Can Wee Little Businesses Save the Nation?


Both political parties and both capitalism and socialism spout lots of support for “small business.” Maybe this is where we can bring the country back together again. But I put quotes around “small business” because the Census Bureau and the Small Business Administration have exceedingly murky notions about what “small” means.

By the Census Bureau’s way of counting, there are some 27 million small businesses in the U.S. Among these, there are various yardsticks by which to tell if a business is small enough to fit the category. To be considered “small,” a business in the service sector or in retailing can’t take in over $21 million. A farm business is small if it takes in less than $9 million. If you want to use number of employees as a measure, a business is small if it hires no more than 500 people. In manufacturing, you are still small with 1500 employees.

You can see my problem(s). There is certainly a big difference between having four employees and having 1500 or between taking in a half million dollars in receipts and $21 million. A fresh market farmer who has sales of several hundred thousand dollars surely is going to have a different notion of smallness than the grain farmer who is taking in $9 million. This all becomes more than something just sad or laughable when the government, deftly run behind the scenes by corporate business, starts handing out tax breaks and subsidies.

I think maybe the SBA should divide up this thing called “small business” into some more meaningful categories, like maybe Wee Little Small Business, Small Business, and Rather Large Small Business. When you do this, you will find that the U.S Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business usually address the interests of Rather Large Small Business and pretend that Wee Little Small Business hardly exists, even though the latter outnumber the former by about 21,000,000 to 6000 according to SBA’s statistics.

This difference is becoming critical as Wee Little Small businesses explode in numbers. I read two of the “Edible” magazines, Edible Ohio Valley, and Edible Columbus. There are many different “Edible” magazines covering most of the U.S. and I highly recommend them if you are looking for a ray of sunshine in a gloomy world. They just burgeon and bubble over with exuberant enthusiasm about new business startups in the food and farming sector, especially the Wee Little Small kind. Edible Columbus, in the Spring 2013 issue for example, points out with obvious pride, that in 2008 there were six artisan cheese-making businesses in Ohio and today there are 18, 16 of which are run by women. The number of new businesses in the whole local food and food hub circuit is just booming, surely the most exciting economic development in our recent history.

The revolution is not just about economics. It’s about culture. I know a lot of the people in this movement and they do not necessarily fit the mold of the old small business profile. They are not as Republican as they used to be as a group. Nor is it easy to put them into old cultural molds either. They are neither rednecks nor yuppies. They know that we no longer live in the days of Wild Bill Hickok which primitive conservatives seemingly haven’t figured out yet. Nor are they artsy, urbane dilettantes who haven’t realized that the liberal yuppie era is vanishing too. They are not really political in the sense of so many older people who sit around ranting and raving all day about the evils of big government or the evils of big business. When I ask wee little small businesspeople, just as many of them say that they are liberal as say they are conservative and many admit to neither. It is not important to them. They are having too much fun engineering a new revolution that is on everyone’s side.  Most tell me that they are leery of big government but that it is the only entity powerful enough to maintain a fair playing field between big corporations and small business if only it would. I have this hunch, or hope anyway, that these are the people who are going to bring some sanity not only to our economy but to our politics. And along the way, some mighty good food too.


I’m a bit late with my comment as I’ve been too busy with my medium/small agri-business type farm to get on the internet. But, today it rained.
1. Farming 600 acres as a modern commercial type farm is painful. I’m starting to really hate it. You have to have big equipment and you have to make payments so you have to do the acres to make the payments and by the time it is paid off it is worn out.
2. I sell hay and in my spare time I make fresh feed from some small fields, (For example, 10 acres of oats and peas.) I keep my prices low to attract the micro-farmers. They are happy and enthused right up to the day they go broke. Only a few survive in the long term.
3. Politics- I find myself getting really frustrated and asking these people why they can possibly think the government is their friend who will protect them from the big corporations.
-I point out the mess of the “organic” label. They blame Bush. I point out the problems of last year’s small farm legislation and they blame obstructionist Republicans in congress. I try to point out that all this shows is that all political parties and government is in bed with big business and they need to think on their own. I don’t really see it happening.
I’d like to see a third way, where independent minded people of differing backgrounds came together. But I think it all goes back to what my Mother used to say, “as independent as a hog on ice,” which doesn’t really lend itself to the herd instinct needed to influence policy.
I didn’t exactly say what I wanted but now I have to go to work and this is a few posts back anyway.

