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?


7 Responses to “What can a local food-security cooperative do?”

  1. 1 Adrian October 20, 2009 at 06:37

    Hey, you should check out Vancouver Island Food Heritage Co-operative and Food Roots Distributors Co-operative.

  2. 2 David Parkinson October 20, 2009 at 07:30

    Thanks. Adrian. I am aware of these two cooperatives. I’ll see to what extent we can learn from what they’re doing.

  3. 4 margaret October 20, 2009 at 13:06

    Count me in. I’m not a great organizer but if you point me in the right direction, tell me what needs doing, I’ll get it done.

  4. 5 David Parkinson October 20, 2009 at 13:43

    Thanks to both of you! I’ll be counting on you. 🙂

  1. 1 Exuberance as a survival strategy « Slow Coast Trackback on November 10, 2009 at 18:24
  2. 2 Serving the community, cooperatively « Slow Coast Trackback on February 9, 2010 at 12:05
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