Archive for October, 2009

The bounty of the land and the fruits of our labour

By Tom Read

epeargingermarm1009

This year's fruit crop was especially bountiful. When confronted by large quantities of apples and pears, we made applesauce and pear-ginger marmalade. Those are coriander seeds left of the walnuts, just harvested a few days ago. The backdrop is Linda's favourite apron, a creation of local artist Shelley Thomson.

October is a time of such great food abundance on Texada Island!  Back on October 2nd I wrote about preserving our tomatoes in the form of salsa and how this contributed to feelings of greater self-reliance (“What really matters”). Here at the end of the month I’m struck by how much time and effort we’ve continued to put into preserving and storing food, learning new (for us) techniques along the way. So here’s a brief sampler of October’s epicurean activities and insights:

Walnuts — a mature, quite tall English walnut tree stands on the property of a friend who gave us permission to glean, so we watched and waited until one day a couple weeks ago, when it seemed like the nuts would be ready. Having never harvested walnuts before, I didn’t know what to expect so I brought my long-handled fruit-picker, thinking I might need to pick the nuts. Instead, I found hundreds of them on the ground, most with the outer casings cracked open, and even more fell around me as the wind blew them practically into my basket. A squirrel, unseen but noisy up in the tree, protested my harvest, unmistakably proclaiming his territorial right to these particular nuts.  I walked away with about 20 lbs, leaving easily as much behind for the wildlife.

Better applesauce — Linda found several recipes on the Internet that allows us to skip the tedious peeling step in making applesauce. Since we gleaned the apples from a friend’s trees, we know they’re free of toxic chemicals common in store-bought apples. This makes it safe to leave the skins on the apples, removing only the core before grinding and cooking with just a bit of added sugar and lemon juice. Leaving the skins on the apples results in slightly more colour and definitely a more nutritious sauce because much of the fiber and nutrients of the apple are contained in the skin. This smooth, full-bodied sauce tastes wonderful, too.

Pumpkin seed pesto — As mentioned in an earlier post on “Seed-saving adventures,” this year we grew “Styrian” heritage pumpkins as part of a regional seed-saving project. This variety is known for its easily edible seeds. Our seeds got planted a little late, in a spot that probably wasn’t quite sunny enough, so the pumpkins never fully ripened. Fortunately the seeds still matured to a deep green, and they taste quite good, so we roasted some with a little olive oil on their way to becoming an ingredient in a memorable pesto sauce. The light orange flesh of the pumpkin made a very good soup, too.

By all accounts it’s better to use seeds from ripe pumpkins for starting a new crop, so I’m not sure how these will fare when I plant them next year. Until we see the results, I’m holding off distributing any Styrian seeds back among the regional seed-savers.

Pear-ginger marmalade — Ok, so we cheated and used imports from far away: ginger root, oranges, and lemons. Combined with locally-gleaned pears, the results are quite wonderful. It took us about three hours yesterday to make this special treat, so here’s the recipe, with our modifications and subsequent results:

Ingredients:

¼ cup ginger root; chopped fine

3 medium oranges; cut in half and juiced, seeds removed, chopped

2 lemons; cut in half and juiced, seeds removed, chopped

(If fruit is small, as what we find at our local market, use twice as much)

All of the lemon juice and half the orange juice from above *

10 – 12 cups pears; pealed, cored and medium chopped

6 cups sugar **

1 package low-sugar pectin

2 tbs butter, an option which decreases foaming

Directions:

Use a large kettle, enameled or stainless steel. A food processor can be used for chopping ingredients (pears, lemon and orange peel, ginger) rather than doing it all by hand, it you’ve got the tool and are so inclined.

Combine all ingredients except the sugar and pectin in the kettle and stir well. Then stir in the pectin, and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Turn down to avoid boil-over, and add all the sugar, stirring until it’s all dissolved in the fruit mixture. Bring back to a rolling boil and hold it for one minute. Skim foam (a taste treat); let sit 5 minutes, then ladle into hot, sterile canning jars with ¼” headspace and process 10 minutes in a hot-water bath. This recipe should give you about 6-7 pints.

* The cooks get to drink the rest of the orange juice as a refresher after all that hard work peeling and chopping!

** We find this marmalade plenty sweet with four cups of sugar, but some canning purists will say that’s not enough. You decide.

What are you fighting for?

By David Parkinson

Waves

There are people wearing frowns
Who’ll screw you up
But they would rather screw you down.

(Arthur Lee, “You Set the Scene”, 1967)

A couple of recent events have got me thinking about how we’re supposed to start working together as a community in order to produce positive changes in the way we consume, travel, eat, and generally live our lives here in (possibly) the final hurrah of the growth phase of industrial civilization.