I was raised by parents who worked full time – union electrician and very very small, privately owned foundry CFO – and who owned and operated an orchard in their spare time. Apples, then peaches; and as I got older and more able to help – strawberries, asparagus, sweet corn – and pumpkins to give away to the children who came with the apple customers. I had U-Pick strawberries for 20 years, only giving them up when the demands of my own career couldn’t seem to mesh with the needs/demands of my customers – and I look forward to having them again some day, when I retire or cut back on my hours. I didn’t make a lot of money, but I got a side bonus of satisfaction in providing quality fresh fruit for my locale.

I will also be looking forward to your new book. As a nurse, as a two time cancer survivor, I spend a lot of time with the thought. It doesn’t scare me, it doesn’t depress me; it’s just another part of life.

Hi Gene,
I do hope you get it published, as it is a importent topic. I was hoping you would say a book on home based business. While you have covered the topic in the past a full book would be a great thing in this economy…


Economic reality drives things like the size of businesses far more than culture.Culture develops as a result of economics.The climate in the US right now with ever increasing taxes,Gov’t regulation,Obamacare and similar things is driving many businesses in the ‘middle’ out of the market.What can thrive now are very large outfits that can afford to hire lawyers and experts to keep up with everything and very small (ie wee) businesses as in one person or family businesses that can skirt or ignore many of the restrictions like OSHA as they don’t apply to a person doing their own thing with no employees.Also don’t forget the Invisible Businesses that don’t show up on any screen like the fellow thats a plumber for a living at some company but fixes things for homeowners on the weekend or gardeners and farmers that sell some extra produce,part time firewood sellers and the like.Individually they don’t amount to alot of $$$ but collectively they probably run into the Billions.

    To Gary: What’s driving small and middle-sized businesses out of the market is nothing but crony bribery monopoly capitalism, not economics. President Carter busted up the AT&T phone monopoly and created thousands of jobs. Enforcing regulations like Taft Hartley that Reagan stopped enforcing so unions can start redistributing CEO’s outrageous salaries back to the workers and extending single payer Obamacare medical to everyone will cure a lot of what is wrong with quote unquote economics… see recent article The Hollowing Out of Government by Robert Reich…

      “Crony monopoly capitalism” is a driving economic force not a great system but still much better than “Crony monoply socialism” and Obama care has raised my
      health insurance premiums by 50% and will probably drive me into the ranks of the unisured.

Hi Gene,
As a small business owner, (I started the book barn to support my farming habit, don’t tell my wife;) I really appreciated your post. I believe we have moved into a post industrial phase luddite phase where manufacturing can even be brought back to the farm or garage. There is a machinist in my area who does very well just out of his garage. In my opinion people would do well to start several micro business, and never depend on a single source of income. Anyway all the best and I look forward to next Wednesday.

P.S. any news on a new book?

    Connecticut Book Barn, you should know better than to ask a writer what he is writing about. We poor souls will inundate you. I am finishing up a book on accepting death, having observed lately how many people seem to want to talk about that grim topic. We will see if anyone is crazy enough to publish it. Gene

Enjoyed the article. I am a recent admirer of your books. I have read most of them I can get through the library. Please keep up the good work. Now I am going to go back to planting my 120 tomato plants!

