What is a Resilient Livelihood? Also: DiY Community Security and “Lean” Dairy Farms.

Today’s letter starts with a discussion of what a resilient livelihood is, and why it is a good thing to have.

We’re also lucky to have a dispatch from our security correspondent Marcus Wynne on how the Burning Man (it’s a massive 50,000 person festival in the desert) handles security.

At the end of the letter is a very smart approach to building a “lean” dairy farm by F.W. Owen.  I think being “lean” is essential to business resilience and your future success.  It’s definitely worth a read.


How To Thrive:  Build a Resilient Livelihood 

Over the weekend in Aspen, I had some great discussions with young men and women looking for ways to build a better future for themselves.  Naturally, since we live in the real world, the discussion eventually gravitated to the best ways to make a living in today’s rapidly changing environment.

In addition to specific recommendations that were unique to their circumstance, here’s one suggestion I had for them:

Don’t focus on a job, career, pension, government payment, or investment.  

Instead, build yourself a resilient livelihood.

Here’s what a resilient livelihood is and why it is important.

A resilient livelihood is achieved by diversifying your income.  To be resilient, you need to get your compensation from many small, and very different, sources.   It’s also a livelihood where you aren’t dependent on any one source (customer, product, service, or category).

Here’s an example of a resilient livelihood from one of my favorite farmers, Sepp Holzer.  Sepp sells 30-40 different products and generates a multi-million dollar income from his 40 hectare (hillside) farm.  Sepp explains why this is good in his own words:

I have built ponds, terraces, and gardens, kept fish and wild cattle, I have grown mushrooms, set up an alternative tree nursery and so much more.  Despite the fact that there are many different areas a farm can specialize in, it was important to me that I did not focus on any one source of income.  I wanted to remain as flexible as possible, so that I would always be able to react to changing market conditions…. Over the years, this decision has been proven right again and again…  Since then, I have been able to double the original size of the Krameterhof (his farm), whilst many of my critics have had to give up their farms….

The lesson here is that many small incomes from a diverse number of sources will allow you the flexibility to meet the needs of a rapidly changing or turbulent environment (farming is a very uncertain business, and Sepp was operating w/o the subsidies most farmers get).

It’s important to note that a resilient income is very different from a “robust” livelihood.  A robust livelihood is income from a “safe” source or a small number of sources such as:

  • A big company.  A job or a pension.
  • A government.  A job, a pension, or a subsidy.
  • A financial portfolio.  Hedged or in safe assets.

A robust income is pretty good at keeping you housed, fed, and clothed during normal times.   However, in turbulent times, “safe” companies, governments, and financial systems can become just as vulnerable to failure as anything else.

This is a lesson that applies to communities too.  We saw this with Braddock, PA and the catastrophic effects of its reliance on “safe” incomes from the steel industry.

How do you diversify your income to make it more resilient?

Explore things you can sell or do to make an income from a new source, even if you don’t need a new source of income right now.  Try them out in the marketplace.  Turn a hobby into a micro-business.  Follow your passions and have fun.

I think you’ll be surprised by the results and you will be glad you did this in the future.


How Security at the Burning Man Works

How does an ad hoc security system work?  Our security contributor Marcus Wynne did some investigation and has this report.

Problem: Resilient communities will require a resilient and innovative approach to security in an increasingly insecure environment.

Solution:   Create a flexible approach to security management that supports and upholds the principles of resilience and sustainability while providing the necessary range of security to the community.

The Burning Man Festival held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada is one of the largest intentional communities.  It’s a temporary autonomous zone that, for nine days, constitutes one of the largest cities in NV with a population around 50,000.

A few thousand people on bikes

Significant security issues for the Burning Man community:

  • Search and rescue.  Finding and helping lost or extremely intoxicated people.   Helping those overtaken by physical demands of the high desert.
  • Mediation of community conflicts.  Usually drunken arguments to generator noise or out of control parties.
  • Liaison with local and federal law enforcement.  Burning Man falls within the purview of federal, state, county and local law enforcement on legal enforcement issues.

In direct response to the issues, the Black Rock Community started the Black Rock Rangers, a volunteer organization that focused first on search and rescue, then conflict resolution/mediation, and then a buffer/moderator/mediator between “official” law enforcement and members of the Burning Man community.

