Archive for the 'local food economy' Category

Why don’t we have a local food incubator?

By David Parkinson

Early dawn of a bright and warm November day

The more I think about building a local food economy, the more I believe that the key to success is creating an economy that sustains growers and producers, processors, and consumers all year round. We focus so much of our energy and attention on the growing aspect of the food system, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we can see at this time of year that the abundance of the summertime is waning fast. Scour the local farmgates and the Winter Farmers’ Market and you’ll see some carrots, potatoes, late greens, winter squash… and not much more than that.

And for as long as I’ve been working in the local food-security scene I’ve been hearing the same ideas popping up again and again: common root cellars and other storage facilities, and community commercial kitchens for processing and preserving the harvest while fresh. Many people still do a good deal of this essential work, but many no longer do. And more (including myself) never learned how.

This summer, Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative organized a tomato-canning bash in the kitchen of a local church. About a dozen people got together to learn how to can tomatoes and everyone walked away with a few pints of canned tomatoes. But this is just the tip of the iceberg: if we’re seriously contemplating an extremely local food economy, we’re going to need to boost production and we’re really going to need to learn how to store food efficiently, inexpensively, and safely.

Food-growing is becoming highly visible and a recognizable and important part of our embryonic local food scene. And if you can grow food, you can preserve it; in fact, preserving food strikes me as the easy part (although that might just be because I’ve never had to do it for extended periods). I don’t think my talents really lie in the garden, and so I’m increasingly drawn to food preservation as a slightly neglected and uncelebrated aspect of food security.

This coming summer, I want to organize many more community-kitchen get-togethers along the lines of the tomato-canning bask in September. The model is simple enough: we buy a good amount of whatever is in season in a given week, find the best way to preserve it, get a bunch of people together, split the costs (supplies, facility rental, etc.), add something on top for the organizer and something for the community,  and work together to stock our pantries for the winter.

One tantalizing way to organize a project like this is to run it along the lines of Community-Supported Agriculture: people sign up at the beginning of the preserving season, pay some amount in advance to help the organizer(s) buy materials and ingredients, and then each week they receive a supply of something for their pantry. This could be a great way to strengthen demand for local food — by extending the time of the year during which we can continue to eat local food. It’s the way people used to eat, and it seems poised to make a comeback.

Eventually this sort of collective activity can generate the demand for a proper community-owned and -managed processing facility, along the lines of the ones discussed in this article that came to me this week and got me thinking again about food preservation. Somehow we need to centralize at least some of the work that goes on in isolation, in the interests of getting more people involved, lowering costs, and minimizing the barriers to participation such as knowledge of health and safety regulations.

So do we spend our time hunting for grants to help start a project like this? Or start small and build our way up? I don’t know the right answer, but I hope to do some on-the-ground investigating and learning when the growing season returns. We need year-round local food.

Lower your sights, yeah, but raise your aim

By David Parkinson

A late rose, blossoming despite the cold weather.

Last night I attended Murray Dobbin‘s lecture at Vancouver Island University here in Powell River. The title of Murray’s talk was “Globalization, Local Food, and Powell River”, and most of it was about globalization: where it came from, what its intended effects were, and what it has accomplished (if that’s the right term) since the mid-70s when the whole idea began to take shape among western elites.

Since Murray has spent a good part of his career as a journalist and activist examining globalization, there was a lot of information packed into his presentation, and I won’t try to do it justice here. But one thing he said struck me very strongly: referring to the neoliberal project of stripping away social programs and redirecting government revenues away from the general population and towards corporations and their wealthy owner class, Murray pointed to polling research that shows how resilient Canadians’ values have remained throughout this retrograde thirty-five-year project. Our support for social democratic programs like unemployment insurance, Medicare, and government-guaranteed old-age pensions has remained high during the years in which these programs have been under attack by a series of governments both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’; at the same time, what has changed is our sense of whether or not the government can achieve these things.

