Archive for May, 2009

A wildfire warning

By Tom Read

Here's a small part of the Cranby Creek fire zone. You can see that most trees weren't seriously damaged, but that's only because we were lucky that the fire hit when there was still enough moisture in the ground.

Here's a small part of the Cranby Creek fire zone. You can see that most trees weren't seriously damaged, but that's only because we were lucky that the fire hit when there was still enough moisture in the ground.

Back in the late summer of 2006, Texadans fought side-by-side with provincial firefighters to put down an accidentally caused wildfire that could have resulted in widespread destruction if it had successfully migrated from an open field into the forest. That was a very dry year, and capricious winds kept the fire alive as an unpredictable threat right up until overwhelming force arrived in the form of two quarry water tankers and a corps of local volunteers. We were lucky; it was a close call.

Last weekend, another wildfire hit Texada.  Located near the headwaters of Cranby Creek, this fire jumped immediately from a clearing near a dwelling on private property directly into the public’s forest. The cause is under investigation, particularly since nobody has admitted to starting the fire. Ambiguity has fueled fierce rumour and innuendo heard all over the island; dark speculations but no proof. This isn’t healthy for our community, and it’s quite unfair to anyone being targeted by such speculation. I know we can do better than this, but that’s a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, as in 2006, Texada volunteers responded admirably to the fire alarm, including the Gillies Bay Volunteer Fire Department, JMG Logging (water tanker) and Wallmer Bobcat Service (backhoe). Provincial firefighters came through as well, including air crews flying two fixed-wing fire retardant bombers and a water-dumping helicopter, plus an experienced team on the ground. After about eight acres of a steep, forested, rocky hillside had burned, the firefighter’s coordinated efforts first contained, then knocked out this fire. The drama lasted about five hours.

The next day I spoke with members of the mop-up crew, who had come from Port Alberni to help fight the fire when it broke out on Saturday afternoon. “We were lucky here,” said a sweat-soaked young man who had been digging out and extinguishing hotspots among still-smoking tree roots. “This was a classic surface fire, where the flames never got higher than my shoulder,” he said. “The amount of moisture in the ground meant that the fire had to use most of its energy to burn off water, so it never got into the tree tops. Mostly, it just singed the trees and destroyed a lot of undergrowth.”

He added that the mid-sized and large trees should not suffer any permanent damage, and the burning of undergrowth and old deadwood on the forest floor will actually help reduce future risk of a catastrophic wildfire on these relatively few acres.  But 2009 is already shaping up as a dry year for Texada, and we may not be so lucky next time. If this fire had occurred on a windy day in August, after months of little rain, events might have unfolded quite differently.

These dangerous events are foreseeable, if not exactly predictable as to time and place. What are we doing as individuals and as a community to prepare for wildfires? I know we haven’t done enough at our house to protect ourselves; our current plan would mostly amount to safe evacuation. But what about our community? Does anyone have a copy of the Texada Emergency Preparation Plan? What does it say about coordinating emergency response and follow-up in the event of a truly wild fire in the forest?  I don’t know, but I’ll try to find out and report back in a future post.


One down, eleven to go

By David Parkinson

Seeds, awaiting the right moment to create new life...

Seeds, awaiting the right moment to create new life...

Last Wednesday (May 20 2009), the Unitarian Hall in Cranberry was the scene of a meeting which might end up having some historical importance. I was happy to be part of this meeting, and I’m excited to see what the next steps will be, since this was the inaugural get-together of a new group, Transition Powell River.

It seems as though 2009 is the year that Transition starts to go mainstream: none other than the New York Times published a recent piece on Transition, and even Elle magazine got into the act with a piece titled “Do Worry, Be Happy.” So what is this thing called Transition?

All it really is a set of procedures for starting out with two big realizations:

  • we are approaching — or possibly have gone past — the point of maximum worldwide oil production;
  • climate change is a real problem, largely man-made, and we must reduce carbon emissions drastically and quickly.

Little by little, these realizations are seeping in from the fringes of respectable public discourse and starting to occupy centre stage in average people’s understanding and in the decision-making of political leaders. But they are such enormous and far-reaching sets of facts which pose huge problems to us all, on an individual and community level. How are we supposed to deal with the fact that we are at the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels? How can we reduce carbon emissions quickly enough to have a meaningful effect on the earth’s atmosphere?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by questions like these. And in a society which tends to keep us all separated from one another, we all feel as though we are dealing with this on our own. Should we buy the recycled toilet paper? Change our lightbulbs? Start bicycling to work one day a week? Ditch the car altogether?