You suggest that “the revolution is not just about economics. It’s about culture.” Absolutely. It’s about a subset of youngish people who are weary and wary of traditional careers and who are skeptical of large corporations; who are sick of mass-produced things and mass-produced lives; who value creativity, craft, and quality; who understand that there is more satisfaction in production than in consumption; who are preoccupied with community and realize that a small gathering of like-minded entrepreneurs can happily bloom into a community.

We are a wee small sheep farm and I agree with you completely. The latest assault on us is the federal proposal to require us to pay sales tax to every state we mail something too from internet orders. There is no way I can find the time to register for business sales tax in every state I sell a couple ounces of fleece to just so I can pay a couple dollars in tax. Would pretty much put me out of business in the fleece market.

    wow, you must sell a lot of fleece since businesses with less than one million dollars in sales would be exempt from the proposed internet sales tax.

    by the way, why shouldn’t you pay the same tax that the wee little shepherd in my town has to pay when i buy their products?

    sorry to be kinda snotty about it, and believe me, i am totally aware of how rigged the system is in favor of big business, especially in agriculture, but please don’t make red herring arguments. the contrarian in me will call you on it, i can’t help it. lastly, i sincerely wish you success with your farm.

Gene, you have been a leader and a touchstone for the wee small food growers through example and your writing for years. My husband and I will always be grateful.

Hoping our enterprise will become a wee small enterprise one day soon, we are working towards that goal. I also hope that my research towards a PhD will help others in rural communities have a say in how their areas are developed and that means giving the wee small businesses and farmers a voice that gets heard. I can hope!

Yes, it is very different being a wee little small business. No subsidies or bail outs when you have a bad year. But I really don’t mind paying as I go and going without the government strings that come with government “help.”

Last year I was sent information on getting a grant to purchase equipment for my beekeeping business. It would pay 50% of my cost of improvements. If I had taken that offer, I’d be in a world of hurt and debt this year when 50% of my hives collapsed. As it is I won’t make as much but I don’t already owe it all either. I just dust myself off and rebuild at my own pace.

And Auburn Meadow Farms, hang in there, integrity, longevity and getting the word out to people who appreciate a “fantastic local” product as Karen says is the key.

thetinfoilhatsociety May 1, 2013 at 10:24 am

From your lips to God’s ears, Gene. As a small business owner I do a LOT of give-aways in the hopes that I will sell some product at a later date. I’m also not averse to barter or the gift economy, though like most everyone else I also require cash to pay my bills since the mortgage company doesn’t seem to appreciate eggs or linens as payment.

I am a textile craftswoman, and I know intimately the amount of time that goes into a usable product such as a dish towel, hat, or shirt. The time involved to simply wash, prep, dye, spin, and then weave or knit an item is incredible — and that doesn’t even begin to encompass the time involved in growing the raw materials! People simply have no understanding of why a hand made product should cost more, they just want to go to Walmart (like Auburn Meadow Farm notes as well) and pay as little as possible. If it only lasts a year, well, they can go buy more. Nevermind that while you may pay more for a hand woven dish towel for instance, it will last 20+ years…

I truly hope that small, local, and sustainable becomes a part of our nation’s economy in the near future.

Great essay. It does need clarified by government. But the best way for these Wee Small businesses to handle it is to ignore the titles/categories and continue to make fantastic local food. I too love the Edible magazines and they give me hope.

BTW, I read your book on art and agrarianism last night and it is fantastic.

I’m amother Wee Little Small and I would like to think that we will bw able to bring some sanity to our world. We certainly need it. Thanks, Gene, for all your insights over the years.

We have no really large farms (in terms of income) in terms of area. Of interest is the fact that miniscule (new category that you forgot, Gene) vegetable, sheep, and beef farmers are the ones that are more enthusiastic than those who ranch traditionally or run dairy herds.

Loved this. As a Wee Little Small hanging on by the skin of my teeth, I believe this too. My government sure isn’t doing me any favors… but more than anything it’s my Walmart loving neighbors who do the most harm.

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