if you could design your own money, what would you put on it? Michael Giroux found inspiration from nature when designing Providence’s first alternative currency—CropCash. The smallest denomination is a honeycomb, the next a tide. Giroux is a member of the Fertile Underground Natural Cooperative and the designer of CropCash.The term currency is a stretch, Giroux told the Independent, given that it is not “money authorized by law.” The hand-stamped cards could never be confused for dollars, but that’s not the point: CropCash is a complimentary system of exchange.
The Fertile Underground runs a garden, a grocery store, a cafe, a work share, and soon a food truck, but this is their most ambitious project. The notes are already in use within the cooperative but are expected to take off on a larger scale in the next few months. CropCash is the printed form of Comb, a unit of currency based on labor; 3 Comb are worth roughly a day’s labor in any field. According to Giroux, it can be “used in interactions where dollars aren’t necessary.” But in interactions where buyers and sellers exchange goods, CropCash works the same as cash, even if it is only accepted within a designated network of businesses. Shoppers at Fertile Underground’s store on Westminster can use a combination of CropCash, dollars, and credit.
Local currencies have been developed in towns in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. Stephanie Malin, a community sociologist at Brown University’s
Urban Environmental Lab, told the Independent that micro- currencies are a way for communities to assert independence from a global economy that doesn’t serve local needs. In
most situations, the currency doesn’t replace the legal tender. Instead, consumers can opt in, purchase the alternative cash, and spend it at participating businesses. It gives participants the incentive to invest in the local economy instead of purchasing from larger corporations; WalMart Neighborhood Markets don’t accept local currencies, nor are their profits ever seen by their host communities. Proponents of alternative currencies hope that producers paid in local currency will in turn spend this cash on regional products and services and continue a cycle of growth.
Khym Carmichael, one of the cooperative’s 13 member- owners, came to Providence from Ithaca, New York, a town with one of the longest-running forms of alternative currency in the U.S. She expressed concern over the way the dollar arbitrarily fluctuates, obscuring the value of basic goods like food. CropCash, on the other hand, reflects what producers’ and laborers’ “energy is really worth.” Malin explained how micro-currencies like CropCash are a form of money that reflects local values, values “that have thus far been externalized in the global financial system.”
We can’t all print money, though. One of the biggest obstacles this movement faces is how to convince would-be participants that these new currencies will be immune to inflation. Giroux’s solution is to base the number of notes printed on the real value of groceries in the store. Unlike the dollar, which is based on debt, CropCash is backed by the promise of goods available now. If all the participants wanted to exchange their CropCash today, they would have access to the $25,000 worth of groceries at Fertile Underground’s store; Giroux says he plans to cap the total amount in circulation after the next round of production at 400 Comb (the equivalent of $10,000).
It can be bought in the store at $25 per Comb, or $5 for one-fifth Comb. So far, the currency functions mostly as a gift card and a way of investing in the cooperative, since only Fertile Underground itself officially accepts it. But Giroux and Carmichael are hopeful about its expansion. By next season, which starts mid-summer, Giroux hopes to have half
a dozen businesses in Providence accepting CropCash. Even though it’s only accepted at one business now, he emphasized, it can also be used in personal interactions outside the store. He gave an example: a man came in to buy some groceries with CropCash his landlord had given him after he shovelled snow during a blizzard. This wasn’t an official transaction with a predetermined monetary value; the man just helped out during a blizzard. It’s hard to imagine all workers accepting their wages in a resource with such limited use. Still, such a transaction guarantees that capital remains within the community. If given their space, micro-currencies can become a community institution. In some cities, established local currencies are acceptable tender at community banks and credit unions. In others, they can be used to pay partial taxes. Don’t be fooled by the playful colors and charming names; CropCash means business.
Stockbridge Mohicans, W.E.B. Du Bois, Herman Melville, and Norman Rockwell are all pictured on BerkShares notes, the alternative currency of the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Over three million BerkShares have been issued since they were launched in 2006. Among the things you can buy with them at over 400 businesses: a teeth cleaning, a wedding ring, and a limousine ride. Each Mohican (one BerkShare) costs $.95, which gives consumers a five percent discount on all purchases made with the local currency. This gives businesses taking BerkShares the incentive to keep the Normans circulating—by paying their distributors with them, for example—instead of cashing them in for dollars.
Ithaca hours, used at over 900 businesses in Ithaca, New York, is one of the country’s longest-running forms of alternative currency. The term “hours” implies that the system rewards time spent in service to the city and “builds our community pride and connections,” according to the Ithaca Hours website. When the currency began in 1991, the minimum hourly wage in Tompkins County in upstate New York was 10 dollars, and that’s still its value to this day. The general rule is that one Hour is worth one hour’s work, but it’s up to those involved in the transaction to decide. Businesses determine what percentage of a purchases can be paid in Hours, and employees at some local businesses have agreed to accept partial wages in Hours. Ithaca Hours’ time- based economic system is a widespread phenomenon, one step beyond barter, which allows person-to-person transactions without relying on the Federal Reserve to determine currency’s value. Recently, however, the use of Hours has begun to decline, most likely because Paul Glover, the inventor of Ithaca Hours and one of its most dedicated evangelists, moved out of the town. Fewer businesses accept it, and the rise of electronic banking over cash exchange has made it seem retrograde. Others have stepped in to fill Glover’s shoes, but the future of a local currency once so successful it attracted the interest of one of Beijing’s largest think-tanks is now unclear.
According to their website, the ‘r’ stands for “Regenerative, Revolutionary, Responsible Resilience.” They are set to launch their trial runs in Greenfield, MA and New London, CT in the upcoming months. The credits are sold on par with the US dollar and are circulated entirely electronically. The creators see themselves as the next generation of alternative currencies: sales will be tracked online to monitor RCredit circulation so that stores will not end up with a stockpile of credits they can’t unload. The non- profit that runs rCredit, Common Good Finance, hopes to eventually expand to towns across the Northeast.
ANNA ROTMAN B’ 14.5 & EMMA WOHL B’ 14 are worth the energy.