Whoever the Frank is in your story, make sure your sustainability message works for him, too.
Frank’s handshake was everything you’d expect from a farmer. A firm grip, calloused palms and a missing digit.
“Really isn’t all that much of a handicap,” he told me later while explaining how he had leveraged himself free from his thumb and the combine it was attached to.
You see, Frank is a pragmatic guy. Giving up his thumb to save his arm was simply what needed to be done at the time. So, a decade or so later, when faced with losing the family farm, the idea of selling off some sand to make ends meet seemed like an obvious choice.
The choice did not seem so obvious to me, however. Raised by a mother who holds a spiritual reverence for her native East Tennessee hills, the whole idea of grinding the rolling, forested landscape of western Wisconsin into a sand lot bordered on the profane.
Add to that the fact that the ensuing product was being sold to a bunch of oil frackers in North Dakota, well, let’s just say I wasn’t seeing a lot of gray area.
Pulling into Frank’s farm, I was greeted by slick corporate signage and millions of dollars in shiny new earth moving equipment. The hustle and bustle of the mine all but obscured the remnants of the dairy farm that had been the family’s livelihood for decades.
“How do your neighbors feel about this?” I asked.
Frank responded, “That neighbor over there, we used to be best friends. Haven’t talked in three years. He makes a living hauling garbage to a landfill in someone else’s backyard, but I can’t dig for sand in his.”
I spent the next 36 hours talking to farmers and local business leaders about the impact of the sand business on this once-quiet community, but Frank had already pretty much summed it up. Those who were benefiting from the sand thought it was a great deal. Those who weren’t, didn’t. The mayor, almost giddy with the town’s recent windfall, struggled to think of a single drawback.
“I guess we may lose some hills and trees,” he said, “but that’s no different than when the lumber industry clear-cut this place 100 years ago.”
The opposition, led by a retired school teacher, paints a much different picture. Headlining the coalition’s list of objections is the claim that the sand industry is potentially exposing the community and workers to crystalline silica particles, airborne material that can be breathed in and so poses long-term health concerns.
Dan, another of Frank’s neighbors, still works the dairy his great grandfather homesteaded more than a hundred years ago. The operation consists of a quaint farmhouse, red barn and rolling green pasture nestled between a hardwood grove and rapidly diminishing ridgeline.
As I chatted with him, I asked how his father felt about him allowing the bluff on the back forty to be stripped and flattened for sand.
“He’s fine with it,” Dan said. “We used to get corn from the land, now it’s sand.”
The sand that Dan and Frank sell is primarily used for fracking. It’s injected (along with a toxic cocktail of chemicals) into hydraulically induced fractures deep beneath the earth’s surface to keep them from collapsing, while allowing the crude or natural gas to be extracted.
I asked Dan how he felt about being party to the fracking process and if he had any concerns about its impact on the environment.
“Don’t know much about that. You hear stuff and all, but I don’t know much about what goes on on that end,” he said.
As I settled into my accommodations for that evening – a 1980’s camper van parked in Frank’s front yard – I thought about what Dan had said.
In the rhetoric swirling around the sand mining industry’s recent arrival, he had heard a lot about the environmental and moral implications of the business he was in. But he wasn’t listening, because it wasn’t his problem.
His problem was that no matter how hard he worked his 51-year-old body, he was sinking. Rain or shine or six-foot drifts of Wisconsin snow, he milked those cows morning and evening. In between, he brought in the hay, fixed the crankshaft on his John Deere and rigged a door handle out of bailing wire. But still, it wasn’t enough.
Before I arrived in Wisconsin I had some pretty clear opinions of what’s right and what’s wrong regarding the environment, but a day with Frank and Dan muddied the water.
The reality out there was that it doesn’t come down to right and wrong. It comes down to what works. What’s right is to keep your thumb. What works is to rip it off and make the best of it.
Sure, if you are a retiree on government pension your eyes are wide open to the horrors of sand mining. You are fully aware that it’s not sustainable, that you are borrowing from the future and the interest rate is high. But if you are a farmer with more bills than cows, the picture changes.
A lot of people in our industry still think that sustainability questions are couched in moral alternatives. But the battle, unfortunately, often comes down to what’s right and what works.
Who wins that battle in the marketplace? We all know the answer to that.
Promoting sustainability, whether in practices or products, is going to come down to promoting what works.
It’s not simply what works in an ideological world. It’s what works in the everyday world of your consumer. Those spheres change dramatically based on demographics, life experience and day-to-day practicalities.
Whoever the Frank is in your story, make sure your sustainability message works for him too.