So we start from the two big assumptions and add to them (as if they weren’t enough) the geographical isolation of the Upper Sunshine Coast. So now we’re facing an ongoing and accelerating decline in the availability of fossil fuels, leading to ever-higher prices. And the need to sharply reduce carbon emissions. And to deal with the fact that higher prices for gas and oil mean higher prices for all goods shipped to us from outside the region. And maybe we need to start seriously planning for occasional disruptions in supply.

And so what are we supposed to do with this litany of seemingly insurmountable problems?

This is where the Transition movement comes in (and not a moment too soon). The main idea behind creating a transition to a future of limited fossil fuel supplies and reduced carbon emissions is that we need to harness the creative energy of the whole community in order to have the greatest chance of success. Here are some of the questions we need to start answering:

  • How are we going to feed ourselves as the costs of oil-dependent agriculture and transportation rise?
  • How can we travel around the region more efficiently?
  • How can we heat our homes as oil, natural gas, and electricity become more expensive?
  • What will the basis of our regional economy be?
  • What are the expected effects of climate change on our water supply and on our capacity to produce food regionally?

What attracts me most about the Transition approach is what it is not. It is not something for our political leaders to sort out. Nor is it something that individuals are expected to cope with (which would almost certainly mean: through their choices as consumers). Instead, it is a community-based approach to coping with some very heavy realities and coming up with solutions and mitigations which make sense to the community.

The City of Powell River is still engaged in its effort to create a Sustainability Charter for the region. At the point of writing this, the City is looking to hire a consultant for the final phase of creation of the charter, which will be a brief document outlining some goals and policies for making the City more sustainable (however that is defined). This is a good thing, but it’s not clear how regular citizens will engage with the outcome of this charter — for all we know, the resulting policies may have much to do with lowering the City’s consumption of fossil fuels and overall carbon footprint and not so much to do with helping all of the inhabitants of the region to reduce their individual and collective footprint. Governments are good at some things, but galvanizing activism is traditionally not one of them.

So one of the nice things about this Transition Powell River effort is that it belongs to us. It was started up by one local person, Kevin Wilson, who read The Transition Handbook and got fired up with enthusiasm. He contacted some friends and put the word out through a few local email lists and in Immanence magazine. And so we met last week and started the ball rolling; you can read Kevin’s brief summary of the meeting here.

And that brings me to the title of this week’s column: “One down, eleven to go”. This refers to the twelve steps to Transition, which are a good introduction to the whole idea. If you take a few minutes to read through them you’ll get a good sense of how loose and organic the process is. Transition is not a set of rules and formal procedures for getting from here to there; they’re designed to be more like a set of attitudes and approaches which allow the genius of the participants to find expression. Like the twelve principles of permaculture, which I discussed last week — what is it with the number twelve anyway? — they are ways of thinking about a tough problem and maximizing the chances of coming up with good solutions. I am very drawn to problem-solving strategies like these, since they allow for the greatest amount of human creativity and freedom. Any jackass can follow a set of rules, but only a community of people focused on a common task can converse, debate, argue, disagree, and eventually (we hope) work towards the best overall solution — which may be no single person’s preferred solution, but one that everyone can live with and contribute to.

And so the “one down” is the very first of the twelve steps: “Set up a steering group and design its demise from the outset”. Which is what we did last Wednesday. The slightly funny part of this step, of course, is the second clause: “… and design its demise from the outset”. Why is that a critical part of the formation of a steering group? The idea, as explained in the twelve steps document, is that one of the first actions for the steering group to get going on is to start forming working groups which will tackle specific areas of concern, such as food supply, water supply, housing, energy, transportation, etc. Once a few of those groups are up and running, the steering group dissolves and a new group is formed by appointing a delegate from each of these working groups.

We have a lot of work ahead of us. Success depends on bringing more people in and getting them involved in making a real impact on our region’s resilience and capacity to withstand some coming challenges. It’s scary stuff sometimes, but better faced as a community than as a bunch of isolated individuals. Interested? If you want to know what’s going on with our Transition effort, email Kevin Wilson and keep an eye on the Transition Powell River blog.

Claire’s film Lily

By Tom Read

It's just "Claire's film Lily" because we all know this particular film-maker quite well -- she's one of us!

