Archive for February, 2010

A very practical food security workshop

By Tom Read

A lot of Texada-grown vegetables and even some local chicken went into the lunch served at our recent Micro-Farm Workshop, thanks to a dedicated group of Texada Garden Club volunteers.

Farmer, author and teacher Robin Wheeler came to Texada Island last Saturday to lead us in a six-hour “Micro-Farm Workshop,” sponsored by the Texada Garden Club.  Linda and I found the experience quite rewarding, and so did many others from what I observed. Here are a few highlights of the workshop, from big picture stuff to fascinating (to me) details.

By my count, 47 people came to the workshop on a mild, sunny morning, with 31 from Texada and 16 from Powell River (who arrived 30 minutes late due to an ambulance run that delayed the ferry). The Garden Club, of which I’m a member, had estimated a maximum of 50 participants would attend. So we were a little tense as people kept streaming into the Community Hall — would we run out of food at lunchtime? As it happened, there was more than enough food for everyone, and many of us felt pleased to see such a strong turnout.

Why so much interest in learning about growing food year-round, and building more capacity in our community to provide for a reliable local food supply? The term “food security” is not exactly a media buzz-word these days, but I think the concept is on folks’ minds in this community even if not in those exact words. In conversations I’ve had with fellow islanders over the last few months, many seem to sense that there’s a certain economic, environmental and energy-related volatility afoot in the world, where food prices and even availability might become a concern quite suddenly.

Robin briefly mentioned better food security as a key reason for the workshop, then she moved into specific ways we can do more to create a local food supply for our individual households and as a community. Here are some samples:

We learned how to understand our land better, including mapping of wind and water flows, soil types and most important, sun exposure.

We learned that seaweed is great for soil conditioning, but that we should collect it only in the fall, not in spring. That’s because spring seaweed contains fish eggs and provides both shelter and food to young marine organisms. If we take seaweed at that time of year, we could disrupt marine life-cycles. Besides, there’s lots more seaweed on local beaches in the fall, and it contains less woody debris, too.

We learned how to start a garden on heavy clay soil: use “sacrificial” deep-rooted plants first for a few years to break up the clay chunks, plus add more organic matter to the soil. Then plant vegetables.

We learned about the “spiral cut” on trees adjacent to a garden. This technique lets in some sun without killing the trees, as occurs with cutting off tree tops. The spiral cut removes selected branches in an upward spiral all around the tree, leaving the tree in balance and growing normally. This preserves the trees while letting in filtered sun, changing a fully shaded area where nothing will grow into a partially shaded garden that can grow some types of food plants.

We learned the critical necessity of planning at planting time how to preserve and store a crop so that you’re ready with adequate space and tools when the moment arrives for harvest.

We learned about the simple, affordable deer-fence building technique of using scrap wood, such as fence posts made from cedar tree tops left over after logging, and slabs from a local sawmill to fill the space between posts. Yes, this requires some annual maintenance, but it’s a really quick and cheap way to build a fence that otherwise might cost thousands of dollars.

There was so much more to this workshop — these few samples simply don’t do it justice. As I review my notes from that day I can see many more ideas and suggestions that I’d like to put into practice here at Slow Farm. Seems like there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

And now we are one

By David Parkinson

Cold front meets moist air

There is no escape except to go forward.
(Peter Hammill, “Lemmings”, 1971)

A year ago today, I wrote the first post on this blog, “Welcome to the Slow Coast!” A week and a day later, Tom Read contributed his first post, “On becoming a localist”.

Back then I had no idea where this experiment would lead. I didn’t expect that Slow Coast would still be chugging along one year — and 110 posts — later. I didn’t know if I would have the discipline to write one post each week, although that was my original goal.

It was really just that: an experiment. Cheap and simple, might well have failed. Hasn’t — so far. All I was hoping for was a place to write about the things going on around me and the questions and occurrences seizing my attention from one week to the next. And my initial fears about not having enough to write about have proven to be unfounded. Increasingly I find myself wishing I had more time to follow up on all the interesting groups and activities popping up and doing amazing things; but life is short and I’m too busy to become a full-time community biographer.

I should add, too, that this experiment might well have faltered if not for the encouragement and regular contributions of my co-editor Tom Read. When you’re wandering off into uncharted territory it helps to have a companion to keep your spirits up when the wolves start howling. And it makes it easier to keep plugging away at something, no matter how quixotic it may seem, if someone else is right there with you. So thank you, Tom.

