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From financial crash's ashes, entrepreneurial phoenixes may fly

April 05, 2009

Not every industry out there is hurting, and not every stock is in the tank. If you invested in AutoZone last November, congratulations - you have doubled your money.

Likewise, it's a good time to be selling vegetable plants and seeds. A mail-order clerk for Burpee said that spring, obviously, is always a solid time of year for seeds, but this year it's "blown up."

National organizations expect there to be a 20 percent increase in home gardens this year. And, if sales are any indication, more guys are remembering that they changed the oil in their old Chevy Impalas when they were teenagers, so there is no reason why they can't do the same today.

Some good may come out of this recession yet.

The two words that dominated the last two decades are bigger and more. Community banks were scarfed up by global monoliths; local hardware, clothing and grocery stores fell to retail giants; investment banks brokered deals of unimaginable size for private equity takeovers of massive corporations (how's that working out for them?); all our food comes from a handful of gigantic producers; and financial deals so complex that even the experts can't explain them packaged "investment instruments" once quaintly thought to be worth billions.

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Now look; the economy has eaten itself to death. And that may not be all bad.

Forest fires initially appear to be devastating. But they open up the forest floor, allowing for the growth of young, healthy saplings that regenerate the woods.

America's Big Three automakers may yet survive. But there is at least equal chance that tomorrow's American made automobiles are manufactured by companies we have never heard of. The Big Three may fall to the Little 300, a few of which may succeed.

These entrepreneurial peasants have pitchforks sharpened with innovation, imagination and methods not chained to unyielding practices of the past.

Likewise, we may continue the status quo of a handful of electric generating plants having responsibility for lighting entire states. Or we may break it down to neighborhoods, where small windfarms, landfills and dynamos service a few towns or subdivisions.

You might one day get your electricity from the local pharmacy (before you giggle, consider that the Boonsboro Pharmacy has installed a row of solar panels in back of the store, which will generate more power that the business itself can use).

The economic sourness has caused a lot of people to realize that all they had been living their lives in pursuit of a number on a computer screen. Now that number is a lot smaller - or gone altogether.

For those who solely defined themselves by the size of that number (by the "accumulation of wealth," as the financial planners so sunnily put it), there will be little to do but weep into the glass that once held the Penfolds Grange.

But more and more Americans, being at least moderately sensible, are coming to the understanding that a number on a computer screen isn't an indicator of happiness - largely because that number can never be big enough.

This isn't an argument for a vow of poverty; it's an argument for getting in touch with our inner smallness. A small store where they know your name and have time to chat for a few minutes matters. A small bank that understands your personal circumstances matters. A small producer who puts a bit of himself into his work matters. Volunteering an hour of your time for those in the community who are in need matters.

And so does doing for ourselves some of the stuff we have disdainfully left for others, like changing spark plugs or growing tomatoes. It makes us more invested in life.

A statistic that makes no sense to those who follow the headlines is this: The USDA estimates that 300,000 new farms have started up in the past six years, many of which are run by relatively young people.

The family farm was supposed to be dead and buried. What happened? I would guess that many of these farms are nontraditional, specializing in subscription vegetable plans, goat cheese, grapes and berries or organic beef. Instead of trying to compete through ever-increasing herds or tilled acreage, they have discovered the value of small.

While all the talk was of globalization, they were thinking of community.

Those who spend their existence in the towers of big cities are, of course, always the last to spot a national trend. It's true that globalization will remain a way of life -- but a growing number of people are realizing it's not the only way -- and that alone is reason for optimism.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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