By David Parkinson
Sundog over Malaspina Strait, January 23, 2010
[For A.M., A. T.-B., and the other unsung and undersung heroes and heroines.]
Lately I end up in many conversations that tend in the same direction. Usually, the general topic is something to do with food security in the broad sense: agriculture, gardening, increasing the amount of food we grow and store, that sort of thing. Conversations that proceed from this type of starting point often circle around the gaps, the challenges, the threats, and the shortfalls — of course, we know that plenty is happening out there, and generally lots of it is headed in the right direction, but the progressive mindset is one in which you pay lots of attention to the road ahead; the one that leads to where you’d like to be. And that makes you take stock of the current situation and how it can be made better.
In terms of regional food security, it’s always interesting to see where people think we should be trying to get to. Should we be aiming to feed ourselves entirely from local sources? Well, what about the moderately difficult questions, like how we’re going to raise enough meat, grain, and other staples in the region to feed everyone here? And what about the really hard questions, like the crops and other foodstuffs we simply can’t produce here, such as oranges and bananas?
OK, so we can set aside the harder and more out-there questions like these. Anyone who’s spent time thinking about it will admit that we have the capacity in the region to grow much more of the food we consume here than we do at present. This is our cue to start brainstorming…
Conversations like this usually produce some good ideas. We could buy a community apple cider press! We could match people with unused land with people who want land to farm!! We could set up a community produce-swap!!! Yes, good ideas; but more and more I am learning that the great hidden cost of implementing ideas like these is the time and energy it takes. Typically that time and energy is being contributed by a small corps of dedicated volunteers— and often by one key person who has drifted into that role, become irreplaceable, and gotten stuck there. Sometimes, as with a black hole, messages from the centre of that project no longer reach the outside world; no light can escape, and it becomes invisible. It can take an effort of will to remember that the project exists and that somewhere at its centre is someone in need of support.
So who’s going to pay for that apple press? Who’s going to house it, maintain it, clean it, find spare parts, let people know about it, and teach them how to use it?
Who’s going to contact all those landowners, develop some rules about how they want their land to be used, advertise to let would-be farmers know there’s land to be had, match them up, track progress, and troubleshoot?
Who’s going to find the space to have the produce swap, find produce growers, make ads and flyers, deal with the health authorities, and devise the rules for how to swap one thing for another?
I don’t ask all of these questions in an effort to make these projects look impossibly complicated; only to point out that underneath even the ‘simplest’ community projects is often a crazy heap of rules, history, traditions, tribal wisdom — call it what you will. And somewhere under that heap is very often the person — and very often it is only one person — who makes the whole rickety contraption work from one moment to the next, with little more than duct tape and a positive attitude.
When I think of scaling up the local food economy, I think about how we’re going to start new projects like these and others, especially when many of the projects currently running are stretched thin, scrambling for reliable volunteers, and parched for the tiny droplets of funding that would help them make it through the year. This sort of institutional exhaustion is pretty widespread and might well get worse if the economy continues to decline, drying up funding from the government, non-profit, and private sectors.
And it’s as the economy declines that the need for these community projects becomes more acute. This is a real conundrum. How can we get better at starting and sustaining grassroots initiatives which serve the needs of the community, including those least able to see to their own needs?
Interestingly, I’m hearing similar answers to these questions starting to pop up more and more frequently, so I’ll write about that for next week.