The first was the City of Powell River‘s public consultation meeting last Monday evening (October 19, 2009) at Dwight Hall in Powell River. This was an Open Space event where those present got to determine the agenda in the context of a shaping question, which in this case was something to the effect of “Given Powell River’s future economic uncertainty, we need to pay attention to…”. Attendees were invited to fill in the ellipsis at the end of that sentence, until we had gathered up three sets of twenty-five potential things we needed to pay attention to as we move into an uncertain future. Some of the subjects for discussion were very much on the economic side of things (e.g., taxes, rates of pay for City employees, the cost of transportation and shipping), while others were much more concerned with the general livability of the region (e.g., accessibility for people with physical disabilities, green space).

Once we had created the ‘agenda’ of topics for discussion, we had three sessions of about 20 minutes during which we were free to find the group discussing the topic we found most interesting and contribute to that conversation. At each of these groups someone was documenting the main threads of the conversation as a record of the event.

The subjects which struck me as most interesting were those which were oriented towards the creation of a resilient region: food security, local currency schemes, micro-credit and the spawning of many small businesses, better transportation options, and so on. Of course, as always happens at an Open Space event, there were more things to talk about than time in which to talk about them, so the attendees had to focus on the three conversations of greatest interest or urgency to them.

The first of the three conversations I took part in was on the topic of “focusing on where we are now rather than where we have been as a region”, and this drew a group of about ten people. It was clear that the person who had originally proposed that topic intended it to spark some creative thinking about how this region can move forward and prosper economically, even if we lose the large employer which has traditionally defined this community (i.e., the paper mill).

I was the designated note-taker for this group, and I quickly became overwhelmed as the conversation spiraled off into a heated debate over the best way to create wealth in the community: by bringing in a small number of large employers from outside the region, or by encouraging a large number of smaller employers to spring up from within the region. Then we went off into a tangent focusing on the merits (or not) of Plutonic Power‘s run-of-river project in Toba Inlet, and things got a little tense for a few minutes.

The thought that came to me, as I sat trying to distill the conversation into notes, was that in this culture we have very few good methods for identifying the challenges we face, for talking about these challenges honestly but respectfully, and for working together on good solutions even in the face of disagreement. Obviously, a group of ten random strangers are not going to solve the problems of the world — or even those of their own region — in a few short minutes; but what is always slightly sad to observe is how quickly we harden our positions and defend them against all contrary opinion or facts. We thrive on controversy and conflict, to the extent that many of us would rather rail against the wrongs we see than imagine a better future and work backwards to figure out the positive steps we can take now that might get us there. Opportunities for genuine dialogue tend to hit dead ends quickly and dissolve in mutual distrust.

There is nothing wrong with conflict arising from differences of opinion. What is unfortunate, and what is really damaging our prospects of designing a decent future, is that our main means for settling conflicts is by applying the principle “money talks”. Increasingly, the mechanisms we use to determine our direction as a society is by selling the decision to the highest bidder. Anyone with an alternative vision is free to stand on the sidelines and kvetch, but that’s about as far as dissent goes.

I believe that less kvetching and more positive action is what we need now. We could all spend the rest of our short precious lives identifying all of the things in this world which we abhor and working to overturn them — and any successes we had would be wiped out by any number of new atrocities to seize our attention. But what kind of life is it to be always pitted against, never fighting for? We are going to have to become better at imagining creative alternatives to all of the lousy idiot ideas destroying our world, ignoring as best we can the junk and the rottenness, and pushing forwards into our own dreams. We need to learn to work with those who hold different visions, when this is possible without sacrificing our vision and our dignity — this might not come around too often, but we need to continue looking for those opportunities.

Which brings me to the second event, which resonated with these reflections about conflict and conversation. From this week’s mailbag, someone writes in to say this about my colleague Tom Read, who helps manage this blog and contributes a weekly column:

He [i.e., Tom] is using your site as a soapbox to promote his vision which is highly inappropriate for Texada–his dominance on the site has discouraged other contributions, surely, you must know that on the logging stats, so SlowCoast has become non-relevant.   He supported the Westpac LNG plant and now the Texada South Quarry. So not the best eco stats.

Tom has publicly expressed his belief that the proposed quarry development at Davie Bay is a potentially critical piece of Texada’s economic future. For the record, he did not support the proposed liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal. If anyone wants to know more about Tom’s position, they can contact him easily enough. His opinion is nuanced and expresses his genuine concern for the fate of the place he calls home. And of course you can feel free to disagree with him. Sadly, though, it’s always seems to be more fun to make these intra-regional and inter-personal conflicts as black-and-white as possible; to start drawing up the list of enemies; and to backbite and shun the ideologically suspect. Perhaps our correspondent hopes that I will ditch Tom from Slow Coast so that my ‘logging stats’ (whatever the hell that might mean) will improve and Slow Coast once again becomes relevant. That won’t be happening. This project is an equal partnership and does not require a loyalty oath. I can’t ditch Tom anymore than he can ditch me — thankfully.