Significant elements in selection, training and mission of Black Rock Rangers:

  • Volunteers must have participated in at least one previous event as an attendee.
  • Volunteers must embrace and support the community values of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression and the inherent and implicit values of same.
  • Volunteers must complete required training in first aid, communications and most importantly, role-playing in complex conflict mediation.
  • Volunteers must do an apprenticeship with senior experienced Rangers and may be dropped at any time due to attitude, lack of support for community values, lack of judgment/maturity


Any member of the Burning Man community can sound the call for the Rangers: “Ranger, Ranger, Ranger!” which is taken up and repeated while the closest Rangers vector in on the disturbance.

The community supports the Rangers, who are of the community, and embody the ethos of “Protect and Serve.”


A “Lean” Dairy Farm

Being “lean” is an essential part of building a resilient business.  What does being lean mean?  I could give you a definition, but I found something better.

Here’s F W Owen’s “lean” approach to dairy-farming.  He introduces his “lean” approach with this example:

At one time we milked 300 cows 3X, but now milk only 30 (and make more money than with the 300)


Characteristics of a high cost structure dairy farm.
Characteristics of a low cost structure dairy farm.
Full line of machinery for tillage, row crop production, manure hauling, 3 or more different forage, storage and feeding methods, feed processing, feed mixing, cattle hauling. One small tractor, small skid loader, manure spreader and mower, hand cart, pitchfork, broom.
Newer, dependable machinery. Older rebuilt machinery.
Machinery purchased with borrowed money. Total fair market value of all machinery under $5000.
Powerful pickup truck less than 5 years old with payments. No pickup or a well maintained 10 yr. old or older truck. No payments.
Attempts to maximize production per acre. For example attempted corn yields of 150+ bu/A. No seed or herbicide purchased. A little fertilizer and lime purchased. Max. effort devoted to precise manure distribution by cows.
Near constant use of 2 to 5 tractors and loaders. Tractor use usually a few minutes or less per day.
Year around cow exposure to concrete stress & free stalls. Cow exposure to concrete limited to milking time and winter months.
Little or no nutrients from pasture. 100% of forage from pasture April 10 to Nov. 25.
High Cost Structure Low Cost Structure
Attempt to grow most forage and concentrates. Maximum use of very low-cost purchased feeds like shelled corn and coarse hay for winter feeding.
Purchased feed tending to be high quality imported hay and exotic protein supplements like cottonseed. Purchased feed limited to cheap low quality hay and cheap local shelled corn.
High level of dependence on agri business for products & services. Total lack of need for agri business products and services.
Hire consultants for ration balancing, animal health, agronomy and financial mgt. All management functions handled by owner-operator with vet. principal advisor.
Multiple employees No employees
Larger herds, 3x milking. 16 to 24 hr/day milking parlor schedule. Herd size limited to number owner can milk in 2 hours or less.
High tech milking facility. Replacement value of over $100,000 dollars. Simple, home-built and maintained milking facility. Replacement value of less than $5000 total. Could be a stanchion panel bolted to two posts and a cheap used pipeline.
Popular, high value, high index proven bulls used. Max. use of A.I. and natural service young sires.
Frenzied, fast paced, toxic lifestyle. Slower sustainable life style.
High Cost Structure
Low Cost Structure
Focus on herd average and high individual cow performance. Herd average totally ignored as irrelevant to anything.
Very strong temptation to ignore profit and seek maximum cash flow to service debt, pay employees and agribusiness suppliers. No cash flowing out except the electric bill and to buy low cost local shelled corn and rough hay for winter.
Net profit potential per cow break-even or less. Herd size 100-400 milking. Net profit per cow of up to $800.00 Herd size up to 150 milking.


Your Lean Keen Analyst,




PS:  The Resilient Communities survey we sent out generated 30,000 words of response!  Wow.  Really amazing.  There’s lots of passion in our community.  I’m reading through all of it to make sure we do the best job we can with this letter.  Thanks again.

PPS:  If anyone has lived in a resilient community in the past and has lessons/insights and best practices to share, please send them to me.  I’d love to share them with the rest of the community.

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  • rwc


    I think the resilience vs. robust meme has a third axis (or a subset of robust?) comprised of industries that are fundamental and likely to be the most resilient. Water, electricity, health care and education come to mind, as “industries” likely to survive in some form regardless of the local economic situation. This isn’t to say that a given organization, or individual skill set will always be valuable, but water sanitation engineers, electrical linemen, ER doctors/nurses, and teachers strike me as trades/professions likely to be valuable absent the total collapse of all societies with an ability to barter value for services.


    • John Robb


      That is true, however “the success of a specialist strategy is inversely correlated with high rates of change.” In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket…. JR

  • GoneWithTheWind

    I would like to see that “lean” approach adopted by cities and counties. I went to city hall the other day to pay a water/sewer bill. I couldn’t find any parking and inadvertently entered into the parking lot for city vehicles only. At least 50 brand new pickups parked in there with city logos and plates. I don’t know how many city vehicles were out on the road. Why in the hell does a city of 50,000 need this many new vehicles?