If I had to draw a moral to this, it might be: leap before you look. Sometimes what seems like a good idea gets too bogged down in second-guessing and we end up depriving ourselves of opportunities to try something new. Right now I’m in the middle of another full-on experiment, this time with a group of collaborators: the formation of a not-for-profit cooperative for the purposes of helping regular folks do better at producing, processing, and preserving local food so we can become more self-reliant as a region. We’re learning as we go, pushing the envelope on the legislation that regulates cooperatives, creating a local network of potential members and a wider network of friends and allies around the province.

As with the blog, it’s not easy to know where we’re headed. But as Lao Tzu said,  “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But sometimes that single step looks like it’s about a thousand miles away. We all need to practice the fine art of starting the projects we dream about, even — especially — if we don’t think we know what we’re doing. If our idea is a good one, it will find a way to survive despite us. And the process of nurturing an idea into reality is always an adventure, an opportunity to learn and teach, and a good way to connect with other experimenters and pioneers.

Happy birthday, Slow Coast!

Walk slowly, pay attention

By Tom Read

Here comes the new stinging nettle! In addition to eating the steamed leaves and stems of young nettle plants, this year I'll use nettle roots and leaves to make a vinegar-based tonic and a fertilizer "tea." The pen in the lower right is for scale; it's about 5" long. Photo taken this morning.

Today I visited Dr. Kevin Black at the Texada Health Centre in Gillies Bay for my annual physical check-up. In the course of our routine review of my cholesterol levels (normal) and blood-pressure (acceptable), we talked about the prescription drugs I use to keep my moderate hypertension “under control,” including how expensive they’re becoming. Nothing new there, but it occurred to me as I drove home that maybe I can eventually reduce my pharmaceutical intake if I start using more of the wild food and medicinal plants that grow in abundance here on Texada Island. This wasn’t a random thought, as I’ll explain in a moment.

For years now I’ve resented my dependency on a daily dose of industrially produced drugs to moderate my blood pressure. When I started using these drugs I lived in the sedentary-yet-fast-paced urban rat race, and since moving to Texada 10 years ago I had hoped that my pharma-dependency could eventually end by adopting a healthier lifestyle. Indeed, my blood pressure has decreased somewhat during my years on the island, possibly attributable to such factors as less job stress, choosing a better diet and the necessity of a more physical way of life here at Slow Farm.

Earlier this week I attended a Texada Garden Club presentation by local herbalist and healer Doreen Bonin on how to benefit one’s health using wild food and medicinal plants that grow right here on our island. Doreen’s talk gave me hope that I might gradually wean myself off the pharma-habit, but I must acknowledge that this is something I approach cautiously. Uninformed self-medication can be dangerous to one’s health, so I will seek my doctor’s advice before making any substantive changes. That said, I was fascinated by her detailed descriptions of how to find, prepare and use the likes of nettle, dock and dandelion, along with many other locally common wild and easily-cultivated plants.  I am looking forward to joining a like-minded group on Doreen’s next “nettle walk” sometime in the near future, to get hands-on plant identification practice in the field.

The place to start looking for these plants is in your own garden, according to Doreen. “I teach people to pay attention, to be like children in adopting a beginner’s mind, and to walk slowly and quietly as you look for these plants.” One example I’m already familiar with is stinging nettle, which in years past we have harvested and eaten as a vegetable in various recipes. But there’s much more to nettle. Along with dock and dandelion, it’s what Doreen calls a “broad-spectrum plant,” because its leaves and roots can create a multi-faceted tonic for people and a powerful fertilizer for plants. As of this week, the nettle on our property is about four to six inches high, and growing fast. The dandelions are also coming on strong. I am walking slowly and attentively, digging tools in hand.

A tiny outpost of greatness

By David Parkinson

Volunteers survey the results of the Good Food Box run (L to R: Claire Chase, Jaden Crooks, Lee Lorenzen, Jeremy Blanchette, M. Lee Lorenzen, elbow belonging to Robert Holmgren)

On the second Wednesday of every month (except July and August) a small miracle takes place in Powell River. This miracle is like many others that happen all around us all the time; we may be entirely unaware of them, but no matter — if we took the time to write the untold history of the communities we live in, we’d be endlessly finding unsuspected hives of activity; new groups, gangs, tribes, and teams coming together for special purposes; a whole buried secret world of affiliations and affinities. And small miracles that we take for granted at our peril.

