Archive for the 'relocalization' Category

Another kick at the can

By David Parkinson

Late-bearing golden raspberry enjoying the sunshine before the recent cold wet weather.

The problem with monocultures is that you eventually forget that alternatives exist. They begin by taking something well-adapted and useful, proceed to apply it to all situations as the only solution, and end by erasing the possibility of competition. Finally the monoculture becomes so all-encompassing that no small pocket of resistance can easily take hold — until the forces holding the monoculture in place shift or weaken. Sometimes counterforces make it possible to hold open a small space for alternatives to exist, often at the very edge of survival.

All of this is on my mind this week as our community radio station CJMP FM undergoes another period of crisis and once again teeters on the brink of dissolution. Last time, back in the spring of 2009, the non-profit which had been hosting and supporting the radio station decided to get out of the community radio game. After much back and forth, a new not-for-profit society formed, applied for another radio license, and spent over a year waiting for the CRTC to approve their license application.

On October 1, 2010 this society (the Powell River Community Radio Society or PRCRS) held their first Annual General Meeting, at which those of us who attended learned that most of the original board intend to step down and not seek re-election. Since the society had not signed up any members except for the board, if the board went so would go the society. And with it would go our community radio license, which is a precious asset that would be hard to replace. Since there were members of the community who did not want to lose our chance at having a viable community radio station, the Annual General Meeting was adjourned to a day and time two weeks later.

As I write this, several people in the community are considering whether they want to sign up as members and stand for election to the board. This will entail a considerable commitment of time and energy, since many of the problems that a community radio station faces are difficult and ongoing: the need for funding and volunteers, the purchase and maintenance of equipment, rent for the studio space and offices, utilities, and so on.

In a sense, though, the highest hurdle that community radio faces relates to the monoculture problem: commercial radio and commercial media in general are so widespread and popular that it is difficult, even impossible, for most people to imagine what the alternative would sound like. There is an almost irresistible pressure to make the alternative like a down-home and underfunded approximation of the commercial variety. CJMP FM has always taken this approach, and in my opinion it’s a mistake to try to make community radio compete head-to-head against commercial radio. Until the community is genuinely involved, though, we can’t easily know what community radio should sound like — in this community.

In its 2000 Community Radio Policy document, the CRTC defines community radio as follows:

The Commission’s primary objective for the community radio sector is that it provide a local programming service that differs in style and substance from that provided by commercial stations and the CBC. The programming should be relevant to the communities served, including official language minorities. The Commission considers that community stations should add diversity to the broadcasting system by increasing program choice in both music and spoken word. They should contribute to diversity at three levels:

  • Community stations should offer programming that is different from and complements the programming of other stations in their market. Their not-for-profit nature and community access policies should assist them in contributing to the achievement of this objective.
  • Community stations should be different from other elements of the broadcasting system, including commercial stations and stations operated by the CBC.
  • The programming broadcast by individual community stations should be varied and provide a wide diversity of music and spoken word.

What would happen if we kept the community radio license and involved the community as much as possible? What would that sound like?

For one thing, it would sound diverse; as diverse as the community. In the standard model of community radio, the type of programming often changes, sometimes drastically, from one hour to the next, encompassing music, spoken word programming, news, public affairs, and so on. With proper advertising, the reach of such a station is huge, since it can appeal to almost everyone within broadcast range, if only for a few hours per week. People who tune in regularly to hear a specific show are very passionate about that show and about the station that produces that show. Listeners like these will be very happy to find an alternative, to find a station that is playing something that they love, as opposed to the same old middle-of-the-road rock music that is available everywhere else up and down the radio dial.

For another thing, it would sound local. The one thing that no commercial radio station can produce, nor can our beloved CBC, is the sound of the community, its concerns, the things that people are talking about, what’s really going on out there. There is simply no public venue for an ongoing conversation about us. We have one weekly newspaper, a couple of monthly magazines, a cable TV station, numerous blogs, and other bits and pieces of local media; but we do not have any media which readily supports a high level of public participation in real time and at relatively low cost. The technology is simple. The rest is logistics.

In the region of the 50-Mile Eat-Local Challenge, it seems like a no-brainer to have 50-Mile Radio.

It’s baffling to me that community radio seems to be such a hard sell here. In many other places throughout Canada, the community radio station is the place to hear what’s going on in the region, to find out what your friends and neighbours are thinking and doing, and to connect with the place you live in with all its idiosyncrasies and special character. I find it hard to believe that people really want to hear the same old music, the same old stories, the same voices (all sounding so professional and manicured) that you can hear in any place. It’s another aspect of the monocultural approach to creating the world that drops the same damn chain stores and crappy food in every town: many people find that comforting, but many do not. For those who do not, we need to keep the alternatives alive and thriving. Constant resistance to homogeneity and repetition is necessary.

