You say "tomato." I say, "You know what? You’re right."

Photographer: Fabrizio Constantini/Bloomberg

How Farmers and a Company Grew Together

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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We don't get a lot of feel-good stories around these parts. So here's your daily smile: In the St. Louis area, a group of folks started an urban farm on land owned by someone else. It was a win-win for the nearby airport, which owned the land at the time: It didn't have to spend tens of thousands of dollars a year mowing, and the farmers got some exercise and affordable healthy food. Then the new owner decided it was going to use that land to expand its office park.

I know what you're expecting: angry protests from freelance socialists! Indifferent company saying mean things about the farmers! Nasty op-eds pitting rich against poor!

Yeah, that's what I expected, too. But that's not what happened. 

The tenants freely admitted that it wasn't their land, and they had no right to criticize the company for wanting to use it. Then the company gave them eight acres right across the road and threw in an irrigation system. (If you've ever raised food on a large scale, you know that's a Really Big Deal.) It is deeding the land to be a community garden in perpetuity.

This is civil society at its best. Cooperative, instead of adversarial. Respectful of property rights, while also respectful of people who have come together to build something great with their own labor. Win-win, instead of zero-sum.

Of course, that's not always possible. Land is cheap and plentiful in St. Louis compared to, say, Manhattan, so this gesture probably didn't cost the company much -- and probably won them more than it cost in community goodwill. Sometimes conflict is inevitable.

But we can also make it worse than it needs to be. The company could have stood on its legal rights and said it didn't owe the gardeners a damn thing. The gardeners could have declared they were needier than the company and tried to claim squatter's rights.

Instead, everyone respected each other and did the right thing. You can't mandate that -- indeed, mandates would destroy that respect and create more conflict. When you try to reduce everything to a matter of law, you create hard borders that must be fought over. It is in the space between the laws, where people have the freedom to do what is best rather than what is legal, that we have the opportunity to come to amicable agreements.

Now the community has more office space and a better community garden. If we started more conversations with that kind of mutual respect, I wonder if we wouldn't have more of these kinds of mutual wins.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net