The Ten Percent

Remember the intense conversations you had as a twentysomething about things that mattered: literature, philosophy, social justice, cake versus yeast doughnut? If you’re like me, these musings usually took place around 2 a.m. in an establishment with a name like Dottie’s Diner, and they were a defining part of your transition to adulthood.

But then the day-to-day pulse of life takes over, as we find jobs, run reports, attend a soul-crushing number of meetings, pick up the milk, take out the trash. Suddenly there’s no time to think deeply or to share those thoughts with others.

Luckily that changed when I began farming.

It’s a radically different work environment that affords hour upon hour every day for just those kinds of discussions. When six of us are staring down a field full of 200-foot rows of strawberries that need picking, someone had better come up with a Chautauqua for the morning, to keep our minds off those aching backs.

And farmers tend to be a thinky bunch. Occupational hazard, I suppose, after years spent observing growth cycles, climate patterns, and the long-term impact of agricultural practices — topics that require a grasp of the big picture and each person’s small but pivotal role in it.

After two seasons of education, it’s becoming clear that the more time I spend with farmers, the more I learn how to make a life that matters.

George from Pecan Point Farm tends to one of their beehives.

Which brings me to my friend George from Pecan Point Farm. George and his wife Becky shared some of their fallen pecan tree limbs with us last winter for our wood-burning stove, and we were chatting about it at the North Highland Farmers Market.

“I’ve been thinking about the way you and Brad heat your house with wood, dry your sheets in the sun,” George said, “and I wonder what a difference it would make if everyone tithed ten percent of their energy use.”

He went on, “Tithing is a Christian tradition, but it doesn’t have to belong to one faith or be just about money. If everyone used ten percent less energy or bought ten percent of their food from a local farm, that would be huge.”

The eloquence of that idea has come to mind many times over the last month.

Its radical simplicity is what makes it not only doable, but adaptable for a wide range of problems. Most of us can’t afford to convert to one-hundred-percent solar power, but we can easily start chipping away at how much energy we need. Just dry one out of every ten loads of laundry on a rack or clothesline, wash your clothes in cold water, or properly use a programmable thermostat to maximize HVAC efficiency.

Does mass transit in your city suck, and a car is the only way to get to work? Then carpool for two of your twenty work days in a month, or telecommute those two days, if that’s an option.

Are you a single parent, racing nonstop, who couldn’t get through some weeks without Hot Pockets or frozen pizzas? Make a realistic goal of cutting ten percent of food miles by making all of your snacks local: fresh fruit, slices of cheese, yogurt and granola, boiled eggs, small bags of nuts.

Take George’s idea and run with it. Buy ten percent fewer clothes. Spend ten percent less time online and ten percent more time volunteering. Get to know ten percent of your neighbors. While you’re at it, why not start a conversation with your friends, family and co-workers about what their Ten Percent could be.

You could even relive the good old days and debate the existential quandary of maintaining the status quo versus instituting incremental change. Although you might want to save that one for the next time you’re in a greasy spoon at 2 a.m. — just be sure to tell Miss Dottie that Jenn says hi.

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