    • John Robb

      So true. JR

  • http://palaopensource.wordpress.com/ ryan

    The Aspen Institute has posted a couple videos of talks from the forum here – http://www.aspeninstitute.org/video/aspen-environment-forum-2012-conversation-eo-wilson

    • John Robb

      Thanks Ryan. Didn’t see my session unfortunately.

      • http://palaopensource.wordpress.com/ ryan

        yeah, i was hoping to see/hear your talk – the folks at Aspen Environmental Forum sent me a few other links from the meeting – http://www.npr.org/templates/rundowns/rundown.php?prgId=5&prgDate=6-25-2012

        if you have any powerpoint stuff or a summary to share of your presentation im sure lots of folks here would like to see it. im curious to hear how the pocket-protected eco old guard responds to your ideas. personally, im pretty disappointed with what i’ve heard from the Aspen talks – not much new, anecdotes instead of science, and the profoundly absurd notion of bringing back individual spp with genetic engineering… though Stewart Brand’s cloned woolly mammoths would be really cool to have roaming around the post eco-pocalypse wastelands…

        • John Robb


          I don’t, it was all structured thinking. Some of the mental architecture necessary to understand why this is the most amazing time to be alive. Endless opportunity for improvement despite universal decay.

          Nobody did much on presenting scientific data on climate change. That’s done. It was all about trying to figure out what to do now that climate change is inevitable. For the most part, the scientists and policy guys are at a loss. All they can do is try to mitigate the damage.

          Stu was hilarious. He definitely likes to shake people up. Biohacking for the lulz.


          • http://palaopensource.wordpress.com/ ryan

            “Nobody did much on presenting scientific data on climate change. That’s done.”

            yes, as far as the overall, big “is this anthropogenic climate change?” question the science is done – there remain huge gaps in understanding the climate system, models and abrupt change – this is why actual observations of temp, sea level rise, biotic/ecosystem responses, and ice melt are typically much worse than expected. from my experience working, talking, and writing with and for “the science and policy guys” they seem at a loss on this mostly because they can’t admit that simple, local, decentralized solutions and not extravagant, techy fixes are most appropriate. not many folks with a PhD are willing to teach school kids, work in the garden, organize with environmental activists, etc.

            again, if you’re ideas and local resilience/GG thinking are being seriously considered in these meetings, great. perhaps next year someone subversive can leave the backdoor open at the forum for those of us who can’t front the 600$ a day cost of attending the talks…

  • Burgundy

    How To Thrive: Build a Resilient Livelihood

    John, this is the route I’ve taken. My original premiss was to commercialise any work that I had to undertake for myself to become resilient (ie. leverage my investment in resilience to create an income ). I produce eggs and veg for myself so I also sell them, I cut firewood for myself so I sell it too (also lumber), I have to cut the grass and trim my hedges so I utilise the same equipment to do paid gardening work. Plumbing, roofing, any new skill I acquire I put into the market place.

    People still need services at affordable prices, in particular maintenance services, but there is an insufficient local market to support single skilled specialists. Low overhead, low risk, small, multi-skilled generalist type entrepreneurial enterprises which attract work by word of mouth (no advertising overhead, no need for expensive qualifications or certifications) and are invisible to the parasitic mainstream economic system are the way to go. When the velocity and flow of money becomes a trickle, as in a deflationary depression, you have to increase the scope and range of income producing activities to compensate (whilst also cutting the actual need for money). Which also requires a completely different understanding and way of doing business (I left paid employment in 1994 and have been in business ever since, albeit very different type now from my former businesses).

    I would really like to complement my various income streams with some kind of small scale manufacturing, possibly retailing via the internet. Possibly utilising a local resource and a niche market that avoided competing with Chinese goods. Not easy. I’m making little headway in this area. Another way may be to create a cooperative for the more capital intensive enterprises like a machine shop, etc.

    • John Robb


      Thanks for the detail on your experience. You are very correct. I’m also finding lots of examples of this and some tips on how to make money doing it:

      “I would really like to complement my various income streams with some kind of small scale manufacturing, possibly retailing via the internet. Possibly utilising a local resource and a niche market that avoided competing with Chinese goods. Not easy. I’m making little headway in this area. Another way may be to create a cooperative for the more capital intensive enterprises like a machine shop, etc.”


  • yoyo_bob

    “on how the Burning Man (it’s a massive 50,000 person festival in the desert) handles security.”