It's just "Claire's film Lily" because we all know this particular film-maker quite well -- she's one of us!

Last Saturday we attended the Gillies Bay premiere of a special film, one made on location on Texada Island last August. Lily is a 15-minute short film written and directed by Claire Sanford, who is about 22 years old and just graduated from university last week. Claire grew up on Texada, and though her film isn’t specifically about our island, she told the 100 or so people at the premiere that this community, and the beauty of Texada Island, have inspired her for years.

I won’t give away the story. But the film convincingly portrays an unresolved conflict in a small island community, especially a prominent local citizen’s tormented conscience. The ending is startling, if not happy, and includes one of Texada’s icons, the North Island Princess (our ferry). Claire intends to put her film on DVD for a wider audience, and I’ll let you know when it becomes available.

Claire also showed us five other short student films, most of which featured her distinctive and captivating camera work. It turns out that one of Texada’s own has grown into quite a skilled cinematographer. For Lily, her first effort as a writer-director, Claire could barely stand to let someone else operate the camera. Now she’s off to Montreal to learn French and find work in the independent film industry there, where she hopes to direct more films.

We arrived on Texada when Claire was 13, and I still vividly remember her performance that year (in the same Texada Community Hall where we just viewed her film) playing back-up trumpet for Gary Fjellgaard and Valdy. Through the years I’ve seen this young woman volunteering at community events, playing piano and singing at the Texada School and singing with a group of her peers at the first Jazz on the Rocks concert in 2004.

So it’s only natural that the Texada community went crazy supporting Claire Sanford last year when she asked us to help her make Lily on location far from the urban film centres of Canada. The list of people and organizations who contributed – and literally took part – in the making of this film would take up more space than I normally devote to a Journal entry.  I’ll just proudly say that this film, and the young woman who wrote, directed, and yes, produced it, truly belong to us, too.

Principles for creating a cooperative local economy

By David Parkinson


Horsetail, like all plants, finds the right niche and provides needed services to its local ecosystem. It does not force itself into a niche where it has no purpose.

Last week, I introduced the subject of designing cooperative local enterprises as one way to start boosting the resilience of this region. But the one big problem with working cooperatively is that many of us don’t have a lot of experience at working with a team of equals, brainstorming, compromising, and discussing our way from problem to solution. My feeling is that we’re going to have to get better at this, and quickly.

There are plenty of processes and methods out there for working better collaboratively. Many of these can be found in the business section of the bookstore or library, since this is the main place where people have sensed a need for making plans at the level of a community — a corporation or a working team being a community of a special kind. One of the few books of this type that I’ve read is Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging, which Giovanni Spezzacatena discussed briefly back in March. Block’s main idea is that meaningful change at the level of the community can happen only through conversations which open up a space within which ideas and hopes can emerge organically.

A little while ago, I was reading about permaculture, and it occurred to me that there are some real similarities between the Block-style approach to community development and the permaculture approach to creation and restoration of holistic natural systems. Permaculture is a design system developed initially by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. To go into great detail would take us too far afield for this short piece, but to me the core of permaculture is that it takes a systems view of agriculture and the human role in coaxing food from the earth. Rather than impose a technological brute-force solution to food production, as is done in commercial agriculture, the permaculture approach takes advantage of natural processes, using human labour to maximize positive outcomes and minimize negative ones. Humans move from being producers who impose their will on the earth to being facilitators of the earth’s natural inclination to be productive in a sustainable fashion.

I was reading about David Holmgren’s twelve principles of permaculture, and it struck me that — just as Peter Block’s principles of community development take a very non-hierarchical approach to unleashing the creative energy of a group of people — permaculture in a similar fashion is about observing and intervening very gently and respectfully into natural systems, with an eye to increasing their outputs for the benefit of humans and the other plants and creatures who participate in those natural systems. I’m always intrigued by theoretical systems or collections of principles which are specific enough to have applications in one area but general enough that they apply to other areas as well. So I decided to try to apply Holmgren’s twelve principles of permaculture design to the domain of community development. (Anyone interested in learning more about how these principles apply to the design of agricultural systems can learn more by starting here on Holmgren’s website.)