Last week’s Chamber of Commoners get-together was intended to bring together some of the many organizations in the region whose activities are less well-known than they should be. In this age of information overload, it’s hard to stay on top of everything going on even in a relatively small region like ours. We have resources like the Powell River Peak, Powell River Living, Immanence Magazine, and the community calendar; but it’s not possible for every group to get its message out. I try to keep my ear to the ground, but of course I keep finding out about groups I’d never heard of (the latest is the Sunshine Gogos, which apparently has 56 members and is quite a going concern).

Imagine a diagram of all the people in the region, with lines connecting us together through our various groups and affiliations, with colour-coding to indicate all the different categories of activity. It would be mind-boggling — and, even then, it would only convey the most superficial picture of the complexity of the connectedness among folks in the region.

One of the little nodes of connectedness happens on the morning of the second Wednesday of the month in the Trinity Hall at the United Church in Powell River: the Good Food Box packing day. And I call it a minor miracle, because it produces so much positive action and energy with so little overhead.

The Good Food Box is a project that got started just over five years ago out of the PREP Society‘s BOND project, which supports pre- and peri-natal moms and newborns. The group of young moms was looking for a project that would help them provide for their own food needs, and they found the idea of a monthly box of produce, prepaid and reasonably priced. It’s been running since then with only minor changes. Here’s how it works: participants prepay their $12.00 produce box by the third day of the month; payment can be arranged through the Family Place in the Town Centre Mall, Centsibles thrift store on Marine Ave., at the PREP Society office on Marine Ave., or by calling the coordinator Annabelle Tully-Barr at (604) 485-8213.

Annabelle collates the orders and works with the produce department at Save-On Foods, who support the program by offering a hefty discount on the bulk order of produce. Then, on the second Wednesday, the team of volunteers gathers at the United Church to sort, weigh, and pack the produce into boxes and bags. This month, a participant’s $12.00 bought:

  • Five pounds of potatoes;
  • One or two onions, depending on the size;
  • Two pounds of carrots;
  • Four heads of garlic;
  • One head of romaine lettuce;
  • One bunch of green onions;
  • One bunch of radishes;
  • Four “Granny Smith” apples;
  • Three large oranges;
  • One lime;
  • One mango;
  • One bunch of four bananas.

Some families buy more than one Good Food Box, since it is such a good deal. And we know that there is a network of people buying boxes to help family, friends, an neighbours who are needy. So the produce is getting out there and promoting healthy eating and creating social solidarity.

And the activity of packing up the boxes and bags creates another whole network, one that I have been participating in for about three years now. For over a year, we are lucky to have a class from the Powell River Christian School come over and help. It’s always a bit of a madhouse making sure that everything weighs the right amount and is ready at the same time. And meanwhile, there is always a crew of volunteers in the kitchen cooking up some amazing food for lunch.

By about 11:00 we’re ready to start The Run: this is where some volunteers race around the tables set out in a U shape, with other volunteers filling the boxes/bags with the various items of produce. For a few minutes all is chaos, but eventually we’re finished and the floor is lined with neat rows of boxes and bags of produce ready to be picked up and delivered.

By this time, everyone is ready for lunch, so we all sit down together and enjoy a fabulous home-cooked meal. Last week, we had hand-made tortillas with rice, beans, fresh salsa, cheese, and sour cream; cold Asian noodle salad with satay sauce; chicken noodle soup made with local chicken and hand-rolled fresh fettucine noodles; and because it was almost Valentine’s Day, rice krispie squares with candy hearts. Our kitchen crew deserves kudos for stretching a small food budget into delicious and healthy meals (rice krispie squares notwithstanding).

We may only come together for a few hours each month, but we’re a gang of people who enjoy working together. We laugh and share jokes and stories, we share a meaningful task that makes a difference in the community, and best of all we share food. The crew of regular volunteers, led by the tireless Annabelle Tully-Barr, manage to make this initiative hang together from one month to the next, despite chronic lack of funding. Somehow the boxes from one month manage to pay for the little expenses, and we have support from the United Church, the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, and River City Movers. The Good Food Box is a clear example of the many small shoestring operations out there in the region which bring good things into people’s lives with very little fuss and fanfare, and whose disappearance would leave an empty space in these lives. We should do everything we can to help fan these sparks into flame — or at least to keep them glowing until some real kindling comes along.