    Doesn’t the Burning Man ban individuals from carrying or even bringing to the festival the means to defend themselves? So is centralized security or reliance on an outside centralized security aparatus (State/Federal) the resilient model? If so, enjoy your fuedalism.

    It is great that you are encouraging people to be resilient by growing their own food and producing their own energy. But if our society turns into one where you HAVE to rely on your garden to feed your family (i.e. grocery stores are empty, to too expensive) you better have your own personal security capability integrated with your neigbors or you will very quickly be dead or a slave. The MS-13 gang member has the same drive to protect and feed his family as you do, except he will not have those pesky morals to get in his way of taking what he needs.

    • Marcus Wynne

      Hey Y-B — the point of looking at Burning Man is to study how a community creates the exact kind of security structure you discuss. That’s why there’s bullet points for consideration in planning or creating one; my point is in alignment with yours — there will be a need (already is, in many of the resilient communities I visit) for local community security; however I’m pretty sure that there will be some need for “liaison” with other communities, services, military, whatever, and not just the survivalist fantasy of the lone family of gunmen holding off the rampaging hordes.

      Don’t work like that in the real world — don’t have to look further than A’stan, Africa, Balkans, Argentina for concrete examples.

      So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater — there’s some valuable lessons in how BM does things for people who want to organize in a way that works, rather than how they *think* it *should* work.

      Thanks for commenting, and let us know if you’d like to see more like this in the future.

      cheers, m

  • http://www.EcoReality.org Jan Steinman

    Our small flock of lovely, friendly Nubian dairy goats supplies about 40% of our income. The bobos bring us invasive plants like ivy and scotch broom, which the goats love. We milk by hand, and through a co-op arrangement, are supplying about 50 people with minimally-processed raw goat dairy products.

    But we also have a market garden (29% of income), value-added products (13%), eggs (9%), fruit (7%), and educational events (5%).

    The way I put it is, “Having a single career or even a single job is fiscal monoculture.”

    • John Robb

      Thanks Jan. That’s a nice way to put it. JR

    • Gnoll110

      1/ What does ‘natural service young sires’ mean. As an Australian, not sure what this means.

      2/ You have ‘Attempt to grow most forage and concentrates.’ in the high cost column, with ‘Maximum use of very low-cost purchased feeds like shelled corn and coarse hay for winter feeding’ and ‘Purchased feed limited to cheap low quality hay and cheap local shelled corn’ in the low cost column. As someone with a mixed farming background (I’m the son who didn’t go farming) the seems arse about.

      My instinct is to keep stock rates low, so you can rely on grazing for most of the year, with supplimental feeding with hay etc in winter. That may mean selling stock at the end of the pasture growing season to suit *actual* pasure growth present and assuming weather & rainfall will go against you until the next growing season. This minumises the purchases of off farm feed (a highly variable expense). Buy your hay making gear the same way as the milking kit. If you’ve got organic certification any feeds brought in proentally threaten this status. I know market gardeners who nearly lost their organic status due to a load of ‘clean’ hay that they bought in for composting. There is also the risk of introducing new weeds.

      By all means start by buying in the ‘cheap feeds’, but invest the propfit in hay making gear etc with the aim of dropping the ongoing cost of production. Capital investment (that includes earth works) in the short term to mininise operating expenses in the long term.

      • http://www.blueherontexas.com Christian S

        Gnollo: Natural service young sire means Owen is letting a bull do all the inseminating, rather than buying semen and using AI.

        The second part, attempt to grow concentrates and forage is back to the part about lots of huge machinery trying to get 150 bushels of corn per acre. That’s what he had to do to keep his feedlot cattle fed. Letting them harvest 100% of their diet in the non-winter months from perrennial grasses is orders of magnitude cheaper. The supplemental feed that he mentions:

        “Maximum use of very low-cost purchased feeds like shelled corn and coarse hay for winter feeding.”

        That’s worded strangely but if he runs his dairy like I run mine, it’s only used during the non-growing season. And by not owning any of the equipment used to make it, you can save a lot of money. I wouldn’t be able to make hay for less than I buy it now. Plus, bringing the hay in increases your soil’s organic matter at a pace much higher than if you were growing the hay. I grow as much grass as I can and let the goats graze it, what is left over gets mulched back into the ground by the mower.

        And I don’t know if he’s organic, but, although I practice all the organic principles on my land, I have never considered the certification. And most of the farmers I know haven’t either. In the US it’s a bureaucratic nightmare and the guidelines have been so watered down as to make the customer ambivalent about it.

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