What I find especially irritating about this is that Tom has written directly about the Lehigh quarry proposal precisely one time, back on July 10, 2009. The rest of the time he writes about all kinds of things having to do with living on Texada: small-scale farming and animal husbandry, canning and food preservation, living in a remote location, and all sorts of other posts which I would file under the general heading of ‘sustainability’ or ‘regional resilience’. When he’s not writing for Slow Coast, he’s out there working on a number of worthwhile community projects. We need more of this; not mere ideological purity and monocultural thinking.

If anyone out there has something to say, please send your comments or your contributions. Better that than try to tear down the things you disagree with. This site is no one’s soapbox, but is intended to reflect the variety of opinions in the region. If we can no longer express our truths without someone trying to shut us down or shout us down, the conversation is over.

Texada’s solid waste conundrum

By Tom Read

Texada’s forests, streams and lakes are notably pollution-free, and I hope we keep ‘em that way by dealing responsibly with our solid waste. Here's a 2007 photo I took of Case Lake, which feeds Rumbottle Creek, which in turn empties into the sea at Raven Bay.

Texada’s forests, streams and lakes are notably pollution-free, and I hope we keep ‘em that way by dealing responsibly with our solid waste. Here's a 2007 photo I took of Case Lake, which feeds Rumbottle Creek, which in turn empties into the sea at Raven Bay.

On Monday evening, Linda and I and about 20 other Texadans attended a presentation in Gillies Bay about the future of solid waste in our region. Officially it’s called the draft Powell River Regional District Solid Waste Management Plan and its duration is 2009 to 2019. Now, I know that’s not a sexy topic for many readers, but it has serious implications for Texada Island and the Powell River region. So I hope you’ll bear with me for at least a few paragraphs.

The plan’s goal is “working toward zero waste,” a realistic recognition that eliminating waste is desirable but not easy to achieve. Just so you know what we’re talking about here, the term “solid waste” refers to lots of things, including household garbage and trash, construction debris, all sorts of recyclable materials, and organic matter, especially food waste. In fact, food waste alone accounts for about 30% of our region’s total solid waste, and it is fairly shocking to realize that this is the single largest category of waste that we produce.

The presentation didn’t break out food waste for Texada, but I doubt that the 30% regional figure applies to us. My sense, based on being an active member of the community here for nearly 10 years, is that Texadans do a lot of composting and feeding of kitchen scraps to domestic animals. So I believe that the amount of food waste is less here than in “urban” Powell River. Since the plan’s overall goal is to eliminate waste, and since food waste is the single biggest category of waste in the region, it should come as no surprise that the plan recommends more backyard composting if it can be done without attracting bears (not a Texada problem, since we don’t have bears here), along with possible construction of a centralized $2.6 million composting facility.

Texadans will be expected to help pay for the feasibility study for this regional facility, since it’s claimed that Texada could benefit. How? Well, the consultant on Monday evening proposed that Texada, since it has no bears, might be a good location for the region’s centralized composting facility, “transportation notwithstanding.”

Ah, yes, transportation. Leaving aside the question of whether Texada makes sense as a possible location for a regional composting centre, there’s no denying that our island is quite dependent on ferry transportation for nearly everything, including moving our waste off the island. And that’s where the plan worries me. During the next 10 years, the plan calls for greatly reducing export of waste from the region as a whole, but it assumes that Texada will continue to export its solid waste to Powell River. Given what we’ve heard from Texada’s Ferry Advisory Committee members about potential increases in ferry fares during the next few years, let alone by 2019, we islanders could see a significant increase in our waste disposal costs.  More illegal dumping could be the result.

Ferry fares, and transportation costs in general, tend to parallel the price of oil. It’s way beyond my expertise to forecast the next oil price spike, but I think we’ll need an on-island solution for processing our solid waste sometime in the next 10 years.  Why? Because oil can increase in price much faster than new, strictly regulated solid waste management solutions can be implemented. This poses a conundrum for Texada and likely the region, too.

Fortunately, Texadans have a long history of creative problem-solving. I can envision a cooperative effort whereby Texadans consolidate our transport of solid waste to Powell River, perhaps starting informally among immediate neighbours. Just to be clear, I’m fully aware that Sunshine Disposal runs a reliable and affordable household waste collection service for Texadans who happen to live along its route. But the waste volume any one household can put in the tagged bags is limited, and there are times when a special trip to the Powell River transfer station (aka “the dump”) becomes necessary.

Some of us live off the beaten path altogether, so our only legal choices are to burn our waste or take it to Powell River. I tried burning household waste years ago and found it a smelly, polluting and time-consuming experience, so now we make the dump run to Powell River a couple times a year. There’s no reason islanders couldn’t cut transport costs by coordinating trips with friends and neighbours, which is now easier than before thanks to this website recently created by a Texada community volunteer, Tom Scott. Cooperation builds community and avoids raising our taxes to pay for consultant-driven solutions.