The takeaway is that it is far easier to diminish or destroy people’s sense of the possible than their sense of the desirable. We cling fiercely to our vision of the world we want to live in, not surrendering our hopes even when everything everywhere tells us that it is unreasonable and impossible.

No wonder, then, that people put into such situations have typically fled to religion, since it offers a way of reconciling our vision of the world as it could be with the shortcomings of the world as it is — or as it is made to be by malevolent social forces. With the disenchanting of the world and increasing social isolation, the refuge of choice for the western world has been the consumerist lifestyle, which only ends up strengthening the forces deforming the world and making it intolerable: a classic positive feedback loop which is now tighter than ever.

But underneath it all — even among a population that seems disaffected, alienated, tuned-out — the desire for community, solidarity, and shared purpose persists, submerged but not eradicated. The French Situationists had an evocative phrase to express this powerful urge for liberty and beauty in everyday life: Sous les pavés la plage (“Beneath the paving stones, the beach”). We have been given a paved world — worse, we have been made complicit in paving the world — but nothing can destroy our sense of a world lurking just below the harsh man-made surface. For the moment, we don’t know how to dig for it, but we know it’s there, waiting…

How can we narrow the gap between our aspirations and what we are told is possible? Many of us feel trapped in a world of such complexity that we can never see a way to make our mark, to connect and create something with others, and to change the things that threaten the integrity of our lives as individuals and as members of a community. Everything is all so huge, interconnected, and obscured with jargon and specialized knowledge that we’re lucky if we can carve out any small section and make sense of it. Another good reason for retreating from engagement into an unsatisfying but controllable mini-world of superficial pleasures.

Those of us lucky to be living in a country like Canada have been raised on the belief, drummed into us from an early age, that we all have what it takes to make a mark on the world. Our job was to find our special gift, apply it, work hard, and persist; then with some luck our efforts would be rewarded. It feels now as though this sense of future possibility is draining away, and quickly: we worry that the generation of young people now coming up will fall short of their parents in health, wealth, longevity, satisfaction, and security. Unless we pull off some kind of societal reboot, we are at or past the cusp of the curve of social progress and starting the downward slide. Imagine how it must feel to be a young person who realizes this: our secular culture has rarely had to contend with the idea of the end of progress, but decline may become the backdrop of all our planning and action from this point forward — unless we manage to tackle the multiple serious challenges ahead of us. The steps our governments and large social institutions are taking in this direction so far are way too little, way too late, and it’s hard not to feel that we’re on our own for now.

Stoneleigh, one of the commentators at the rambling collage of symptoms known as The Automatic Earth, has this to say in a recent post about the decline of trust in our culture:

Over time institutions become sclerotic, unresponsive, self-serving and hostage to vested interests, at which point they cannot be reformed, as the reform would have to come from those entrenched individuals who have benefited most from the status quo. Institutions become demonstrably less effective, while consuming more and more of society’s resources. Corruption, abuses of power, lack of accountability and the loss of the rule of law become increasingly evident, exactly as we have seen with unauthorized wire-tapping, extra-ordinary rendition and many other actions undermining the open society. Once this happens, trust is living on borrowed time. That is very clearly the case in many developed societies today.

I can’t put it better than that. A more conservative mindset will look at the same set of facts that Stoneleigh is looking at and see some bugs in the code, minor hiccups, a periodic readjustment, but nothing on the scale of a social realignment. Nothing we can’t get out of by doing more of the same, only slightly different. Only time will show which outlook is the wiser: the one which says that many of our systems are reaching the breaking point; or the one which says to hang on, hunker down, and weather the storm, because we’ll soon be back to normal.

One thing is certain, as far as I’m concerned: the combination of a generalized decline in trust with a repressed but uneradicated desire for genuine social connection and a meaningful and decent culture is going to produce some real turbulence. (And this might be as much productive and positive as it will be negative.)