I. Observe and interact

Successful community development, meaning the creation of new groups working on new projects to benefit the community, is all about careful observation and interaction. Observation means looking at what the community has and what it needs, thinking about why those needs remain unmet, and looking everywhere for the pieces of the solution, even in unexpected places or marginalized people. Too often the same old people are in charge of the decision-making process, and this leads to an insular and stale process for coming up with solutions and new ideas. It’s critical to tap into the genius and passion of the folks who are usually outsiders to the planning process — unless, of course, you really do want more of the same. And observation means continually trying to see past the surface of the community and understand how things are held together at a more abstract level. Why is there more vandalism there than elsewhere? Why do people hang out in this park but never in that one? Why are so few people riding the bus?

II. Catch and store energy

In the world of permaculture design, this is about making sure that no energy is wasted, whether it comes from the sun, rain, wind, or wherever. Catching it is crucial, as is storing it, since storage means having energy even when it is not still forthcoming from its source. For example, rainwater stored in a pond can be used to drive a waterwheel even during a drought.

For our purposes, this principle is about making sure that, when the right people or resources show up, we need to recognize them, draw them into our project, and ensure that their creative energy is not wasted. This might mean getting better at recognizing talents and abilities in people which we don’t need at present but will need in the future.

III. Obtain a yield

This is a big one for me, because I interpret this principle as stating that no activity should fail to produce some kind of reward or benefit to someone. Basically, this means no free labour. It means that even if volunteers are doing the work, their time and labour must be returned to them somehow. And even a small return is better than nothing.

I’ve been involved in a few planning processes which treated the volunteers from the community in an atrocious manner. And so these volunteers trickled away and the collective energy dissipated. Each time this happens the process loses the input of the community, and the community loses a sense of engagement in the process and whatever comes from it.

No one should be expected to work collaboratively on some project without ongoing rewards for their contribution. Sometimes it’s hard to do this, but this is one of the problems that must be addressed at the very early stages of any planning process. Failure to do so means creating a process which does not engage ongoing support and attract talented and enthusiastic collaborators.

IV. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

This one seems like pretty much a no-brainer, but it’s amazing to me how often a conversation about some new project will go off the rails early on and never recover. We live in a culture which finds it very hard to critically examine ourselves and our work. Everyone wants to celebrate their successes, but no one wants to learn from failure, even though failure is extremely informative. And if you don’t recognize when something is not working, then you can’t correct it. The longer it goes uncorrected, the worse the situation becomes.

A conversation leading towards a new vision or a new enterprise must be able to incorporate feedback at all times. It must be open to criticism from within and without. Everything must remain provisional and open to change as long as possible. Plans and methods will change, especially in the beginning, so we need to be ready to abandon preconceptions and change course quickly.

V. Use and value renewable resources and services

The meaning of this principle is clear enough in the domain of permaculture. In the realm of community development, I take it to be saying that we need to find sources of funding and labour which we can rely on to continue. One-time-only or startup funding is dangerous because — if the planning is not careful — it creates a need for more funding. Soon your community effort is devoting too many of its resources and time towards finding more money, and neglecting its primary mission.

I am not saying that one should never seek or accept outside funding. But too often money is seen as the universal cure-all for what are not really financial problems. Failure to observe one or more of the other principles of community development will likely lead to a situation in which only money can push things forward — because you are working against systems you should be working in concert with, or your volunteers are burning out, or you are wasting money needlessly elsewhere. As much as the planning and implementation can be done on a shoestring, so much the better.

VI. Produce no waste

Waste in the context of collaborative planning and creating new community projects can mean anything from wasted time to wasted labour to wasted good will. It’s not entirely clear how waste in the non-physical sense can be used as the input to some other process, but we should be aware of opportunities to apply our excess resources to other related projects in the community.

VII. Design from patterns to details

When entering into a planning process, it is important to stand as far back from the problem to be tackled, or the enterprise to be created, as is possible. The solution can be sketched out from this very high level before the details are filled in. And because the enterprise is being created through an iterative and ongoing series of conversations, the big picture and the minor details can be constantly revisited and rethought.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself well into some kind of planning process or series of meetings and to realize that at no time has the group had a chance to stand back from the solution they are supposed to be working on so as to name it, comprehend it, and talk about it to one another. This means that there is no genuine consensus among the group as to what they are really doing, and the end result of that is frustration when the unspoken assumptions turn out not to be shared by everyone.

A vision statement is a way of stating the whole pattern from the beginning.

VIII. Integrate rather than segregate

This is the very essence of collaborative work: the notion of pulling effort together to generate synergy. It takes wisdom and careful observation to see how various people and resources can be brought together to create a whole which is more than the sum of its parts, but failing to do so wastes effort and creates frustration.

