deserving organizations around the world.1
How beautifully worth repeating, Paul Newman’s words, “In life, we should be a little like the farmer, who puts back into the soil what he takes out.”
How beautifully fundamental, rejiggering the ethos of business, splicing altruism into entrepreneurship and consumerism in ways no one had ever imagined.
What made Newman’s Own possible was, of course, Newman. Which is not to say that you have to be an impossibly charismatic celebrity to be altruistic. Only, that you have to be an authentic individual. You need to muster the gumption to tune out the experts, the professional permission givers and takers, the intermediaries and the naysayers, and find ways to act authentically.
For some, authenticity means competing for market share. For others, authenticity means terroir.2 For some, authenticity means protesting. For others, it means leaving a field fallow. For some, it means paying taxes. For others, avoiding them. For some, belonging to a church. For others, belonging to a CSA. For some, hot dogs. For others, organic apple pie. For some, ethanol. For others, earthworms. For some, conscientious objecting. For others, conscientious investing. For some, giving away 1% of revenue. For others, giving away all the profits.
Sir Albert Howard’s Law of Return is, it seems to me, as authentic as it gets.
Howard wrote An Agricultural Testament and The Soil and Health in the mid-twentieth century, based on his observation of soil building practices in India, where he was a government scientist. His concepts of farming in concert with nature show the way, still, for many of the AHA! persuasion. Here is a little of Sir Albert Howard’s vision, as digested by poet farmer Wendell Berry:
The balance between growth and decay is the sole principle of stability in nature and in agriculture. And this balance is never static, never fully achieved, for it is dependent upon a cycle, which in nature, and within the limits of nature, is self-sustaining, but which in agriculture must be made continuous by purpose and by correct methods. “This cycle,” Howard wrote, “is constituted of the successive and repeated processes of birth, growth, maturity, death, and decay.”
The interaction, the interdependence, of life and death, which in nature is the source of an inexhaustible fecundity, is the basis of a set of analogies, to which agriculture and the rest of the human economy must conform in order to endure, and which is ultimately religious, as Howard knew, “An eastern religion calls this cycle the Wheel of Life […] Death supersedes life and life rises again from what is dead and decayed.”
The maintenance of this cycle is the practical basis of good farming and its moral basis as well:
The correct relation between the processes of growth and the processes of decay is the first principle of successful farming. Agriculture must always be balanced. If we speed up growth we must accelerate decay. If, on the other hand, the soil’s reserves are squandered, crop production ceases to be good farming; it becomes something very different. The farmer is transformed into a bandit.3
What Howard called banditry is referred to by many of today’s proponents of healthy agriculture as mining. We are mining soil fertility. In order to maximize efficiency, we apply industrial practices to farming, turning farms into factories and focusing on productivity rather than fertility. Over time, life in the soil is degraded. And, it turns out, so is the health of communities and the health of democracy.
In recent years, the degradation of community and the dysfunction of democratic institutions have become impossible to ignore; what is far easier to overlook, but no less important, and integral to many related processes of cultural and ecological decline, is the degradation of the soil.
Based on competing worldviews and the related interpretation of data, it may be possible for two equally patriotic individuals to disagree about the meaning of the decline of the family farm and the consolidation of the agricultural sector in large, industrial farms. Or about the significance of the decline during the 20th century in the number of plant varieties in commercial cultivation. Or about the tillage of hundreds of millions of acres and the application of hundreds of millions of tons of synthetic fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides. Or about the vulnerability of increasingly long and complex supply chains in the food system. Or about the role of ruminants and manure. Or about the safety of GMOs and raw milk.
The room for disagreement between these same two individuals is far smaller, I’d like to imagine, when it comes to the following proposition:
Soil teeming with life, good; lifeless soil, bad.
Just how good the good is and how bad the bad is… well, that, as Shakespeare sort of put it, is the question.