Since the beginning of the neoliberal era, we have been under orders to sit tight and wait for the dividends trickling down from the project of cutting social spending and rewarding the class of owners. These dividends never did show up for the majority; and as time goes on, more and more people see that they were swindled (if they don’t always see by whom). Worse, they fear that the next generations coming up are going to have it worse than they will. Trust is dying, and we don’t know what will take its place.

Stoneleigh continues:

Working within the trust horizon is important, as it means individual small-scale initiatives can benefit from the same kind of social support at a local level that larger-scale ones once did at a societal level, when trust was more broadly inclusive. Local currencies work for exactly this reason. While the task will still be difficult, it has a chance of being achievable, especially where the necessary relationships of trust have been established before hard times set in. It is very much more difficult to build such relationships after the fact, but relationships built beforehand may actually strengthen when put to the test.

Trying to maintain a positive and constructive focus at the local level, where trust has a chance to survive, and perhaps even thrive in hard times, and to avoid being drawn into a blame-game, will be an uphill battle. It is nevertheless something we need to do as a society, if we are to have a chance to preserve as much as possible of who we are through what is coming.

I think that Stoneleigh is dead-on here. We need to set our sights on simpler things, to draw in the radius of our world and build trust within arm’s reach as it evaporates at higher levels. People who lose faith in the social contract (because our supposed leaders have torn it up), but whose belief in a decent society remains undiminished, will be casting about for reasons to re-engage and find meaning and connection. We see the early shoots of this new meaning in the many small amateur efforts around us, many of which revolve around our food sources.

The outline of the next few years is vague. There is a dim sense that things are breaking down; maybe not completely, but to an extent that makes it hard to know how to plan, what to expect. Uncertainty can lead to fear, but it can also be liberating. When the social systems we thought were unavoidable turn out to be flimsy and short-lived after all, we are freed to experiment with new ways of configuring our own lives and of organizing our social relations. Someday we may look back on the present moment and trace the lineages of the new structures that emerged — small, hesitant, and hidden at first — from the old ones deliberately and maliciously pulled apart by those we thought were looking out for us.

The Situationists had another slogan which is relevant here: Soyez réalistes, demandez l’impossible! (“Be realistic, demand the impossible!”). This is good advice as we begin to learn that the so-called impossible might be possible after all — possible and desirable to us even though undesirable to those who no longer deserve our trust.

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A HOUSEKEEPING NOTE

I’ve decided to change my regular weekly posting day to Tuesday. Mondays belong to James Howard Kunstler; and Mondays are often holidays when it’s harder to get a post together. As always, I welcome a co-conspirator here, so if you relish the opportunity to blog about matters of interest to our little corner of the world, please get in touch with me.

“Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.”

By David Parkinson

Blueberry flowers enduring the drizzle

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.

And… we’re off!

By David Parkinson

A springtime harvest of delicious and beautiful purple broccoli

There seems to be three ways for a nation to acquire wealth:  the first is by war…this is robbery; the second by commerce, which is generally cheating; the third by agriculture, the only honest way.
(Benjamin Franklin)

Last Tuesday evening the newly-formed Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative held its first public information meeting at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. The purpose of the evening was to share information about how we got to where we are, what we intend to do, and how our members can fit into all that.

One thing I realized as I assembled notes for my presentation was how much progress six novices managed to make in five months. Our first meeting to talk about forming a cooperative was back on November 27, 2009; so the public meeting last week was our five-month anniversary. In that short time, armed with little more than determination and persistence, this initiating team accomplished the following:

  • learned how to incorporate as a cooperative;
  • specifically, learned how to incorporate as a not-for-profit — or community service — cooperative;
  • learned how to amend the standard rules in order to create the governance structure we wanted to see;
  • wrote a vision statement (“A thriving community with a strong and reliable local food network”);
  • started drafting a statement of values and principles for directing our operations;
  • bought a domain, created a basic website, and set up email accounts;
  • created a logo;
  • started recruiting members;
  • began work on one major project, the Fruit Tree Project, and have started to line up other potential projects for this year or next.

