There are a couple equally ridiculous notions regarding this particular dilemma, the bookends to a spectrum defining relationships between different entities. The capitalist notion that competition is inherently good for all has no basis in fact but proves to be a handy excuse for almost any sort of behavior, and the idea that we can “all just get along” by sharing denies the dynamic nature of existence, its constant change. Somewhere between these two comforting ideologies lies reality’s difficult relationships, and most flower growers (and any businessperson) eventually have to discover how to deal with them.
There’s a famous essay dealing with the problem of sharing called “Tragedy of the Commons”, the gist of it showing that in a shared area it takes only one individual to destroy the egalitarian nature of communalism—one person deciding he wants more or needs more than others, unrestrained, destroys the balance of cooperation, and the rest of the community quickly follows his action. Equally famous in Game Theory, The Prisoner’s Dilemma shows how, while two criminals gain most by refusing to rat out each other, if one is offered a better deal at the expense of the other he generally takes it, fearing his partner will do the same and so beating him to the punch when given the chance.
Though we were pretty much first to the flower farming game locally, we still faced the threat of sharing our market throughout the years. At the farmer’s market where we sometimes fought to make a hundred dollars a session a retired woman sold 50 sweet peas for 50 cents and a grade-schooler sold bouquets for a buck. Later, when we became visible as a successful venture, people came to “visit” the farm, then stole our methods, our species list and even our client emails and price sheet, and even last year we received a call from someone who had just sold sunflowers to one of our clients, who suggested she read our book. “I’m no competition,” she started, then asked us how to price, what to grow, when to cut.
It’s foolish to assume competition is inherently good. Just as often as it makes the competitors better growers or more efficient, it creates a race to the bottom pricewise or a prize to the most ruthless tactician. And it’s just as foolish to assume cooperation will work, to think that multiple growers can have identical financial needs, the same growing abilities and methods, or that a market can grow infinitely to match any influx of new growers, however large. Markets can grow but they aren’t infinite, and as soon as a market saturates the sellers become adversaries. It’s either step aside or fight for your place, may the better—or more ruthless, or richer—grower win.
There is now easy answer to the problem. Communication between competitors may help, but only if they trust one another and have similar ethical stances—somewhat unlikely, but possible. Not talk but actions create the trust necessary for smoothly working arrangements. Repeated financial interactions and successfully completed agreements increase interdependency and reduce competitive friction. That doesn’t mean all parties get to be totally happy—more often it leaves all just a little grumpy about the situation (operating just like a true democracy).
If you trust someone before they’ve earned it, you set yourself up to be exploited. Apple Computers got some of their early ideas on a visit to a Xerox plant—just how happy do you think those executives were? Similarly, we trusted our “visitors”, who lost any chance of future cooperation by poaching our ideas and client list. It’s quite possible, had they been honest from the start, that we could have given them tips on how to grow, what to grow that we didn’t or couldn’t, who to sell to, or markets we refrained from entering. Having been so burned, we’re skittish about offering visits and information to not only the innocently curious (how do we know who’s “innocent”?) but those explicitly interested in entering the business. It’s a difficult position to be in—we want to be helpful, but do we really want to condense twenty years of hard work and investments into a nice package to make someone else’s life easier (particularly when it may make ours more difficult)? Automatic distrust may be a recipe for paranoia, but automatic trust sets a person up as a mark—you just have to ride the fence between the two, slip onto one side or the other as each case arises.