We might also learn something from our neighbour, Lasqueti Island.

Lasqueti already has a landfill exclusively for its local residents. Unfortunately, that landfill wasn’t built to present BC standards, and it might be prohibitively costly for upgrades to conform with provincial regulations. I’m told by our Regional District staff, however, that a new solid waste management plan for Lasqueti is pending but not yet ready for public release. Texada is considerably larger than Lasqueti in population, transportation services and physical size, but we might benefit by observing how our neigbours resolve their waste disposal problem.

The transportation issue remains my overall reservation about the plan, even though as noted above there are potential ways we could cope with it. I’ve also got a few quibbles regarding the plan’s treatment of illegal dumping and its view of glass as mere trash. But on the whole, the proposed plan looks quite positive. I like its emphasis on reducing waste in the first place, especially from over-packaging. In our household we’re already starting to do that by removing excess packaging in the store in Powell River, taking home only the product. Another positive approach is to reuse containers, such as re-filling our pharmaceutical prescriptions in the same bottle (adding a new label each time).  One of the reasons we support Pharmasave in Powell River is because its owner, Wanda, encourages such re-use and recycling wherever possible.

Solid waste is a constant fact of modern life. Thus, the plan’s provision for an ongoing volunteer monitoring committee staffed by a part-time “waste coordinator” will keep this un-sexy but vital topic continuously visible in our region and allow new solutions to be developed more quickly. Maybe it’ll even help solve the Texada solid waste conundrum.

What can a local food-security cooperative do?

By David Parkinson

It's the time of year when the hidden galaxies of mycelium burst forth in flower and send their seeds out into the world.

It's the time of year when the hidden galaxies of mycelium burst forth in flower and send their seeds out into the world.

Last week I posted some of the reasons why I think we need a food-security cooperative in the region, by which I mean a maximally democratic, open, accountable organization committed to helping its members become self-reliant in food. One of the really powerful reasons for favouring a cooperative corporate structure is that it inherently emphasizes the creation of community and mutual aid. When Herb Barbolet spoke recently at the local campus of Vancouver Island University, the main message I took away was that we needed to build stronger community ties and get more things happening.

Yesterday we saw some of the wonderful cooperation and action in the community of people who support local food: the first ever Celebration of Local Food, which was co-sponsored by Transition Town Powell River and the Powell River Food Security Project. Food producers, processors, retailers, and others were there to offer their respect and gratitude to the many people who make it possible to enjoy local food. It was a really lovely time.

Even though there is a lot happening now, I believe that there is a place in the local economy for a cooperative which will help its members meet common needs that many struggle to meet on their own:

  • access to the equipment and other physical resources they need in order to grow and preserve sufficient food to consider themselves food-secure;
  • the skills, knowledge, and know-how, as well as the self-confidence to get started and keep going;
  • the time or the physical ability to engage in these activities;
  • a community of like-minded and supportive individuals and groups.

Although I expect that the main focus of the cooperative will be in helping people grow their own food, I expect that the cooperative will also be active in providing its members with the tools, skills, and labour needed to ensure a year-round food supply. Canning, preserving, pickling, drying, and other food preservation techniques, as well as root cellaring and food storage, are methods of making the harvest last. We are seeing considerable enthusiasm in the community for these ideas, and I believe that members of a cooperative would be willing to pay for access to tools and technical know-how at fair prices, especially since some of the tools are expensive and not likely to be used frequently by any individual or family.

Here are some of the projects which we could carry out (or push further) under the auspices of a cooperative whose mission was to get more people to be more food-secure. Many of these are ideas that I have heard mentioned more than once. And still they are not happening, usually because no one person wants to sign up for the huge amount of time and effort it would take to get a project up and running on a volunteer basis. And there is no organization whose mandate specifically drives it to start projects like these, to publicize and support them, and to seek ways of funding them. This needs to change!

Year-round crops and food: storage crops, preserves, dried food, etc.

Scenario: Perceiving a need for locally-grown storage crops, the cooperative pools labour and materials needed to plant large amounts of onions, carrots, potatoes, squash, and other crops. The expense of maintaining these crops through the growing season is shared equally among the participating members, who receive shares of the harvest according to the labour or money they put in. (Some portion of the harvest should be contributed to the community.)

Goal(s): To pool labour and expenses

Requirement(s): Land; labour; tools.

Enabling factor(s): Plenty of disused gardens and other land around Powell River; high demand for produce in winter.

Outcome(s): More food is being produced to meet people’s needs year-round.

