By Dan Needles
It’s hard to make a living as a full-time writer these days. To make ends meet, we all have to take teaching gigs, go out on the speaking circuit or pick up a little freelance work in the business world. We live a lot like farmers do, trying to keep doing what we love with the help of a little ‘off-farm’ consulting work.
As a writer in a farm neighbourhood, I often get asked to wade into areas where I have no expertise apart from the knack for choosing the right words. I often write speeches for local council candidates or fashion legal letters for aggrieved parties in disputes. I once ran a successful campaign for the owner of a new backhoe that started knocking worse than a door-to-door salesman after only 100 hours. The dealer refused to do anything about it until we put a giant Styrofoam yellow lemon on top of the cab with his name on it. My client got satisfaction and I got my farm pond dug out.
I have a neighbour whose wife is doing a land-office business selling goat soap to the neighbours. It was a summer kitchen project that grew like Topsy and their house now smells like the perfume counter at The Bay. My friend has been pushing his wife to apply for a provincial grant that would help her ramp up production and move the operation into a new building out by the road.
She fully expected her application to languish on a desk in the sub-basement of a Toronto office tower for six months, but imagine her surprise when the phone rang and a young woman asked if she could drive up and meet with her the following week.
“That’s great,” I said. “You must be very excited.”
“Not great,” my friend replied glumly. “We need a consultant.”
I had to agree. These days no one moves an inch in farm financing without a full report from your agrologist, your waste management planner, your estate planner and your branding consultant, professions that are still pretty thin on the ground up here on the Canadian Shield, where I live. I suggested he have a chat with the two brothers out on the highway who cash crop over 7,000 acres and operate a line of credit that would carry the Republic of South Sudan for six months. Surely they use consultants.
“No, they don’t,” he said. “I already asked them and they said, ‘when you farm as much land along the highway as we do, you get everybody’s opinion for free, so why would you pay for it?’”
He looked at me beseechingly. “You used to work for a big company in the city. Could you put on a tie and be a consultant for a day?”
The part of my brain I like the best said very definitely not. I agree with the man who once said a consultant is just a guy who has 100 pick-up lines but doesn’t know any girls.
The government analyst turned out to be a pale young woman from the sub-sub-basement of one of those chrome and glass towers on Bay Street and she was thrilled to be out on the open road for a site visit. She wore a trendy little blazer, but that was because she needed a lot of pockets to carry her iPhone, iPad, iDoodle and her emWave 2 Stress Tracker. She shook hands all round and ordered a Perrier with lime. The waitress looked panicked, but a moment later I caught a glimpse of a runner being dispatched to the Price Chopper to find both.
My computer had to switch to a lower gear when I tried to cash flow the goat soap. Even assuming an incredibly optimistic ROI (return on investment) of 2 % and goats that live into their 20s the spreadsheet projected that my client would pay the loan off about the same time the next space probe reaches Pluto. But the analyst sipped her Perrier and made all sorts of positive noises.
Back in the last century, when you wanted people in government to green light your project, you used three words: Cheap, Quick and Popular. Nowadays, the magic words are: Value Chain, Global, Natural, Renewable, Youth-Centered, Knowledge-Based, High-Value Jobs, Local and Green. If you use these words often enough and produce a spreadsheet showing rising sales and a profit that is visible to the naked eye . . . Ka-ching! Money flows. (These are also the same methods that gave us a failed dinosaur park, a failed coyote-rehab facility and a failed tilapia farm, but never mind.)
If this goat thing takes off, I will be showering with the product for the rest of my life.
Too bad there aren’t more government programs out there to encourage writers. That may be because the only government program in living memory that ever produced a writer was the prison system. Build a cold, dark, forbidding prison and throw in a bunch of innocent people, and you will hatch an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or a Vaclav Havel. No other state-sponsored method has ever worked as well.
But if someone wants to make a proposal, I’m available to consult.
Dan Needles is a writer and the author of the Wingfield Farm stage plays. He lives on a small farm near Collingwood, Ont. His website is www.danneedles.ca.