The Canadian government in its finite wisdom has made resistance possible by creating and maintaining the category of community radio licenses which exist to let a community hear its own voice. As long as we have this tool for resisting monocultural media, we have the responsibility to use it. As we begin to enter the era of relocalization during which decisions made at the regional and neighbourhood level will take on increasing importance, we need as many media channels as we can possibly create and support.

If you are interested in helping keep our community radio license, please attend the continuation of the Annual General Meeting of the Powell River Radio Community Society on Friday October 15, 2010, 4:00 PM at the Life Cycle Common Room, 4949 Ontario Ave. in Powell River (at the dead end north of Alberni St.). I will attend, and I hope to bring back good news about the future of local media in this region.

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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.

We live on an island but we need the city

By Tom Read

This slightly modified BC Ferries route map of our greater region shows Texada Island (partially circled in red) in relation to its urban neighbours. Rather than try to ignore these population centres, could we consciously interact with them for mutual benefit?

This weekend we begin a three-day journey, leaving our snug home on Texada Island to visit the city of Vancouver by way of BC Ferries and Vancouver Island. This isn’t a holiday vacation; it’s mainly about me having a root canal operation that requires a big city specialist. It occurred to me, after scheduling this appointment, that I have not seen Vancouver in a year and a half, which I consider one measure of my contentedness with living on Texada.

My dental appointment in the city is just one example of the reality that our seemingly remote home is merely part of a greater urban region. Most of my friends and neighbours on Texada travel to Vancouver, the “Big Island” or beyond far more frequently than I, yet are no less content with life on our own island. Some needs simply cannot be met here in paradise, so we go where we must.

City and rural interdependence has a long history in British Columbia and elsewhere around the world, thus my observation above is nothing new. As we enter a new year and decade it’s also no secret that major economic, political and environmental uncertainties abound, tempering our New Year celebrations with a bit of wariness. And that is what feels “new” to me — a growing awareness that we rural people should take nothing for granted, including, perhaps, affordable access to first-class medical and dental specialists in a relatively close big city.

I’m all for strengthening local self-reliance in our rural communities, but I wonder if we should simultaneously focus more carefully on our relationship with urban neighbours. Rural and city people might both lead healthier, happier lives by consciously developing mutual support networks for coping with the potentially unpleasant uncertainties ahead. Now there’s some good food for thought, and a future post. In the meantime, “Happy New Year!”

A politician listens to Texadans’ concerns

By Tom Read

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You’ve heard of centralized vs. decentralized government? Well, perhaps it’s time to consider “inverted” government! In this governance model, the grass roots (that’s us) resides on top, using direct local democracy to make most of the decisions that affect our lives, while the provincial legislature and its bureaucrats are shrunk and limited in scope to a few concerns best shared across a wider geographic area. This is one possible context for a future Commonwealth of Texada Island.*

Nicolas Simons, provincial Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for the Sunshine Coast, including Texada Island, toured our island today, meeting with various groups of locals to hear what’s on their minds. I attended one such listening session, and here’s my paraphrasing of what some islanders had to say, in no particular order:

  • Why did the Ministry of Forests (MoF) spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on fixing up the road to Cook Bay, which very few local people use, especially when MoF neglects maintenance on roads that local residents depend on every day?
  • Our island’s local improvement districts are being deliberately prevented from receiving matching grants for upgrading our water systems. The province seems to feel that regional districts will take over our improvement districts, but the RD isn’t interested unless we first spend lots of money upgrading our water systems. That’s a classic “catch-22,” and it’s extremely frustrating!
  • Texada’s local businesses could greatly benefit from a direct ferry run between Blubber Bay and Little River (on Vancouver Island near Courtenay/Comox). Of course, that might also result in losing our locally-based ferry crew, so it’s a trade-off that would need to be considered very carefully.
  • Much opposition exists to “jackboot legislation” by the provincial government, which is trying to take away our civil right to freedom of speech by prohibiting placement of certain signs on private property.
  • Why weren’t we consulted about the HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) before it became law? Our cost of living is high enough already!
  • The provincial meat regulations that make it illegal for me to sell a chicken to my neighbor need to be changed so that “farm gate” meat sales are specifically condoned so long as basic common-sense standards are met. In trying to apply large-scale meat processing laws to all areas, the provincial government is forcing people in small rural communities to stop selling and buying locally produced meat or to do so illegally.
  • Why is it that if I get my water from a well, and then add a second structure on my property that also gets water from that same well, I’m now considered by the provincial government to be a formal “community water system” that must comply with the same regulations as would apply to water systems that serve hundreds of people?
  • We’ve seen a steady loss of local jobs in forestry and mining over the last few years, so we’d like to know what’s the hold-up on provincial approval of Lehigh’s proposed new quarry for Davie Bay?
  • We supposedly live in a democracy, but our system of government looks a lot more like a “partyocracy,” where decisions are made solely by a few members of the cabinet of whatever party happens to be in power. Might it not work better to see this reversed, so that the power to make decisions is strongest at the local level, and weakest at the provincial and federal levels. That would be real democracy.