Materials and labour for construction and maintenance of home gardens

Scenario: A member of the cooperative wants to grow more food in her backyard. But she does not have the expertise or time needed to prepare raised beds, trellises, compost bins, etc. Through membership in the cooperative, she can buy needed materials and resources at fair prices, and can also get some of the work done by worker-members of the cooperative. The member can pay for these goods and services with money, labour, produce, or some combination of these.

Goal(s): To make it easier, less time-consuming, and less expensive to start and maintain a home food-producing garden.

Requirement(s): Workshop and storage space; labour; tools; materials; publicity.

Enabling factor(s): Interest in growing more food locally; local knowledge and expertise.

Outcome(s): More people are able to overcome barriers to growing some of their own food at home; the network of home food growers becomes more organized; surplus food can be donated within the community or sold to raise money for the cooperative’s activities.

Access to seeds, starts, soil, amendments, compost bins, cold frames, etc.

Scenario: A member of the cooperative wants to start composting and using cold frames to extend the growing season, but does not have the time, tools, or know-how to build these at home. Through her membership in the cooperative, she is able to purchase these, or construct them as part of a workshop, and save money. She also has access to seeds and plant starts at a fair cost, grown by other members of the cooperative and distributed within the cooperative at a reduced price.

Goal(s): To provide useful resources for home food production to members at low cost.

Requirement(s): Storage and construction facility; tools; materials; designs; greenhouse space (for plant starts).

Enabling factor(s): Tools; workshops; greenhouses.

Outcome(s): People can produce food more efficiently and economically.

Access to shared tools (e.g., rototiller, cider press, pressure canner)

Scenario: A member of the cooperative needs to press apples from her tree to cider. But she does not want to buy and maintain a cider press. Instead, she uses the cooperatively owned cider press for a fee (which might be paid in cider to be sold to members, sold to raise money for the cooperative, or contributed to the community).

Goal(s): To allow members to borrow (or use in place) tools that they may be unwilling to own.

Requirement(s): Storage facility; maintenance; tracking system

Enabling factor(s): Tools in the community; expertise

Outcome(s): People can produce food more efficiently and economically.

Augment the Fruit Tree Project; preserve annual fruit harvest

Scenario: A member of the cooperative wants to make applesauce and dried fruit, but does not have fruit trees. Through the cooperative, she is able to go and help pick fruit from trees in the community, some of which she keeps, some of which goes to the owner of the trees, and some of which is given to the community (before or after processing). Working in collaboration with other members of the cooperative, using tools belonging to the cooperative (e.g., pressure canners, dehydrators), she preserves the harvest of fruit for her own use and for the use of the cooperative.

Goal(s): Reduce amount of food wasted; reduce bear incidents in the community; increase amount of local fruit available to members of the community; educate about tree care.

Requirement(s): Tools for picking fruit (ladders, baskets, etc.); organizational structure; transportation; processing facilities; tools for processing fruit.

Enabling factor(s): Huge number of untended fruit trees in the region; existing Fruit Tree Project and Bear Aware; ladders; pressure canners; dehydrators; cider presses; Open Air Market and other venues for selling preserved fruit.

Outcome(s): Less fruit is wasted; people are better fed.

Community resource library (books, magazine articles, etc.)

Scenario: A member of the cooperative is interested in researching technical information pertaining to home food production or preservation. She is able to consult free resources available through the cooperative, and get help finding the information she is looking for.

Goal(s): Collect together unused books and other resources pertaining to the activities of the cooperative and make them available to members.

Requirement(s): Books; magazines; CDs; storage space; filing system.

Enabling factor(s): Many books and magazines in the community.

Outcome(s): People have easier access to information on growing and preserving food.

Community composting

Scenario: Members of the cooperative compost their own kitchen scraps (and other scavenged materials from the community) in a common area, in order to supply themselves and other members of the cooperative with compost to use in growing food. The cooperative can also sell some of this compost to fund its activities.

Goal(s): To keep organic materials out of the waste stream; to produce compost for food production.

Requirement(s): Common storage facility; means of transportation; composting bins.

Enabling factor(s): Existing interest in the community for reduced waste and more compost; expertise.

Outcome(s): People have access to high-quality compost for use in improving soil quality.

Community seed-bank

Scenario: Members of the cooperative work together to plan and grow seed-saving gardens, in order to augment the supply of seed produced locally, contribute to Seedy Saturday, and possibly provide a source of revenue to the cooperative.

Goal(s): Increased food sovereignty through control of local seed supply; strengthen Seedy Saturday; educate about seed-saving.

Requirement(s): Storage facility; filing system; information.

Enabling factor(s): Existing Seedy Saturday organizers and participants; other seed-saving efforts in BC and elsewhere; many local growers whose gardens could be used to raise plants for seed.

Outcome(s): People are more aware of the importance of saving seed locally and know how to do so. This region has a seed-bank to reply on in case of emergency.

