In Community We Trust

The Berkshire region of Massachusetts has been a pioneer in cultivating economic self-reliance for 40 years. Early experiments with micro-credit lending through the Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy (SHARE) made way for the development of multiple local scrip initiatives to help businesses in times of need. The story of Deli Dollars and Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes is a story of hope for these times.

The following excerpt from “Democratizing Monetary Issue: Vision and Implementation in the Berkshire Region of the U.S.” by Susan Witt demonstrates a local economy’s capacity for resilience when people have the power to issue their own money.

For media coverage on early currency experiments in the Berkshire region, visit the BerkShares website.

Frank Tortoriello was the owner of a popular deli on Main Street in Great Barrington. He turned to SHARE when he lost his lease and the bank refused him a loan to renovate his new location. But Frank didn’t need SHARE’s circle of grandmothers; he already had a circle of his own in his customers. SHARE suggested that Frank issue Deli Dollars as a self-financing technique. The notes would be purchased during a month on sale and redeemed after the Deli had made its move. A local artist, Martha Shaw, designed the note, which showed a host of people carrying Frank and his staff, all busy cooking, to their new location. The notes were issued in 1989 and were marked “redeemable for meals up to a value of ten dollars.” The Deli would not be able to redeem all the notes right after reopening, so SHARE advised Frank to stagger repayment over a year by placing a “valid after” date on each note. To discourage counterfeiting, Frank signed every note individually like a check.

SHARE recommended that the notes be sold for $10 each, but Frank thought that would be too good a deal for the Deli. With his customers in mind he sold $10 notes for eight dollars and raised $5,000 in thirty days: contractors bought sets of Deli Dollars as Christmas presents for their construction crews; parents of students at nearby Simon’s Rock College knew Deli Dollars would make a good gift for their kids; the banker who turned down the original loan request supported Frank by buying Deli Dollars. The notes even showed up in the collection plate of the First Congregational Church because church-goers knew the minister ate breakfast at the Deli. Regular customers were pleased to help support what they saw was a sure thing: they knew firsthand how hard Frank worked and believed in his ability to make good on redemption. Frank repaid the loan, not in hard-to-come-by federal notes but in cheese-on-rye sandwiches

Jennifer Tawczynski worked at the Main Street Deli and carried the idea home to her parents Dan and Martha Tawczynski, who owned Taft Farm, one of two farm markets in the area at that time. The Tawczynskis came to SHARE with the idea of issuing “greenbacks” to help them meet the high cost of heating their greenhouses through the winter. Customers would buy the notes in the late fall for redemption in plants and vegetables come spring and summer.

Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes were jointly issued by two Great Barrington farms, The Corn Crib and Taft Farm, to finance start-up in the spring, and could be redeemed once produce was ready to be harvested. Designed by Martha Shaw.

At around the same time the other farm market in town, the Corn Crib, was damaged by fire. Customers of the Corn Crib came to SHARE with the idea of issuing notes to help owners Don and Ruth Ziegler recover from the ravages of the fire. SHARE suggested that the two farms together issue a Berkshire Farm Preserve Note. Martha Shaw designed the note with a head of cabbage in the middle surrounded by a variety of other vegetables. The notes were issued in 1991 and read “In Farms We Trust.” The ten-dollar notes were sold for nine dollars each, thus providing a discount to participants. The Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture traveled from Boston to purchase the first Berkshire Farm Preserve Note, and five national TV networks featured Berkshire farmers using Yankee ingenuity to survive a difficult winter. The Berkshire Women with Infants and Children (WIC) program purchased Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes in order to give them to families as part of a local initiative to supplement the federal food program. The notes did not carry the food-stamp stigma, which made them more appealing to the struggling families. The Berkshire WIC program also knew it was supporting local farmers at the same time it was supporting local families.

The notes could be purchased at either farm and were redeemable at either farm. At the end of the redemption period SHARE acted as the clearinghouse for the notes. The farmers received the income (ranging from $3,000 to $5,000 per farm per year) from the sale of the notes. The farmers also found that the notes drew a committed base of customers who would travel out of their way to buy from their local farms rather than purchase the jet-lagged vegetables from supermarket chains.

Deli Dollars started a consumer movement in the Berkshires. The Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes, Monterey General Store Notes, and Kintaro Notes that followed gave Berkshire residents a way to vote for the kind of small independent businesses that help to make a local economy more self-reliant.

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