I’m sure there is more, but these are some of the highlights.

But why, you ask? Why create yet another organization? What sets this one apart?

I’m still trying to figure out my best answer to questions like these. But the one thing about cooperatives that most interests me and the other members of the initiating team, who are now the board of first directors, is that they are highly member-driven organizations. A cooperative without members is not a cooperative, and cooperatives come into existence in order to supply its members with goods or services which they might otherwise struggle to supply for themselves.

In this case, the main gaps we aim to fill are shared skills, knowledge, and resources. Increasingly, people seem to be getting the message about the importance of food production to the local economy and to a broader picture of sustainability and resilience. Although it’s hard to gauge, there is uncertainty out there about the future and about our ability to keep the food supply running as it has been doing for the past few decades. Interest in local food continues to increase.

But once people start to question the global industrialized food system, how are they supposed to change the way they shop, prepare food, and eat? Some of us have what it takes to start tearing up the lawn to make room for purple broccoli and so on; but many people will feel that they don’t know enough about growing food, or they haven’t spent any time doing it and so it would fail. Or they haven’t got the time, or the tools, or a friendly neighbour they can work with or bounce ideas off. And so the good intentions, as they so often do, fall away and never manifest themselves as positive action.

What people need is a proper community of fellow food-producers (and -processors, and -preservers, and -preparers, and…) with whom they can share plans, garden space, seeds, tools, time, labour, laughter, and everything else that helps us all participate in a “strong and reliable local food network”.

This is where the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative comes in. We chose the word “Provisioners” deliberately: a provisioner is traditionally someone who supplies provisions, meaning food and drink, usually to an army or other large group of people. And of course provision also means forethought or foresight: to make provision for something means to take it into account in one’s plans. Provisions are preparations in advance of some foreseeable event or situation. We wanted to play on this cluster of related meanings — to suggest that each one of us has what it takes to make provisions — to indicate that we can all become provisioners and escape the narrow confines of being either a passive consumer or an all-powerful producer. Just regular folks who know where their food comes from, how it got there, and where it’s going. United into a community of provisioners supporting and strengthening each other.

In this sense, many people up until about World War II were provisioners: they had some idea what it takes to produce, store, preserve, and prepare food for themselves and their families. Most of this work was considered women’s work, but it was respected as vital to the prosperity of the family and the community. We need to get these skills back into regular circulation, but we need to help people ease back into them. Many people are utterly daunted by the idea of tearing up lawn to create garden; or canning large amounts of food and storing it against lean times; or making sauerkraut; or foraging for wild foods; or building and using a root cellar; and on and on it goes.

So the only way out of this that we can see is to create a community of people working together to save money, time, and effort as they increase the amount of food being produced, preserved, stored, and prepared in the region. We intend to work with our members to design and implement projects which will attract people who want to secure their household food supply, but need the impetus of working with others, acquiring skills through doing, gaining knowledge through talking and listening, sharing tools and equipment that they cannot afford to buy for themselves. The Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative was set up to be the framework within which we can make that happen.

Some people out there are the fearless leaders and trailblazers who don’t let any obstacles slow them down. But more are cautious and need support and encouragement. If we’re going to create a grassroots revival of traditional food skills, we’ll need to create new institutions to bring back those skills. This is not something which can happen through the existing consumer model. We cannot shop our way out of our passivity. It’s time to start creating shared projects and community institutions that bring people together. Ones which are open, honest, and fair, and increase people’s sense of a hopeful convivial future.

If this appeals to you, please consider becoming a member and helping us figure out how we can get more people involved in the local food network. Our first general meeting will be on Wednesday June 23, 2010, at 7:00 PM at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. In order to participate in this general meeting, you will need to become a member before May 24, 2010. For more information, drop us a line. We need you!