Chicken- and rabbit-raising

Scenario: A member of the cooperative is interested in raising chickens for eggs, manure, and insect control, but does not know how to house them or care for them. Through the cooperative, she is able to learn how to build a chicken house, and how to care for her chickens.

Goal(s): Provide small-scale growers with access to manure; eggs; meat; pest control.

Requirement(s): Tools; expertise; materials; local network of chicken-breeders; cooperation from local governments; education.

Enabling factor(s): Existing chicken farmers; interest in poultry and other small livestock in the city; need for nitrogenous fertilizers.

Outcome(s): More people are raising small livestock; more manure fertilizers available locally.

Workshops, work parties, and social opportunities

Scenario: A member of the cooperative is interested in learning how to start a new garden bed. The cooperative plans a work party at someone’s home to convert some backyard space into a food-producing garden, and members are invited to contribute labour in return for credit to be applied to some other good or service provided by the cooperative.

Goal(s): Spread skills and knowledge throughout the community; involve members of the cooperative in the cooperative’s activities; build community.

Requirement(s): Organization.

Enabling factor(s): Existing interest in workshops and other opportunities to share expertise.

Outcome(s): More members of the community have more expertise related to growing and preserving food.

What is your favourite idea?

Growing opportunities

By Tom Read

Here's a photo I took today of some thriving White Russian Kale in our garden. We bought these plants as seedlings from Carolyn Heriot in August. This open-pollinated kale variety is very cold-hardy and we find it quite satisfying in salads, stir-fry and even pesto sauce!

Here's a photo I took today of some thriving White Russian Kale in our garden. We bought these plants as seedlings from Carolyn Heriot in August. This open-pollinated kale variety is very cold-hardy and we find it quite satisfying in salads, stir-fry and even pesto sauce!

A few weeks ago I posted some thoughts here on the agricultural potential of Texada Island, based on a document just released by the Powell River Regional District (PRRD). Texada Island is Area D within the PRRD. In that previous post I mentioned several strengths that support the idea of a positive agricultural future for Texada, such as favourable climate, soil, water, and proximity to markets.

This week I’d like to follow up with a few thoughts about agricultural  opportunities, starting with a general statement from the PRRD report, entitled “Powell River Agricultural Plan — Economic Development Discussion Paper,” by consultant Gary Rolston.   Here’s a summary of the paper’s comment on agricultural opportunities for individuals:

It is difficult, if not impossible, to identify opportunities for individual operators without knowing the individual or the resources they have available to them. This has happened in the past. An “opportunity” is identified to a broad audience. Several people get into the business at the same time and the market is saturated before the first product is available for sale. Opportunities are created by people who have the ability to evaluate trends that suit the resources they have available and can have products available for market when demand is strong. [my emphasis]

The paper goes on to identify three possible “opportunities” for individuals in our region: developing an abattoir or food processing facility, creating value-added products from local produce, and starting a vineyard/winery. Hmm. If you’re interested in making value-added products, wouldn’t that require some kind of food processing facility? Would it be cost-effective for an individual to create such facilities?

As for making wine, I’ve noticed that our region, including Texada, already has affordable custom wine-making services available, and it’s not that difficult to ferment your own, either. Since wine is a discretionary food purchase (unlike, for example, vegetables, grains, and other food staples), and given the many imported wines I see for sale at Texada’s grocery stores, perhaps that market is a bit “saturated.”

So, are there any opportunities that don’t require a large up-front investment in processing facilities?

One possibility not mentioned in Rolston’s paper is growing winter salad greens and vegetables. As about fifty of us heard from Carolyn Heriot at a Texada Garden Club-sponsored workshop in August, almost all greens and vegetables are currently imported into our region during the cold months of the year. She lives near Victoria, and claims to have found a strong demand in her area for fresh local vegetables that can be grown and harvested all during the winter — because the imported stuff isn’t so fresh and is rather expensive as well. Carolyn is author of a best-selling BC coastal gardening book, A Year on The Garden Path, and also sells coastally-adapted seeds (see her website at http://earthfuture.com/gardenpath/Lectures.htm for more information).

Admittedly, our rural island isn’t quite as affluent as the urbanized Vancouver Island market that Carolyn sells to, but it would be a huge accomplishment if local farmers could meet Texada’s needs for fresh produce in the winter. We could also export fresh produce to Powell River if the cost of distribution and marketing could be kept reasonable.

Which brings up another type of opportunity: cooperation among local farmers and eaters in the financing and operation of local food processing facilities, including possibly an abattoir. Texada has few land-use regulations that would get in the way of setting up a small-scale food-processing facility. But do we have the entrepreneurial spirit and financial resources capable of competing with the industrial food system? And could we do it in a way that wouldn’t endanger the livelihoods of our neighbours who work in our local grocery stores?

Food for thought, as they say.

