All you want to do is something good,
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood;
Cos don’t you know that you’re a fucking freak in this world,
In which everybody’s willing to choose swine over pearls.
(Aimee Mann, It’s Not Safe)
The path from spring to summer seems to be meandering through winter this year. This past weekend we were treated to weather pretty much straight out of November’s repertoire, although with uncannily long days instead of the usual five o’clock shadow and shutdown. The plants shiver and wait for better weather, but the slugs are in their element. Eventually, though, the record will stop skipping and we’ll go on with the expected progression into the long hot days of unbroken sunshine: tomato weather.
In the meantime, preparations for summer are in full swing. The 50-Mile Eat-Local Challenge will be celebrating its fifth year this year, and of course we will be presenting another Edible Garden Tour on Sunday August 8, 2010, as the kickoff event of the 50 days of the eat-local challenge. (Feel free to contact me if you would like more information on either of these projects, or if you’d like to get involved as a volunteer.)
Closer in, the board of the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative is getting ready for our first Annual General Meeting, to be held on Wednesday June 23, 2010, at 7:00 PM at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. The preparations means creating a flurry of documents, getting ready to amend our rules, creating reports on our progress and finances, and generally being ready to stand accountable before our membership as their representatives. The best part of the meeting is that we will elect a new set of directors, who will have a democratic mandate to continue working towards our vision, using our values and principles as a compass.
But what is the cooperative actually doing? What is it for? I can tell that people are confused. I know for a fact that some people who hear that there is a cooperative in the region automatically think that we are planning to start a bulk-food or natural-food store. I’ve had it reported to me on good authority that someone out there believes that we are starting up another feed store, like the old Farmers’ Institute cooperative store which eventually became the Rainbow Valley Pet & Feed Store after the rancorous breakup of the cooperative.
Obviously there might be some confusion about any new organization, especially one with a slightly cryptic name. People see the words “food” and “cooperative” in close proximity, and naturally they think of a food store. And the word “cooperative” carries other connotations for those who remember the demise of the old feed store. What the heck is a “provisioner”, anyway? It doesn’t help that, as I have learned lately, many people really do not understand what a cooperative is and how it differs from other corporate structures, such as the limited-liability corporation or the not-for-profit society. So one of the challenges for Skookum is to spread the word about the structure and philosophy behind the cooperative movement. We’ll get there, but it’s going to be a long process of teaching and learning together.
The main idea behind the formation of Skookum, which is simple but somewhat abstract, is that we need to kickstart many more experiments in strengthening the local food economy. There are many things going on in the region, but many of them are fundamentally working in isolation when they could be working together better. It is our belief that people want to be able to work better together, to share tangible and intangible goods, and to create things which are more than the sum of their parts. But it’s hard to make that happen; it takes a huge investment of time and energy to meet up with the others who have what you need and need what you have.
Without a structure to make this sort of collective effort possible, though, it simply won’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in conversations sparkling with great ideas and positive energy; but if those ideas don’t get some kind of nurturing support, they just get filed away, along with all the other wonderful things we could do if we had enough time, or money, or something we never seem to have.
So the essence of Skookum is that it’s designed to be a marketplace of ideas about how we can all work together to produce and preserve more food. We have members so that we can crowdsource solutions and so that we can easily gauge the amount and intensity of interest in any project that we might propose. The more members, the more projects we can sustain and distribute among the membership — also, the more easily we can pay for our projects and other expenses.
At its core, it’s a way to organize and connect together the people in the region most likely to have crazy ideas about getting more local food happening. Like a dating service for local-food freaks and compulsive backyard growers.
Let’s take a simple example. Imagine that I would like to grow chickpeas to support my out-of-control hummus habit, but that I don’t have enough space in my backyard garden for any significant amount. So I put the word out through the membership to see who else would be interested in working together to grow a large amount of chickpeas. Two or three people respond, letting me know that they would be very interested and would help with all the soil preparation, tilling, hoeing, weeding, watering, and harvesting. A few others respond to say that they would be happy to participate as subscribers to the harvest, and would be willing to pay extra to support the labour of the three or four people who will be the main workers.
The organizing team goes forth, finds some land it can beg, borrow, or steal for the purpose of growing a little field of chickpeas. Everyone tosses in some money to buy a good amount of chickpea seed, amendments, and whatever else it needs to get from seed to harvest. The project works on a share basis, meaning that whatever the harvest comes to, it will be divvied into equal shares. Some amount of the final harvest is set aside as a community share which we will donate to an organization that deals with people in need; or else we will sell it as a share and donate the money to that organization. (In case they’d rather have money than chickpeas.)
Built into the cashflow of the project will be some kind of payment or recognition for the labour, expertise, tools, etc. contributed by the members who organize the project and ensure its success. Every successful project, no matter what it does, has at its centre a person or a group of people who take primary responsibility: they make the phone calls, organize the meetings, and deal with the crises. Too often these people’s contributions are passed over. One of Skookum’s strong commitments is to provide fair wages for this critical work, because if we are going to have a functioning local food economy we need to find and nurture the special people who go out and get things done (as opposed to talking about getting things done). They deserve a reward for their valuable gifts of initiative and determination.
So the outcomes of this little chickpea project are:
- more people know something about how to grow chickpeas;
- more people have some locally-grown chickpeas;
- some people got paid or otherwise remunerated for spearheading this project;
- probably some new connections were formed among members of the cooperative and members of the wider community;
- some members of the community benefited by receiving chickpeas or some equivalent donation.
Nothing terrifically earth-shattering, but if we get enough of these little projects up and running, achieving some kind of self-perpetuation, returning value to their participants and to the community, then we will be sending a message about the power of cooperative effort. And the best part is that all of this activity will be 100% democratic and accountable. There will be no need to rely on the goodness of those who own the business. The business will be owned and managed by anyone in the community who wants to pitch in. And that is the real magic ingredient here: I do not believe that we will organize our way out of the impasse we’re in by retooling private ownership to give it a greenish veneer. There needs to be a much greater degree of public involvement in the food system, or else we’re going to continue enriching the few who make the decisions which generally do not reflect the interests or the will of the people.
It will take some time before this all becomes clear. In a way, we’re fighting our way out of the murk of bad and increasingly outdated ideology. All we can see are problems, and all solutions seem equally plausible or implausible. So we need to keep trying anything but what the rules of game dictate: cooperation instead of competition; collective ownership and management instead of private capitalization and profit-taking; openness and transparency instead of boardroom decision-making and political railroading; togetherness instead of isolation. If we persist, sooner or later something will work. Trust me.