This past Monday evening I attended the Annual General Meeting of the Powell River Farmers’ Institute, one of the many local organizations working to increase the amount and variety of food we produce in the region. I’ve attended Institute meetings since not long after I arrived in Powell River and started to work as the coordinator of the Powell River Food Security Project. At the beginning I felt really out of place at those meetings; I was certainly no farmer, and the topics of discussion were often things I knew next to nothing about. But there were reasons to keep attending: these were the dark days when it looked as though Powell River farmers were going to lose their ability to safely raise and slaughter livestock, and at the same time the City of Powell River was applying to the Agricultural Land Commission for the removal of 847 acres of land from the Agricultural Land Reserve to make way for an extremely dubious development scheme. It feels like ancient history now, but at the time it was fascinating to be at the meetings where the community was coming together to face these challenges, which to the farmers felt like existential threats.
Over time, I joined with the committee of the Institute which organizes our annual Seedy Saturday. As someone who supports the local farming community with my dollars, it made sense to support it with my time. And for the past two years I have been a director of the Institute and have done what little I can to advance its goals and accomplish its mission.
Since the beginning of the year, the Farmers’ Institute has been engaged in a project of strategic planning and re-examining its role, its ambitions, and the way that it connects with the surrounding community. Members of the Institute came together to create a vision (“Growing a diverse farming community”) and a mission statement (“The Powell River Farmers’ Institute is a non‐profit society working to advance farming in the Powell River Regional District”); then we started looking critically at the Institute’s current projects and other potential projects that would realize our vision and fulfill our mission — or at least start us moving in the right direction.
This year’s AGM was a sort of culmination of the first round of this strategic planning process, as the members present — upwards of thirty of us — met to decide who would start taking responsibility for which projects that had risen to the top of a simple voting process. Some of these were existing projects which the membership thought were worth continuing, such as Seedy Saturday; others were entirely new or were a proposed revival of the way things once worked. For example, one of the new projects is to work on creating “Farm Field Days” which will bring the farming community together for activities or workshops on someone’s farm; another consists of working to revive the dormant agricultural activities in our local 4-H Club. It feels very good to see the Institute moving forward and at the same time picking up dropped threads from the past; to me it signifies a renewed sense of confidence in the importance of agriculture to the life of this region.
It struck me that the Farmers’ Institute was very wisely taking advantage of a growing membership and an increasing sense of mission and possibility, harnessing this new-found energy and capacity in order to try a number of things to see what works and what doesn’t. The various projects about to start taking off, along with the many that will continue, make up a portfolio of investments in the community: members of the Institute sink their collective time and energy into these projects, of which some are short-term and others long-term; some are small in scope and effect where others (like Seedy Saturday) reach a large part of the regional population; some directly serve the needs of the Institute’s members where others aim to benefit everyone by generally strengthening the agricultural community. Some may falter, but many will succeed.
Here is one of the obvious advantages of working collectively: we get to try all these different projects at various scales, with different amounts of energy in and results out, possible because we can pool the work of a large group and tap into people’s particular interests and capabilities. Working as individuals means that we tend to fall into repeated patterns, sliding along the grooves of our experience and expectations, each time around wearing them deeper. Collective effort challenges our inertia by continually introducing new perspectives and ideas and by finding hidden connections and innovative ways of solving a problem or approaching a predicament.
As we go about our business in our daily lives, we are always working at multiple levels of scale: we need to see to the small and trivial tasks which catch up to us only when they accumulate and overwhelm us; and we need to pay attention to the big ones where failure could be serious. Some we can accomplish ourselves, and others force us rely on other people. Some are simple one-offs, and others come back again and again. Some have only a small effect, and others might make the difference between food and hunger. And for the most part, outside of our immediate families, we have no social networks we can rely on and participate in. Increasingly it feels as though this society consists of people stretched thin, coming ever closer to the point where all efforts to keep ahead of the game start to sputter and conk out. Everyone isolated, exhausted, feeling as though the failures are all down to us.
Sooner or later we may come to some kind of collective aha! moment where it becomes clear that we are not a random collection of beleaguered individuals all coincidentally happening to fall together through the shreds of the social safety net, but that we are merely engaging in an unreasonable way of seeing and addressing what are genuinely common problems, as though these problems were unique to each person and not pervasive and systemic. At that point, I hope, we’ll start to figure out how to gather our problems together and address them in concert. As the Farmers’ Institute is starting to do, we’ll portion them out along the dimensions of tractability, complexity, duration, and scale. I want to believe that this won’t be an expert-driven process requiring consultations and endless meetings, but an organic necessity-as-mother-of-invention-style cobbling together of whatever works in the moment. We’ll see.
Our endless human invention and creativity is always percolating away in the background, but its energy is damped by the pressures to sustain the hyper-individualized lifestyle we call ‘normal’. As those pressures relax, we might find ourselves beginning to tackle complex problems as though we knew what we were doing. And a huge part of that will be rejecting the false idea that all challenges require solutions at the greatest possible scale, our common addiction to grandiosity and illusion, stories about how bigger is always better. We need to relearn how to start small and stay small too, when that makes the most sense. What might kick it off are a few small victories to remind us that we do have more power than we sometimes believe we have.