An island needs a wharf

By Tom Read

Two adjacent signs warn the public to stay off the wharf during repairs. Why two signs? Maybe this has something to do with lawyers and consultants. At least we're finally seeing our only public wharf get some well-deserved repairs.

A few days ago, men with hardhats and heavy construction equipment began repairing Texada’s only public wharf, located at Van Anda Cove. It has taken several years to reach this moment, so I’m glad that it’s finally happening. The cost of labour and materials kept going up year after year while commencement of work was delayed and the wharf continued to deteriorate, so some of us wondered if it would ever be saved.

In fact, we’re losing vehicle access out to the end of the wharf; henceforth, it will only accommodate foot traffic. But that’s all we can afford today, if wharf repairs are to meet the liability-proof standard set forth by an engineering consultant hired by the Powell River Regional District. Consulting invoices, over the years, ate up a mid-five-figures chunk of the “marine services” budget, an unfortunate fact of life. At least we still have a public space where Texadans and visitors can get out on the water, as people of all ages have done for more than a century at Van Anda Cove.

Yes, an island community just ought to have a structurally sound public wharf, and that’s exactly what I expect we’ll get when the current work is done. Then all we’ll have to do is maintain it, which should be easy by comparison to this painful, multi-year wharf rescue project.

Serving the community, cooperatively

By David Parkinson

Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. (Photograph by Giovanni Spezzacatena.)

The best place to store your extra food is in your neighbor’s belly.
(African proverb)

Last week I talked about blending entrepreneurial and not-for-profit approaches to filling some of the real gaps in the regional economy, particularly the food economy. The entrepreneurial — or for-profit — approach is a good one when there is a real gap to be filled, where there are needed goods or services not being supplied by existing businesses; and the not-for-profit — or community service — approach excels where there is a gap which might not necessarily be filled by a market-driven approach, either because it is not profitable enough to attract investors or because it is a public good best provided by an association of individuals willing to sacrifice profit to the benefit of the wider community.

Powell River has many not-for-profit corporations serving the community in a variety of ways: The Powell River Association for Community Living (PRACL), Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association, Pebble in the Pond Environmental Society, The Source Club Society, and on and on… what these corporations have in common is that they have chosen to incorporate as not-for-profit societies. There is a common misconception about what it means to be a not-for-profit: it does not mean that “there is no money in it”, or that it is the sort of thing that can only work on the basis of government funding or charitable donations.

The essence of being a not-for-profit corporation is that whatever profits are generated through the activities of the corporation cannot be distributed to the members. In other words, no one can invest money in a not-for-profit with the hope of seeing a profitable return on that money. Instead, a not-for-profit corporation is a legal device for allowing a number of people to come together to achieve goals or transact business that would be difficult for any of them to do on their own, and to do that without the profit motive getting mixed up in what is usually a service to the community.

A not-for-profit corporation can indeed produce a surplus through its operations, in which case it can reinvest that surplus in those operations by purchasing equipment, starting new projects, training its staff, or in any number of other ways that will allow the organization to thrive. And those operations may produce direct economic benefit to the community by paying wages and salaries and by purchasing goods and services from other businesses. What the not-for-profit cannot do is offer dividends or other financial bonuses to its members. The membership of a not-for-profit and all other individuals or corporate partners who contribute money to it recognize that achieving the purposes of the corporation is more important than making a profit on the money they contribute.

They recognize that its status as a provider of a public good is higher than its status as a tool for increasing capital. In other words, they see it as a part of the commons.

A cooperative is a particular kind of association with its own set of provincial laws and regulations, and which operates according to principles which have been evolving since the origins of the cooperative back in the middle of the 19th Century. You may be familiar with a cooperative through membership in the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), through belonging to our local credit union (the first one in BC), or through belonging to a food cooperative.

Most cooperatives (e.g., MEC, First Credit Union) are for-profit, which means that any surplus they generate through their activities can be returned to members in the form of dividends or patronage returns. Dividends are determined on the basis of the number of shares owned; patronage returns on the basis of the amount of business transacted with the cooperative. (The credit union pays dividends; MEC pays patronage returns.) A for-profit cooperative may also issue investment shares, which allow investors (who are not necessarily members) to put their money into the cooperative in hopes of a return on that capital.