Why we need a food-security cooperative

By David Parkinson

A late huckleberry clings on into the autumn

A late huckleberry clings on into the autumn

In a previous post I wrote about the need to start talking and thinking about how we might address some of our challenges through collective action. Lately, the idea of starting up cooperatives seems to be cropping up more and more frequently, one of its manifestations being the new Working Group on Cooperatives under the auspices of the BC Food Systems Network. The purpose of this working group is to act as a provincial clearinghouse for groups looking at the cooperative corporate structure as a way to work on food security in the community. And there is a conversation going on locally within the Transition Town Powell River (TTPR) group about the role that cooperatives might play in taking action on the challenges posed by resource depletion, climate chaos, and economic downturn.

Here is something I wrote about my vision for a food-security cooperative in a recent email thread among some of the members of TTPR:

I can see a local cooperative which exists to identify potential sources of common wealth (gleaning, foraging, growing, fishing, hunting) and create a supply chain between provider and consumer which pays the former with dignity and rewards the latter with delicious food. I like the idea of creating a sort of free-floating laboratory of different projects: so if one person wants to gather fruit and make wine, and another person wants to buy bulk ingredients and make fresh pasta, and another person wants to create a ‘cow-op’, then all they need to do is present their idea to the members of the cooperative and see who wants a piece of the action. The co-op exists to make sure that everyone plays fair, money is tracked responsibly, decisions are made in a correct way, and other policies are followed (e.g., I strongly believe in paying a share into the community via charities, soup kitchens, food bank, etc.).

Just over a year ago, when I was engaged in a previous series of conversations about starting up a local food cooperative, I put some of my thoughts down on paper. I’m hauling this paper out now since the signs are propitious that we can start a conversation about this. There is not much in it that I would change after a year of letting it sit and ferment; but I’m sure that we can think of ideas that should be in here. I intend to use next Sunday’s Celebration of Local Food event, co-sponsored by Transition Town Powell River and the Powell River Food Security Project, as an opportunity to advance the conversation about cooperatives a little bit.

This week’s post is more about the reasons for favouring cooperative solutions to the challenge of building a resilient regional food economy. Next week’s will address some of the projects that such a cooperative (or network of cooperatives) could tackle. I take for granted that there are good reasons for wanting to develop a regional food economy and start out by trying to figure out what some  of the pieces of that economic system might be. The central idea of a cooperative is that it makes the best possible use of limited resources, by finding ways of spreading them around — as opposed to the corporate model which aims to take abundant resources and make them artificially scarce so that their cash value is as artifically high as possible.

The shift to a more local food economy will take place on different scales: individual, family/household, group/neighbourhood, municipality, and region.

Individual

Individuals can participate in the local food economy by contributing skills, labour, or tools to the common effort. We will need more people with more skills contributing more labour, making use of common tools, and creating economic activity.

Family/household

At this scale, participation in the local food economy means providing for household food security: home gardens and food preservation and storage, in particular, are activities ideally suited for families and small groups.

Group/neighbourhood

At the scale of the larger group (e.g., church groups, service clubs) or neighbourhood, it becomes feasible to set up community efforts; e.g., community gardens, shared greenhouses, work parties, etc.

Municipality

The government of the City of Powell River has the power to affect the implementation of a local food economy, by imposing or relaxing regulations that affect people’s ability to produce and distribute food; e.g., regulations controlling animals in the city, growing and selling produce, composting, etc. The City is also a potentially valuable partner in funding food security initiatives which would benefit the whole City, such as community gardens, community and commercial kitchens, and so on.

Region

At the regional level, it makes sense to think about how to implement procedures for producing, storing, and distributing food that can serve the needs of the entire region, and possibly intersect with regional emergency preparedness, Area Agricultural Plans (AAPs), and other policies and processes that impact the region as a whole.

A cooperative or network of cooperatives should be able to organize efforts at whatever scale is appropriate. Since it is an enterprise with the mandate to serve the whole community equally and does not generate profit for a limited number of shareholders, a cooperative should be relatively immune from conflicts of interest or favouritism. Ideally, it can be everyone’s chosen vehicle for accomplishing the goal of building a local food economy.

This shift will require a high degree of cooperation, communication, and mobilization of shared resources (skills, labour, and tools).

We do not have enough of these resources available locally, and what we do have is not distributed equally throughout the community.

But we do have considerable resources available in the community: skilled and knowledgeable people, many of them elders; young people able and willing to work on building a local food economy; tools and resources such as land, rototillers, and greenhouses.

In order to build on what we have now, and start building more for the future, we need an organization to network in the community and provide stability and guidance towards a local food economy.

We cannot rely solely on government-funded or corporate solutions to make the shift quickly and broadly enough.

There are many community initiatives currently working on various aspects of a local food economy: the Farmers’ Institute, the Agricultural Association, the Food Security Project, the Fruit Tree Project, Good Food Box, Food Bank, 50-mile eat-local challenge, etc.