Processes which are modeled on competitive and individualistic planning tend to pit people against each other, if subtly. As a society, we are not very adept at creating truly open spaces which bring people in and give them the tools they need to excel both as individuals and as members of a collaborative enterprise. We need to work hard at this and create our own models as we go.

IX. Use small and slow solutions

Everyone wants a big bang for the buck right away. But oversized and needlessly ambitious plans can burn people out and create false hopes. It’s better to succeed in small things, to continually re-evaluate and expand from there, than to wear ourselves out reaching for too much right away. Small and slow-building solutions allow for continual feedback and re-evaluation, and make it easier to generate some kind of payback in the early stages of development.

One area where we are seeing this principle applied is in the diverse and fast-growing area of urban agriculture, where many people are working on a small scale to develop techniques for producing food in urban spaces like backyards and abandoned properties. Generally, these begin as one-person operations and are highly experimental at first while the correct set of techniques and procedures is hammered out. Presumably these experimental and low-budget enterprises are generating a corps of technically accomplished urban farmers who can continue to expand their operation, codify the ways or working which make the most sense to their community and climate, and bring more people into their enterprise as needed.

X. Use and value diversity

One way to avoid groupthink is to invite and include a diverse set of people in your planning. Too often, collaborative projects fall into a kind of rut because the same people keep showing up with the same ideas. It’s essential to create a welcoming environment so that people who have not been part of the process can easily find a way in and feel as though they can contribute. A lot of this goes back to creating a process which is critical and self-reflexive, since an uncritical group process does not allow for newcomers whose ideas might seem far out or whose troublesome questions don’t have easy answers.

It’s not easy to keep trying to include the sort of people who might have good reasons for not being involved in the process you’re creating. All the more reason for doing so whenever possible.

XI. Use edges and value the marginal

Holmgren uses the proverb “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path” to illustrate this principle. In permaculture, edges are of special importance because we often find particularly exuberant and productive ecosystems at the boundaries between two ecological zones. I take this principle, as it applies to collaborative planning for community development, to mean that we should constantly think about hidden places where there might be opportunities for creative new projects at the edges between ‘zones’ in our surroundings. For example, what might flourish on the edge between day-care centres and composting? Between mass transit and education? Between low-cost housing and unemployed people? This principle urges us to look harder at the places we often ignore and to see edges between two connected domains where we might otherwise see them as completely separated from each other.

XII. Creatively use and respond to change

I interpret this principle as similar to Principle IV (“Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”) only on a larger scale, the scale of societal change. We are in a time of increasing turbulence, most of it so far in the economy but more of it to be increasingly in society in general, how we work and live together with our families and with other people, and how we organize ourselves at the community level to provide for our basic and not-so-basic needs and wants. As the systems which define our society undergo these changes, we will need to stay flexible and look for opportunities to provide goods and services in ways that might not have worked well in the past.

I believe that any cooperative effort to create a new project or to change the environment or culture of some place would do well to think about applying principles like these. It’s good to have some kind of mission or vision statement or goals to work towards, but it’s probably more valuable in the long run to have a set of principles which guide the ongoing process of getting from here to there, whatever that might mean. Goals and visions can always be rethought and reworked, but a collaborative process for community development which operates under weak principles or none at all is destined to waste a lot of time and energy.

The ATV as a tool

By Tom Read

Here I am yesterday returning from working on our latest pallet fence, bringing tools back home in the wagon. The quad and wagon can haul up to 14 pallets in one load, then distribute them over rough ground to create a fence line.  By the way, I don’t bother with a helmet at home in mild weather because I never drive faster than 15 kph, and there’s usually no other vehicular traffic on our property.

Here I am yesterday returning from working on our latest pallet fence, bringing tools back home in the wagon. The quad and wagon can haul up to 14 pallets in one load, then distribute them over rough ground to create a fence line. By the way, I don’t bother with a helmet at home in mild weather because I never drive faster than 15 kph, and there’s usually no other vehicular traffic on our property.

All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) like to play.  These rugged little gasoline-powered four-wheelers are also known hereabouts as “quads,” (which I like better for no particular reason) and they’re built and marketed for fossil-fuel-burning recreation. Advertisements show the machines splashing through mud or in mid-flight on an obstacle course. Lots of Texada Islanders own quads, often using them for motorized exploration of the island. I’ve taken a few such excursions, too, and I’ll admit it’s fun. But that’s not why we bought our quad and wagon three years ago. For us, it’s primarily a tool.