Rattled by the rush

By David Parkinson

A tangle of young fennel sprigs

My apologies to those regular readers and subscribers who felt the silence on this end for the last couple of weeks. Tom is on vacation, and I have had one of those periods during which it feels as though everything is happening all at once. Funny how the times when the most is happening are the times when it’s hardest to write about what’s happening.

At any rate: time to catch up.

Transition training in Powell River

Last weekend, Transition Town Powell River brought Michelle Colussi to town to lead a group of about 20 people through Transition Training, and I participated in that. The training, which introduces participants to the basics of peak oil, climate change, and the need to adapt to a world of lower consumption of petrochemicals, was spread over one evening and a full day, and was fairly solidly packed with information and techniques for community engagement. One of the good things that happened is that we Powell River Transition types got to meet a couple of people on Texada Island, a couple from Denman Island, and a couple from Courtenay who are interested in getting some of this activity going in their communities.

It was inspiring to see the turnout from Powell River and Texada and to reflect on the fact that we are only Canada’s eighth formally declared Transition Town, after Peterborough (ON), Guelph (ON), Victoria (BC), Dundas (ON), Nelson (BC), Ottawa (ON), and the delightfully-named Cocagne (NB). Quite an honour for such a small town; but like so many similar honours it speaks to the hard work and dedication of a small handful of upstarts and noisemakers. It was nice to feel as though we could learn from the experience of folks in Victoria, where Michelle was coming from, and also pass along some of what we know to folks coming up behind us in Texada, Denman, and Courtenay.

I imagine that everyone who participated in this training came away with a different perspective, having gone in there with different experiences and questions. My takeaway was a renewed sense of how vast will be the work of finding new ways to live well in the face of oncoming and extreme challenges from the climate and the economy. One area we did not really explore is the threat of severe social upheaval from all of these threats and reversals; it’s hard to look into that black hole for long without losing hope. Instead, the Transition movement focuses its energy and attention on positive action, even while acknowledging that we can have no sure insight into the directions the future might take. This is scary stuff, but liberating. And it’s gathering momentum.

Lund to Langdale Part Deux

After a day of unwinding from these two days, I leapt into ‘Lund to Langdale Part Deux’, the follow-up event to the ‘Lund to Langdale‘ get-together back in November 2009 which brought together farmers, foodies, and food activists from the Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast for a day and a half of connecting and learning. That event ended with a commitment from the attendees to continue meeting with the intention of figuring out what it would mean to form a bioregional coalition and start trying to narrow the Jervis Inlet.

With support and organizational mojo from the BC Healthy Living Alliance, specifically the amazing Jamie Myrah, we were lucky enough to have a second opportunity to get together, share information and experiences, and start to really work on the outlines of this coalition: who we are, how we can work together, and what we can do as a ‘whole-coastal’ coalition that we can’t easily do as two separate loose coalitions on either side of the inlet.

And so about twenty-five of us, fairly equally balanced between Upper and Lower Sunshine Coast, came together and brainstormed our way towards a working coalition. I have complained about bad brainstorming experiences in the past, and it can sometimes turn into a random collection of impossible dreams or dead-ends; but the process was very productive this time. Part of the reason for that is that the people in the room were pretty familiar with the terrain and there was a high degree of consensus about what matters, what is feasible, and what we can actually commit to, given our many other commitments.

What did we achieve? We came to a better understanding of what we would gain from having better communication among the food-security and food-sovereignty projects on both halves of the Sunshine Coast. We all learned an awful lot about the huge number of projects and organizations already doing this work, and thought about how we can connect these existing resources together better. We ate well and laughed and got to know one another. We committed to another get-together in November, this time back down on the other side of the coast, specifically Roberts Creek.

One of the exercises we used as a way to illustrate the complexity of the situation was a mapping exercise, where we posted the names of all of the organizations, projects, and groups that we are aware of doing something to support the regional food economy. The resulting picture on the wall was overwhelming: there really is a lot going on, but often the people most likely to know about it are unaware of it all. And of course the public often have no conception of how much is happening under their noses.