Nicolas and his assistant, Maggie Hathaway, listened and both took notes. He says that he’ll get back to us with some answers. He also mentioned that he’s in the process of setting up a constituency newsletter/website/blog.  Nicolas’ party is not in power, but he keeps trying to keep the pressure on those who do make the decisions. No wonder so many of us feel distant from our “senior levels of government” (i.e. provincial and federal). As always, however, I’m sure that Texadans will find a way to carry on, regardless of what the politicos in Victoria decide for us.

* Commonwealth of Texada Island.

The challenges of a 50-mile diet

By David Parkinson

Seeds of the red orach, one of the surprise hits of the Edible Garden Tour

Seeds of red orach, one of the surprise hits of our garden during the Edible Garden Tour

We learn from our gardens to deal with the most urgent question of the time: How much is enough?
(Wendell Berry)

We’re just about halfway through the 50 days of this year’s 50-mile eat-local challenge, which goes from Sunday August 9 until Sunday September 27. On August 9 we held the first ever Edible Garden Tour, which showcased thirteen gardens from Lund down to Lang Bay where people are using a variety of techniques to grow food in a variety of conditions. From backyard lasagna gardening experiments to a demonstration garden and a community garden, and with all kinds of gardens in between, it was a really good opportunity for gardeners and would-be gardeners to see how other people are tackling the eat-local challenge by eating as locally as possible.

This is the third year that I’ve been involved in organizing the eat-local challenge; in fact, the famous ’50-mile diet’ was one of the first things I knew about Powell River before I moved up here in late 2006. And one thing I’ve noticed is that there are far more people eating locally than you might know from the number of people who sign up. In fact, quite a lot of people, when asked if they want to sign themselves up for the eat-local challenge, say something along the lines of, “But I eat locally all the time!” I’m sure that many people out there reading this can understand that response, since the idea of eating locally is really a part of the culture here, at least for a significant chunk of the regional population who have homesteading in their personal or their family’s history — or for those like me who moved here with the intent of getting closer to the sources of our food.

Another theme which has really jumped out at me this year is the number of people who feel that the eat-local challenge needs to be kicked up a notch. After all, just about anyone can go 50 days in the height of summer eating something like half of their daily food from sources within 50 miles of where they live; this is not entirely without some challenges and a certain amount of effort, but it can be done and it’s not a terrible hardship. But just try doing it in the winter! In the summertime, you can go to the Open Air Market, to numerous farmgates, and you can find local food at the fruit truck and at some of the grocery stores. In the winter, though, if you haven’t taken steps to put food by, you’re going to have a hard time finding local produce at any price. The upshot is that a wintertime eat-local challenge has to start in the summertime, while fresh food is abundant and while there’s time to plan and plant a winter garden. Of course, many people are busy right now canning, freezing, drying, and pickling, which are age-old techniques for preserving the harvest for leaner times. But if we were serious about eating local food year round, we’d all have to be doing this, and in serious quantities. Instead, we rely on the grocery stores to get us through the winter.

And this doesn’t even touch on all the foods that we don’t grow here, or grow in such small quantities that it barely counts:

  • Meat, dairy, poultry: I’m putting these at the top of the list, because — although we can obviously produce them here and in pretty serious quantities if need be — the government in its wisdom has seen fit to clamp down on small-scale production of animal products. This situation is still unresolved, and constitutes on of the most serious obstacles to a local food economy. What are we supposed to be doing about this situation? Will the grocery stores always supply our needs?
  • Grains: Imagine the amount of wheat, corn, oats, and other grains consumed here every day. Should we even be trying to grow these here? Many people are interested, and I am seeing some interest in a local grain CSA. Is it feasible? Can we produce these grains at anything like a reasonable cost?
  • Beans: A similar situation, except that beans are pretty easy to grow here. Although the amounts required are enormous. How can we approach the sort of commercial scale required to make a real farming enterprise out of this? Again, can it ever be economically realistic to do so?
  • Oils: Sunflowers certainly grow well here, and of course animals can provide oils for some uses. But again, imagine the amount of production needed to supply the needs of the region. How did people handle this in the days before importation of almost all food? I’m guessing that lard and other animal fats were pretty much a staple.
  • Spices, tropical/sub-tropical fruits & cocoa, coffee, etc.: There are some foods that we cannot grow here. That’s always been the case and always will be. We can try to find substitutes, or we can accept that no region can ever be completely self-reliant.