There is also a class of not-for-profit cooperatives, known in BC as ‘community service cooperatives‘. As the for-profit cooperative is to the for-profit corporation, the community service cooperative is to the not-for-profit corporation (society or association). As the name ‘community service cooperative’ suggests, these are often used as a way of providing a service to the community in general, as opposed to cooperatives like MEC and the First Credit Union, which primarily serve the interests of their members. (Although cooperatives, even for-profit ones, often have a very high degree of commitment to community service.)

The legislation defining the community service cooperative came into effect as recently as 2007, and so this model remains to be developed and tested in a variety of different areas and for different purposes. But it offers an appealing combination of the power of cooperative association combined with the ability to provide valuable services to the community as a whole.

Since late November 2009 I have been part of a small team of people learning how cooperatives work and how to get one started. This work picks up on the sorts of thinking that I set out in a couple of posts from back in October 2009: “Why we need a food-security cooperative” and “What can a local food-security cooperative do?“. What we’re looking at are ways to organize people to work together on projects that they might find hard to accomplish on their own — and on projects where there are real economies of scale to be had by pooling labour, time, or money. Examples of this sort of thing can be found in the two posts linked to just above; but a good example would be a commonly-owned fruit crusher and cider press which could be used by members and the general public to convert fruit to cider or wine for the few weeks of the year when the fruit is most abundant. Why should everyone need to own expensive equipment like this? Why not belong to a group which serves common needs without introducing the profit motive?

There is a great deal more to say about the structure and the motivation of a cooperative (coming up in future columns). But for our little initiating group, it is clear that food — of all things — is so fundamental to the life of the individual and of the community that we need to empower people to work for themselves and with one another in order to make more food available locally year-round, as equitably and affordably as possible, and with the least negaitve impacts on the environment. It will help to have an active and activist regional organization which is open to all, dedicated to the creation of a stronger local food economy, driven by the interests and needs of its members, fully accountable to the membership and to the wider community, and obliged by its very nature to place community service above individual profit-making. That’s where we’re heading — and very soon we’ll be asking you to come along with us.

If you want to know more, please feel free to email me. Or you can come out to the upcoming Chamber of Commoners event on Wednesday February 10 and to the fifth annual Seedy Saturday in Powell River on March 13, 2010 at the Powell River Recreation Complex. We’ll be at both of these events to answer questions and hear your wonderful ideas.

Status: connected

By Tom Read

Our latest Internet access technology sits on a table in the livingroom, with a 9" antenna (not shown) in the window nearby. It's smaller, uses less power and is less expensive than our previous set-up.

One of the most frequent questions we hear from prospective Texada Island residents is “do you have high-speed internet access?” The answer is “yes,” and we’re fortunate that our island now enjoys a range of internet access technologies and service options. But this wasn’t true when we first moved here in 2000.

Ten years ago, only one choice existed on Texada for internet access: dial-up, at 56kps. By mid-2001, however, a new satellite-based system became available and our household was among its first customers in western Canada. Connection speed jumped to 400kps for downloads and 125kps for uploads. We stayed on that system through various technology improvements and confusing changes in company ownership — until last week.

That’s when we migrated to internet-over-cell-phone technology, popularly known as an internet stick or modem. Our island has solid cell service in most places and after some tricky technical work, so do we. Physically, for most people this technology is just a 3”-long “stick” that plugs into a USB port on the side of one’s computer. That approach works fine in most places on Texada. Frustratingly, it does NOT work at our house, because we live behind a rocky hill down in a small creek valley. We’re in a cell phone dead spot.

The answer, for us and anyone else living under similar low-signal-strength conditions, is a booster antenna. Our service provider sells such an antenna, designed for use with motor vehicles, but it can be adapted quite easily to a house, too. With the further addition of a  wireless router both Linda and I can share one internet connection, just as we did using the satellite system. There are two main differences, however: 1) our internet stick service is in some ways faster than satellite because it’s earth-based, not space-based, and 2) it costs about a third less.

Now I have an unobtrusive little wireless internet icon occupying the bottom right side of my computer screen. It tells me that my status is “connected” and my signal strength is “very good.” And that’s good enough for me.


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