When we moved to our seven acres in the Slow Farm area of Texada back in 2000, it never occurred to us that transportation on our own property would become a critical concern. Seven acres is big enough to have a significant number of steep hills, plus several clearings and a creek flowing right through the middle of everything. To get around we developed our own network of roads and trails. Our self-contained transportation network carries some heavy stuff: lumber, gravel, sand, soil and compost, fence posts, firewood rounds and split firewood, tools, furniture, buckets of wet concrete and concrete blocks, wood pallets, bee hives, and, in years past, many bales of hay and straw.

Up until 2006, we typically used our lone motor vehicle, a mid-sized pickup truck, to move these things. The only alternative, and it got used a lot, was a battered wheelbarrow. For example, sometimes I wanted to fill a few potholes or move just four hay bales or maybe a half-dozen concrete blocks.  In such cases I’d often choose the wheelbarrow, because the truck couldn’t go on the little trails behind the house or garden, or it simply seemed like too much trouble to use a whole truck for such small loads. I vividly remember, not fondly, the struggle of pushing a wheelbarrow loaded with rocks and gravel uphill so I could fill post holes for a new garden fence. Then, as now, the leaky wheelbarrow tire would require inflating daily with a hand-operated tire pump before it could go into service.

Then along came an opportunity to buy a quad and wagon, and soon thereafter we traded in the truck for a new little hatchback passenger car. The car can haul a 5’x10’ trailer, a passable pickup truck substitute. But the quad, which is much cheaper and easier to maintain than the car, can haul just about anything, anywhere, using very little gasoline. I’ve mentioned the wagon a few times, but it might deserve an essay of its own. One of my favourite uses of this thing is to haul seaweed from Raven Bay to our compost pile, then hydraulically dump the seaweed (or soil, or firewood, whatever) exactly where it’s supposed to go. The four fat tires provide excellent stability and can support a load of up to 1,600 lbs.  It’s a wonder.

The quad also has a winch, which I used last year for pulling the entire quad and fully loaded wagon up a steep and very rough hill when it wouldn’t otherwise make the grade. We also have a specially-made harrow, a gift of our friend and neighbor Marv, enabling our quad to smooth out rough ground and collect medium-sized rocks from our fields. Our quad came with a plow attachment which helped keep our driveway clear of last winter’s snow, too.

This small-scale machine has become so vital to everyday work at Slow Farm that I now consider it even more important than the car. In a pinch, such as when we were snowed in last winter, the quad can take me into town for groceries, and it enabled us to visit friends on New Year’s Eve while the car was literally stuck in a snow bank.

So if anybody tells you that quads are frivolous, you can mention that you’ve heard they can be quite useful. It’s a tool, not a toy.

The cooperative local economy

By David Parkinson

We use the word 'weed' for plants which interfere with our plans for nature.

We use the word 'weed' for plants which interfere with our plans.

‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it,
And that’s what gets results.

(Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young)

Last week’s column was about creating a stronger local food economy, something which I spend a good deal of time thinking about (and being engaged in). And now that we have a newly-formed Transition effort starting up in Powell River, I hope that we’ll see renewed efforts to start new projects which help move us in the direction of regional self-reliance.

It’s not hard to sit around a table and brainstorm ideas for projects which would help this region adapt to peak oil, climate chaos, and the economic uncertainty that is hitting us now and showing no signs of abating. Car-sharing, carpooling, or ride-sharing networks; backyard gardening cooperatives; municipal composting; local media collectives; neighbourhood potluck and child-minding groups; campaigns to raise awareness of shopping locally; cob-building workshops; micro-hydro and wind power; barter and free exchange networks; and on and on. Ask someone who is hip to the challenges we face and you will get any number of good suggestions of how we can become more resilient, less dependent on fossil fuels and imported goods, and stronger as a community. There is no shortage of good ideas. But so far not a lot of them being implemented.

The more I think about transition planning, the more I believe that we need to see a large number of experimental projects happening. Some will succeed and others will fail. They cannot all be funded by government dollars or money from foundations and charitable organizations. Nor can they all run entirely on the goodwill and time of volunteers. We need to find ways to create small businesses out of these solutions to various problems; but we should also be creating businesses which balance entrepreneurial risk and foresight against a strong commitment to the people and the values of the surrounding community. A local economy which supplies local needs and keeps jobs and wealth in the region will also need to do its part to reduce social inequities and to provide solutions to systemic problems like poverty, food insecurity, insufficient affordable housing, the lack of a living wage, and so on. These problems are the inevitable result of an economy which places profits above all other considerations, and the sooner we stop pretending otherwise the better.

