The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters, and Other Informal Entrepreneurs

June 29, 2015


Alexa Clay & Kyra Maya Phillips look for innovation in the worlds of black, grey, and informal economies.

"Am I talking too much?" Sam Hostetler, an Amish farmer in Miller, Missouri, asks for the third time before continuing the story of how he, an exotic-animal aficionado, started milking camels.

Hostetler was born to devout Christian parents in Tampico, Illinois, "the same town [where] Ronald Reagan was born." When he was nine years old, his family moved to a farm in Buffalo, Missouri. His father set up a building business and became a bishop in the community church. Sam and his brothers were raised to be moral, observant, and open- minded people. He married his wife, Corlene, when he was twenty-one years old, "after knowing her forever," he says, laughing.

When Hostetler was a small child, everybody commented on his affinity for things that lay off the beaten path. He reflects, "I don't know. I guess I've always liked a challenge." Hostetler reminisces how this love for the unusual led to his interest in exotic chickens—birds that had long tails, unlike regular chickens. When he was nine, his parents ordered twenty-five of them, and Hostetler's lifelong interest in exotic animals was born.

Hostetler's farming career began when he bought a few ostriches. He raised and traded them for a while, he said, then began to look for even more exotic animals. He bought hippos and rhinos—and became, as he likes to call it, an "alternative-livestock farmer." He has been in the trade for close to thirty years.

Then one afternoon a Missouri doctor phoned, opening the call with an unusual question: "Have you ever heard of milking camels?" Even Hostetler had never heard of such a thing in the United States. The doctor said that she wanted to give one of her patients camel milk and wondered whether Hostetler knew where she could find some. "Well, I've been known to do some crazy things over the years, one more won't hurt me," Hostetler responded.

Soon after the call, Hostetler began to plot his way into the camel milking business: a business that, to his knowledge, did not exist in the United States at the time. For Hostetler, there was some appeal in creating a new income stream, but he was drawn to the camel milking business primarily "because it was different." He started very much on a shoestring, buying a few camels, but eventually his herd grew to around thirty. He enjoys the challenge of doing something unusual, and he appears to have an affinity with the animals. He says: "I just like camels. They're not pretty, they're ugly, but I like them."

Dubbed "The White Gold of the Desert,"
camel milk is seen by some as an almost mythical elixir. It has alleged medicinal qualities, particularly in its raw, unpasteurized form, with people the world over claiming that it has helped with symptoms of Crohn's disease, autism, diabetes, Alzheimer's, and hepatitis C. Some even profess that the milk alleviates certain symptoms of HIV/AIDS. The milk has deep historical and religious roots. To many, it's a spiritual experience: The prophet Muhammad allegedly ordered some of his companions to drink it as a natural remedy. Used for centuries in the Middle East by nomads and Bedouins to help sustain them through the harsh desert weather, camel milk has long been praised for its healing properties. It is said that it provides more absorbable calcium than any other kind of milk, and is easier to digest, nonallergenic, and anti-inflammatory. Parents of autistic children claim the milk helps their kids with their motor skills and digestive system. While beliefs about camel milk's medicinal properties are widely held, most of the evidence for its effects on disorders and diseases has been anecdotal so far.

Despite being popular in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, the commodity has been largely ignored in the United States. Only in the last five years has an embryonic market—a true misfit economy—started to develop, bringing together a diverse group of unlikely characters, including Amish farmers like Sam Hostetler.

The demand for camel milk
has given families like Hostetler's a steady, sustainable income. Other Amish and Mennonite farmers have joined him, buying camels when they become available and building small herds on their farms. We spoke to Marlin Troyer, another of the farmers to enter the trade. A Mennonite who lives and works in Branch, Michigan, Troyer told us how his entrance into the business let him grow his farm from ten to eighty acres in the span of four years. The demand for camel milk, he says, "allows my family and me to make the necessary payments to keep our farm steady and in working order."

Hostetler, too, began to experience growth in demand for camel milk, leading him to establish Humpback Dairies, a private membership association through which he sells his product. Most Amish farmers in the business sell through several permutations of this model.

Raw camel milk is sold in this way because selling raw milk (as opposed to pasteurized milk) from any source (including a cow) is illegal in many states. In all cases, it is illegal to distribute raw milk across state lines. What is legal is to consume produce from livestock that you own. So Hostetler and his family, and those who buy into his livestock by joining the Humpback Dairies association, are allowed to consume the milk produced by the camel herd.

Most of Hostetler's business arrived through referrals, by word of mouth and family recommendations. This changed when a then-twenty-three-year-old University of Southern California graduate showed up on his doorstep.

Excerpted from The Misfit Economy: Lessons in Creativity from Pirates, Hackers, Gangsters, and Other Informal Entrepreneurs by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips. Copyright 2015 by Alexa Clay and Kyra Maya Phillips. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved


Alexa Clay is a storyteller and leading expert on subculture. She is the cofounder of the League of Intrapreneurs, a movement to create change from within big business and the Founder of Wisdom Hackers, an incubator for philosophical inquiry. Alexa initiates projects through the collective The Human Agency, which aim to create communities of purpose around the world. Formerly, she was a Director at Ashoka, a global nonprofit that invests in social entrepreneurs. When not operating in the world as Alexa, you can find her playing the Amish Futurist, an alter ego bringing Socratic inquiry to the tech scene. She is a graduate of Brown University and Oxford University.

Kyra Maya Phillips is a writer and innovation strategist. She is a director of The Point People, a network based consultancy focused on innovation and systemic change. Previously, Kyra worked as a journalist for The Guardian, where she focused on environmental reporting, and at as a consultant at SustainAbility, a London based think-tank and consultancy. She grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, but is now based in London, where she lives with her husband and son. She is a graduate of The London School of Economics.

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