Two years ago, I went out on my own with the goal of doing something better -- better for the world, better for my community, and better for myself. While on my journey to do better, I've been lucky to meet some of the best. Recently, I connected with Nicole Caldwell, co-founder and CEO of Better Farm, a 65-acre sustainability campus, organic farm and artists' colony serving as a blueprint for environmentally conscious living.
Better Farm attracts those who are interested in doing "better"— growing from each experience, serving their communities, and creating something that benefits the world around them. Nicole is also president of the not-for-profit arts and music outreach initiative betterArts, which works in tandem with Better Farm to explore the intersection between sustainability and art. She has worked as a professional writer and editor for more than a decade, and her work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader's Digest, Time Out New York, and many others. Lucky for us, her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, comes out this July through New Society Publishers.
While we wait for its release, we asked Nicole if we could share some of her work on the WhyWhisper blog. Read the interview below to learn more about Nicole, Better Farm, AND her upcoming book. Weekly posts on "Being Better" start now -- for the entire month of May!
Before starting Better Farm, what were you doing? How did those experiences bring you to where you are today?
I lived and worked in New York City throughout my 20s working as a journalist. I was fortunate to land in a vocation that allowed me to meet some unbelievable people. In that decade, I spent time with voodoo healers, the SCUBA subculture of New York City, environmentalists trying to use an endangered turtle to block condo development, San Diego's homeless population, and the Yurok Tribe of Klamath, Calif. My adventures and conversations awarded me a deep sense of wonder, belief in magic, and the ultimate gift of whimsy in my everyday life. But paying New York City rent means aiming for jobs with nice salaries over those that satisfy your passions. So through normal twists and turns, I ended up in a basement cubicle working for a paycheck at a job I loathed: covering the New York City diamond trade. I felt tired all the time. I lived for weekends. I took frequent trips to Better Farm, which at the time was a defunct commune occupied only by my uncle and two other people. He and I used to daydream about ways to revive the space: offer artist residencies, host music festivals, live off the land. But I was too chicken to make a move, so I returned each time to my cubicle. It’s funny how we refuse to take chances when we’re comfortable, even if that relative comfort isn’t making us happy.
Then my uncle passed away in March of 2009, and left me Better Farm. The timing was terrible, as death always is. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to him—and I certainly wasn’t ready to take on a 65-acre property 350 miles away. My grief compounded the stress. Then the floodgates opened. My boyfriend and I broke up a week later. Then I got laid off. I felt utterly hopeless. And though I applied to job after job and tried figuring out ways to dig my heels into the ground and not change, nothing stuck. I checked into therapy and started volunteering at a community garden in the Bronx. I invited my friends over and held brainstorm sessions on what to do about Better Farm. And finally, one random night on a crosstown Manhattan bus, I just knew. In June of 2009, I sublet my apartment, loaded up my car, adopted a puppy and moved to Better Farm.
What do you find most appealing about sustainability?
Sustainability is literally the act of lending oneself to infinity. It refers to actions so unobtrusive, they can be done and done again for all time, constantly replenishing and being replenished. I take great comfort in that idea—especially in this culture of planned obsolescence and impermanence. Stepping away from that linear mode of thinking and paying attention to how nature is constantly replenishing itself has changed my life.
In your pursuit of a "better" lifestyle, what are some of your biggest obstacles?
Honestly, it is hard to not make yourself crazy. If I’m at a restaurant, I watch all the half-eaten food being taken back into the kitchen to be thrown away and feel frustrated. I have mini temper tantrums constantly over throwaway cups, plastic straws, plastic cutlery, paper napkins, paper towels. Every time I leave the farm, I’m inundated with all these things people are always throwing away. I have to control myself. It is a huge balancing act to educate people about something you care so deeply about while also not going overboard and turning people off. I get impatient: with myself, with the whole world, for not making bigger changes more quickly. We are in such desperate need for a huge cultural overhaul in how we grow our food, how we treat animals who live their whole lives serving our gluttony, in how we handle our “waste”—but we don’t need more people screaming until they’re blue in the face. If you push too hard, you ultimately alienate the very people you need to attract.
What inspired you to write a book, and how long did it take to write?
New Society Publishers actually got in touch with me to say they’d found Better Farm’s website, loved the message, and wondered if I’d ever considered writing a book. It was totally surreal—every writer’s dream. The best irony to me is that I took such a risk stepping away from New York City. Naysayers at the time told me I was throwing it all away: my degrees, my career, my potential to find a partner. People wondered how I’d be able to pursue my writing and have any semblance of a good life if I moved to a tiny hamlet of 500 people hundreds of miles from everyone I loved. Better Farm was such an unformed template, no one could see what I had in my head. I take such satisfaction in the fact that it took that leap to ultimately achieve more than I ever thought possible. When I signed my book contract, I felt so gratified. I actually had done it.
In your book, you have chapters on everything from building a better business to the intersection of sustainability and art to DIY tutorials on going green. Who do you feel will benefit most from reading Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living?
I think the book speaks most to people in the same boat I was in six years ago, experiencing a sense of detachment from who they believed they were or could be. Better is kind of a call to arms for anyone who has lost sight of the things he or she always wanted to do and accomplish and experience; people who feel beaten down by repetition. The book is designed to light a fire in people’s bellies. My hope is that readers will read the last page of Better, walk outside and bark at the moon.
In your opinion, what is the one thing every one of us can start doing now to create a better world for all?
Ditch the idea of garbage. There isn’t any system in the natural world that acknowledges waste, because there isn’t any. When we live more in rhythm with the earth, we take only what we need. We don’t throw anything away. If we eliminate the idea of garbage, then we don’t buy stuff loaded with packaging. We eat clean. We compost food scraps and paper products like newspaper. We bike instead of drive. We reuse and donate instead of throw away. If every one of us lived like this, supermarkets wouldn’t sell anything packaged or processed. Every neighborhood would have a community garden fed by compost toilets and kitchen scraps. We would hang out with each other instead of watching television. We’d cook together instead of going to a drive-through.
What companies or organizations do you personally admire? Why?
I’m in love with the Gentle Barn and Farm Sanctuary. These organizations rescue abused, neglected farm animals and give them a noble retirement filled with love and open air. Our treatment of fellow living things as products is an embarrassment, and these groups educate the public on how intelligent and gentle these creatures are. I’m also really jazzed about the work Patagonia is doing to provide ethical products to consumers, and their “Responsible Economy” project that encourages people to actually buy less—an anomaly in the corporate world. Also, Tesla is going to change the world with the recently announced home batteries. A single battery powers your house with solar energy—or you can charge it off the power grid during cheapest energy hours. The concept is going to revolutionize how we power our homes.
What advice to you have for social entrepreneurs who are working to build more socially-conscious businesses?
Smart entrepreneurs will build business models that primarily take into account how a business can benefit the local landbase, and how it can benefit the community in which it is situated. Employees and consumers alike overwhelmingly want to be involved in ventures that answer those needs. It is a great starting point and has huge returns.