It seems clear to me that the best solutions to the challenges we face will emerge from genuinely collaborative, collectively-designed and -managed, community owned enterprises. Cooperatives provide a good way to create businesses that satisfy needs which individuals find hard to satisfy on their own, and they have the advantage that they are well recognized in provincial and federal business law. But some of the projects we might want to work on are too loose and informal for all of the hoop-jumping and legalities of a formal incorporation. There are no one-size-fits-all structures for getting people to work together so that everyone benefits.

No matter how we formalize an understanding among individuals which involves property, money, labour, rights, obligations, and regulations, we first have to get to the point of working out what it is we’re trying to accomplish and how we intend to go about it. When this is done in order to attract start-up capital it’s called a business plan, and might emerge from a collaborative process of:

  • brainstorming in free-flowing conversation;
  • identifying an unmet need in the community;
  • thinking about how we might harness cooperative energy to solve the problem we identify;
  • solving various problems of start-up costs, dealing with regulations and other legal impediments;
  • enlisting the support of people who need the planned goods/service (potential customers, collaborators, or members of a cooperative);
  • defining how those who contribute their labour and knowledge can be adequately rewarded (whether in the form of money, equity, goods, shares, etc.).

There will always be individuals with an entrepreneurial bent who are talented at identifying business opportunities and figuring out how to apply money and resources to a problem in order to find a solution which will return a profit on money invested. But as for the rest of us, we might have to get involved in cooperative business ventures with other people. And this means having to collaborate effectively, to learn how to weigh different alternatives and figure out what is possible and what is impossible, to figure out what the steps are in solving a problem and which are of a higher priority than which others, and so on.

Lately, I am witnessing a number of processes which are intended to be collaborative and cooperative. For the most part, they are not succeeding as they might. In some cases, they are downright counterproductive. Why is this? As a society, we are pretty good at identifying what we want to do, but we often struggle with how to go about accomplishing the goals we identify. (What we want to do is very often stupid or pointless or toxic, but the goal is at least clear.) Entrepreneurial management strikes me as fairly uncomplicated: do whatever it takes within the limits of the law (more or less) to make your money make more money. All other considerations are subordinate to the prime directive, profit. But cooperative management and business development entail other considerations, since they reflect a community of interests and often have a socially responsible orientation; e.g., the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

We’re going to have to become better at working collaboratively in many ways as we adjust to the post-peak economy in which more of our needs will need to be met locally. I want to work together with other people to cobble together appropriate solutions to problems in the local market, and I want people to receive proper pay for their contributions to meeting the needs of the community. I want to be able to participate in cooperative decision-making in the common interest. I want to be part of starting up enterprises which can support the local economy, train and employ people in useful and necessary activities, and generate wealth which remains in the community. I imagine that many others feel the same way, but don’t know how to start collaborating (and on what?).

In next week’s conclusion of this piece, I will sketch out how we might learn a thing or twelve from David Holmgren’s principles of permaculture about creating an effective collaborative design and planning process which we can use for starting cooperatives and other small businesses in the region.

Pigs can do that?

By Tom Read

Here's our field. Would you choose clearing it by hand for planting new crops?

Here's our field. Would you choose clearing it by hand for planting new crops?

We’ve got access to about four acres of good, arable land here at Slow Farm on Texada Island. This land has a farming history going back about a century, but it’s been fallow for the last 40 years or so.  Here’s the problem: What’s the best way to remove the grasses and other “weeds” now growing in profusion on this old farm field in preparation for planting new crops, without damaging the soil?

Before discussing our tentative answer, which you might guess from the title of this post, I’d like to mention a few of the considerations we use for land-use decisions.

First, we view ourselves as land stewards, whether the land in question is officially “owned” by us or not. Our minimal standard is to do no harm, and ideally we’d like to leave the place better than we found it. Thus, we don’t just rush in and change things. We take our time to think about our actions in some detail before actually doing anything to the land.

Second, we strive for frugality. This requires living within our means and making full use of resources already at hand. We must avoid the temptation of buying our way out of problems. Thus, if the “problem” is how to remove grasses and weeds on a field without damaging the field’s fertility, then we will have to solve this problem affordably.