Many of these organizations and initiatives exist on scant and unreliable funding. Getting the work done depends on and commitment by voluntary associations and volunteer labour. It is difficult to assure continuity when organizations and the individuals within them are spread thin and constantly in search of funding.

For–profit corporations exist to provide a return on a capital investment. There is a place in the local food economy for many privately controlled businesses to prosper and provide valuable goods, services, and employment. But there is also a place for organizations which exist to provide a return to the entire community, in the form of food security and a stronger sense of community and common cause.

The ideal solution is to create an organization which democratically represents the interests of the entire community, is open to participation by anyone who wishes to contribute time or energy, and (crucially) is engaged in developing and sustaining itself from new economic activity within the community, rather than relying on funding from outside the community.

The community-building function of a cooperative is an essential part of our plan. People are isolated, powerless, and dependent on a globalized food industry that is out of their control. We aim to give people the tools they need to take control over their own food security and to exercise genuine democratic involvement in their community.

A cooperative or network of cooperatives is best able to marshal the resources and deploy them at the appropriate scales in order to develop a resilient local food economy.

Activities depend on three essential resources: skills, labour, and tools:

Skills are things that people know or know how to do.

Labour is the time and physical effort that people put into doing things.

Tools are the physical resources that people use in order to do things.

Skills

Collecting, organizing, and distributing information is going to be enormously important. For-profit enterprises typically make no explicit commitment to the free sharing of information; in fact, they often benefit from hoarding information. Our cooperative will make an explicit commitment to make information freely available to those who benefit from it.

The most effective way to transfer skills is to give people opportunities to work together. The cooperative should organize work parties and workshops that members can attend in order to acquire skills and knowledge by doing, rather than in a more academic setting.

Older people in the community are priceless resources. Many of them grew up in a time when it was common for families to grow and preserve some of their own food, and they are eager to pass these skills on to younger people.

A local resource library is one good way to give people access to information. A cooperative can easily take donations of books, old magazines, and other sources of information on any aspects of a local food economy. These resources can be housed somewhere, catalogued, and made available to members of the cooperative for free or for a nominal fee.

Labour

There is a huge amount of work involved in producing food and making it available to the community. We’ll need highly trained farmers able to use a variety of methods and work on different scales of production. We’ll need experts in preserving food for later use, whether this means freezing, drying, canning, pickling, or other methods. And we’ll need more people who know how to prepare delicious healthy meals from locally-produced ingredients. Much of the knowledge is out there in the community; we need to harness that knowledge and those skills and start finding ways of making them part of the local economy.

Building up areas of the local food economy that can support year-round, well-paid jobs is going to take some time and a good deal of experimentation and persistence. But as many people acknowledge, we must begin somewhere and constantly seek new opportunities for creating employment.

One promising area for job-creation is in maintenance of people’s food-producing gardens. It is possible that more people would be willing to grow food in their backyards if they were able to have the garden maintained when they are away on vacation.

The proven viability elsewhere of the SPIN Farming model (e.g., Victoria, Parksville/Qualicum, Vancouver, etc.) suggests that the cooperative might be able to provide members with jobs and services by using people’s properties for food production.

Tools

Tools comprise everything from books, hand tools, seeds, and compost bins, all the way up to large expensive resources such as rototillers, walk-in fridges, apple presses, and greenhouses. It is uneconomical and wasteful to expect people to have their own rototillers when a commonly owned one will suffice. Tools owned by the community, used for the benefit of the community, will allow us to develop a local food economy as efficiently as possible. And many of these tools are lying around waiting to be picked up, repaired, and made available.

There is no organization in the region which aims to provide people with greater access to the tools needed to help them become more self-reliant in food production. All that is needed is a storage space and a system that allows people to use these shared tools when they need to. A not-for-profit cooperative could also allow people to make tax-deductible donations of tools and other infrastructure. We believe that people would be happy to make donations for the benefit of the community.

We need to salvage as much as we can. It will almost always be cheaper to overhaul existing resources than to purchase or construct new ones. The region is full of abandoned vegetable gardens, greenhouses, tools, and other valuable resources. In the spirit of doing-it-yourself and creating minimal waste, we need to encourage as much salvage and re-use as possible.

Any thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

Next time: some of the things we might want a local food-security cooperative to accomplish.

Thanksgiving time-out

Time to give thanks, to preserve more garden produce and gleanings, to get the house cleaned and the ingredients prepared for Monday’s dinner guests, to make last-minute preparations for tonight’s expected below-freezing temperatures, and to earn a living (weekend work is routine for realtors). So I’m taking a brief break and I’ll be back next week with a regular Tom’s Texada Journal/Slow Coast post.  Have a great Thanksgiving holiday!

–Tom Read


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