Sadly, by the time we meet next, the BC Healthy Living Alliance will have been rolled up and packed away — the funding that enabled them to start so many projects around the province, including the Sliammon Community Garden and the Garden to Table workshop series at the Community Resource Centre in Powell River, was always intended to expire eventually. But with a little luck and a lot of hard work and constant commitment, one of their the lasting legacies will be a fierce and forceful network of food activists from Lund to Langdale, connected together through shared information and stories, collaborating on projects that benefit the Saltery side and the Earls Cove side, and forming a coherent and powerful voice for local food, agriculture, farmers, growers, and all the coming heroes of the relocalization movement.

Thank you, Jamie! Thank you, BC Healthy Living Alliance! And thank you to everyone who came out for this get-together. We meet again in November…

And finally

On April 6, 2010, the BC government granted our application for incorporation as a cooperative. And so the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative is official. Stay tuned for more news about that.

Bringin’ in the slops

By Tom Read

Usually, the slops are waiting for me just inside the kitchen back door at the Texada Island Inn. Today I lucked out when chef Elaine saw my arrival and met me halfway.

It’s Friday afternoon and I’ve just pulled up to the back door of Van Anda’s Texada Island Inn, right outside the restaurant kitchen. At home each day, we feed a small stream of kitchen scraps to our chickens and compost pile, but the volume of “table scraps” flowing from a restaurant kitchen seems like a river by comparison. I’m here at the Inn — known to locals as “the hotel” even though it also includes a restaurant and bar — to pick up the Friday slops.

One of the hotel’s excellent cooks, Elaine, saw my car pull in the driveway, and she brought today’s slops out of the kitchen to be loaded in the back of my car (photo). In return, I gave her a couple of clean buckets from a previous slops pick-up. I make sure to scrub the returning buckets with soap and hot water to comply with the stringent sanitation standards required in a commercial kitchen. Sometimes Linda and I will have dinner at the hotel, then I’ll go fetch the slops and we’ll head home. Of course, there’s never anything left over on my plate.

So why am I going to all this trouble, and burning a few extra litres of gasoline in the process? Answer: I’m retrieving slops from the hotel thrice weekly, all year, because the organic matter feeds our animals and our soil. Food-growing removes a certain amount of soil nutrients every year; if we don’t replenish those nutrients then our food-growing will eventually fail for want of soil fertility. Thus, a constant balance must be maintained between what we take away — harvests — and what we add to offset the soil nutrient depletion caused by those harvests.

Slops use is only one part of the balance. They’re a little heavy on tired lettuce, surplus French fries, deep-fried onion rings and mashed potatoes. So we’re fortunate that we have our own chicken and pig manure and that Texada is abundant in wild sources of soil amendments. Texadans also have access to some very effective commercial organic fertilizers that are sold across Canada but brewed right here on the island from imported ingredients.

The wild stuff includes seaweed (collect in fall only), nettle (collect before it forms seed-heads), nitrogen-fixing trees (Western Red Alder) and lots of maple and alder leaves. If you cut thistle tops before they form a seed-head then these widespread “weeds” also become a good input for the compost pile. How attitudes change! When we started our first garden after moving to Texada ten years ago, I tried in vain to remove all the nettles and thistles from our property — the hard way, by hand with a shovel and a hoe. Now I welcome these useful plants on the farm (but not directly in the garden beds).

But I digress, and must conclude by returning to the slops. It’s a privilege to be given those buckets. They help offset the cost of animal feed, even though I must carefully inspect the slop bucket contents just in case a bit of plastic should find its way there. That’s rare, but it happens. And sometimes I find meat scraps, which become dog treats. As for the travel costs — I’m usually able to combine slops pick-up with other errands, so what’s another stop along the way?  Plus, there’s a real satisfaction in keeping something of value out of the waste stream that would otherwise end up in a landfill at Cache Creek.

Now, if I could only get the hotel to add more seaweed-based items to the menu….

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.


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