Third, our goal is to create a sustainable and resilient food supply from this land. Therefore, we must solve our land-clearing problem without creating more problems in the future, which means recognizing that everything is connected to everything else. This will become clearer below.

So let’s look at some alternatives we’ve been considering for solving our problem:

Option 1:  Use well-sharpened hand tools to mow and kill the grass, then to loosen the soil, a little at a time each day. This method is detailed in Steve Solomon’s (must-read) 2005 book Gardening When It Counts, and it’s by far the simplest and least expensive approach. We already own the tools. I could use the exercise. Most days I could afford some time for this effort. And this solution can be sustained as long as I’m in good health. But four acres? One acre is 200 feet x 200 feet, or about 40,000 square feet – then times four. That’s a lot of digging for a middle-aged guy with office-worker hands and a shovel. We don’t need to clear it all at the same time, of course, but the scope of our clearing effort at any given time is still a lot bigger than the typical backyard garden.

Option 2:  Borrow or barter a gasoline-powered rototiller from a neighbor and start tilling. I discovered that renting such a machine from Powell River is out of the question due to the $15/hour cost and same-day return policy. But if we could find one on Texada then we might complete the clearing job in a week. Solomon also discusses this approach, including its flaws.  The obvious ones: fuel cost, noise, breathing fumes, transport of a heavy machine, and “if you break it you’ll buy me a new one.”  Less obvious: plow pan compaction, strained muscles and possible back injury, vibration damage to capillaries and nerves in hands, fossil fuel dependency and excess carbon emissions. Plus, we would have to borrow/barter the machine every season.

Option 3:  Buy a walking tractor, by far the best machine for solving our problem. Unlike rototillers, which they superficially resemble, walking tractors are made with precision engineering and can last a lifetime. They’re widely used on small-scale farms in Europe and Asia, and they’re much more durable, comfortable and versatile than rototillers. Walking tractors come with a power-take-off, which allows you to choose from among an amazing variety of special-purpose attachments. One such attachment, the Berta rotary plow, would be quite nice for solving our soil-working problem. The Berta operates like a horizontal auger, churning through the soil without leaving a plow pan. It can easily incorporate standing cover crops into the soil.

I’m not a boys-with-toys kinda guy, but I want this machine. Alas, we can’t afford it – the purchase would be about $5,000+ up front, then add ongoing fuel and maintenance costs. As a fossil-fuel burner, the walking tractor has some of the same drawbacks as the rototiller, too. These include noise, having to breathe fumes, planet-warming emissions and keeping us dependent on the oil companies.

What to do?

Option 4:  Pigs.  When we mentioned our soil-working problem to An, our chicken mentor, she said “pigs can do that.” It turns out she’s right. I phoned the BC Ministry of Agriculture office in Courtenay, where the very knowledgeable Jill Hatfield confirmed that, under the right conditions and management, pigs can indeed clear grass and weeds from a field without damaging its fertility. Indeed, pigs can do this while simultaneously loosening the soil, fertilizing the land and feeding themselves. Pigs have other virtues: they’re self-reproducing, we can grow their food right here on Slow Farm, of course they’re good food for omnivorous humans and there’s even a market for “weaner” piglets for people who want to raise their own pork. They might even be fun to watch, too.

Pastured pigs are easier to keep confined with electric fencing equipment, which we already own from our horse-keeping days. Linda and I enjoy animal husbandry. We can see ourselves patiently caring for a few pigs, letting them do the work of land-clearing while we look after their health and well-being – right up to the moment when they become our food. Flaws? They’ll probably leave the field a bumpy mess, so we’ll have to drag a harrow (which we already own) with our quad (ATV) to smooth things out before planting. That’s a bit of fossil fuel use, but if necessary I could use a hand rake instead without any great sacrifice.  And neither of us knows how to slaughter and butcher pigs, so we’ll have to pay someone for that work, at least initially.

Of the four options we’ve considered thus far, options 1 and 4 seem to make the most sense for us. A combination of me working with hand tools and a few pigs having a rooting-in-the-grass fiesta should meet our decision criteria: protect and improve the land, frugal, and sustainable without causing future problems. So that’s why, after a few hours of research, we finally found a couple on Vancouver Island who are following much the same logic on their acreage and who are willing to sell us a few weaners. We promptly placed our order earlier this week.  If their sow is actually pregnant, as suspected, we should take delivery after her delivery sometime in July. In the meantime I’ll keep digging.

Post facto

May 2009
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