Last week, I did something that makes me wonder if I’m losing my marbles: I voluntarily reduced the amount of paid work I am doing. Why would anyone do something like that, especially right now when the economy seems to be headed for a long slow collapse? Well, it’s not like I won’t have enough work to keep me out of some amount of trouble: I will continue (as long as funding continues) to coordinate the Powell River Food Security Project. But that gig’s budget only allows for about 12 hours of work per week, and even for Powell River that’s a little thin.
As I have written recently, the one project that really gets me fired up lately is the idea of getting some cooperative projects going in the region. So I’m doing the best I can to understand the process of incorporating a cooperative, gathering together a group of inspired amateurs unafraid to gamble on crackpot ideas, and planning ahead to the coming year. Somehow I hope that this work can replace some of my lost income, but that might take a little time. Unfortunately, I know if no other way to start getting serious about the effort to develop a resilient regional food economy. The simple fact is that we need to let a thousand small experiments bloom; we need to hope for success but plan for failure (and learn from it if we must); we need to connect with the small but vital segment of the regional population who get what is happening and will support food-security projects that might grow into crucial parts of a functioning food system. And there is no time to waste.
In the earlier posts linked to above I throw around some of the possible projects that a cooperative could take on. These are mostly projects that haven’t found a home under the umbrella of an existing non-profit association or for-profit business. One of the aspects of a cooperative that I find most appealing is that power derives very much from the membership; and this is something that I hope a local food-security cooperative would really emphasize. I think what we need to get going is a sort of laboratory where we can brainstorm ideas — a community oilseed farm! a selection of local dried fruit! a shared potato crop! — and find people willing to assume the leadership role on them. If we can combine careful planning with a flexible approach and plenty of volunteer energy, then we can start working on some of the real problems we need to deal with.
Eventually, we need to answer the question, “How self-sufficient can this region be in terms of food?” This is a huge and complex question, but it can be broken down into small digestible pieces, not all of which need to be taken on at one time or by one group of people. But let’s say we want to think about how well we could supply the needs of the regional population in terms of fruit. It’s fairly clear how to do this sort of work (which is not to say that it’s simple): make some assumptions about the needs of the average person, multiply by the population, perform an inventory or a decent estimate of the present amount of fruit production, and then work on shrinking the gap between needs and available resources.
We can repeat this work for any kinds of foods that we’re interested in, taking into account the available farmland, the types of crops or livestock most likely to thrive here, and as many other factors we can measure or estimate. And the value of small and flexible community projects is that they can answer some big questions on a small scale. For example, if we wanted to figure out the amount of grains and legumes we would need to produce each season so that everyone in the region could be assured of some minimal amount of protein crops, we could run some little experiments on small plots, being sure to understand how those small experiments would scale up. For example, is it more or less efficient to work at the small scale, using hand tools and duplicating similar labour in many locations? Or to work at the large scale, using motorized tools and not needing to perform the same tasks in multiple fields? Are there factors besides efficiency we need to take into account? And so on.
My hope is that we can find people in the community with an inquisitive spirit and the desire to start working together to really tackle some of the tough aspects of securing our regional food supply. As someone said to me today, “We’ve pretty much got vegetables covered,” by which she meant that, even if we don’t produce enough vegetables to feed the region, we know a lot about how we could do that if we had to. But vegetables only really last from May through October or thereabouts. The big challenge is to give everyone the tools they need to make it through the year with as much good local food as possible.
And we’re going to need a lot more little projects, groups, and organizations. We can’t put all of our eggs into the same overflowing baskets any longer. One of the challenges ahead of us is learning how to work well together, to make good decisions as groups, and to push towards our goals together. We need to stop trying to limit people’s creativity by insisting that things be done as they have always been done. We need to listen to more ideas and find ways to act on as many as we can without spreading ourselves too thin. We seem to have forgotten how often true inspiration comes from the purest accidents. Time to bring back serendipity.
In nature, resilience comes from exuberance: thousands of spores from one mushroom, of which maybe only a small number will successfully germinate and produce offspring. And those tough survivors often have characteristics that will help future generations to survive. We need to lean to emulate nature in this respect, by spawning many small, simple, but scaleable projects in the community, by continually learning from these projects and sharing what we learn, and by encouraging others to get something going. We need to throw enough good ideas at the wall that some of them will stick and form the core of our strategies for regional survival.