When you take a look at a list like this, imagine the amount of food passing through the tills of the grocery stores in the region, and then contrast that with the puny amounts of food produced locally, it’s enough to make your head spin. Are we even producing 1% of our local consumption? I’m not sure it adds up to even that minuscule percentage. But just because the task ahead of us looks Herculean, that’s no reason not to tackle it. The question you have to ask yourself is: why should we care? Why not continue to rely on the amazing global food industry, which brings us food from around the world at all times of the year?

What motivates the people who commit to eating locally, whether for 50 days at the height of the summer or all year round? I believe that for many of the people who make a commitment to local food, it’s worth growing, preserving, and hunting down local food for many reasons. But not the least of these reasons is the pure satisfaction — which is at heart an aesthetic pleasure — of connecting in the most primeval way possible with our surroundings. A strawberry from the garden certainly tastes more delicious than a strawberry from the grocery store, protected during its world travels by a pathetic plastic clamshell. But the strawberry also tastes better, and pleases us on a deeper level, because it is the fruit of our very own soil. It is as much a part of the place we live in and care for as we are. There is something genuinely spiritual about this connection to our food, and sadly this is a connection that many people have lost or have never had. The fight to save local food (and it is a fight, make no mistake) comes from the desire to save something whose passing from the world can never be replaced: the wonder of bringing our food into being, caring for it, harvesting it and preserving it, and creating meals that sustain our bodies and our spirits. The cultural importance of these activities is huge, but like so many things in our world, they get swamped in discussions of economics and efficiency.

Eating locally is an act of cultural preservation. And I think that most of the people who are drawn to the eat-local challenge understand this on some level, even if they’re not easily able to express it. And that’s why it is not going to stop growing, getting a little bigger and more visible each year. It’s a long game, but we have nothing to lose but the best food in the world.

Seed-saving adventures

By Tom Read

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

My apologies for this focus-challenged photo I took today. We'll soon be awash in carrot seeds, even if they're a bit blurry at the moment.

Texada Island is a good place to grow carrots, once you dig the rocks out of your garden and if you’ve got enough good seeds. Given the converging economic, energy and environmental uncertainties besetting the world today, we do not take for granted our access to good vegetable seeds. So, last summer we grew a Nantes open-pollinated carrot variety from West Coast Seeds. One difference between carrots and some other vegetables is that you have to let carrots continue into their second year of life to harvest seeds. Thus, we over-wintered the best carrot plants from our 2008 garden in hope of saving seeds this year.

Meanwhile, our friend Fred gave us about 30 scarlet runner beans last fall after I made admiring noises about their colourful long seed pods in his garden in Van Anda.  After decades of saving these runner bean seeds, Fred has noticed a gradual darkening in their colour.  Before planting, I soaked all the seeds overnight in a bowl of tepid water, then the next morning I set aside for planting only the seeds that had sunk to the bottom of the bowl. I had read somewhere that if a seed floats, then it’s not as vigorous as one that sinks. This may be a mistake in regard to scarlet runner beans, but I’ve soaked other types of bean seeds before planting, with good results.

I’m no expert in plant genetics, but of the 30 scarlet runner beans I planted (some more black than brownish-red), only about half germinated, which seemed a bit low compared to the store-bought pole bean seeds we planted about two weeks earlier elsewhere in our garden.  The store-bought seeds showed an 80% germination rate and are already six feet high, while the scarlet runners are barely above knee level, so far. This is probably a result of sun exposure and weather differences in the different garden locations, and each variety’s planting time requirements. I should have tried some side-by-side same-time planting for a truer comparison. Maybe the scarlet runners will catch up by September.

My point is not that Fred’s generously donated scarlet runners are somehow deficient.  The point is that I haven’t learned how to run valid plant genetics experiments in our garden. This matters because if we don’t learn how to keep our own food plant seeds viable generation after generation, we will remain dependent on an increasingly tenuous seed supply from a shrinking number of reliable seed companies.

We’re not alone in thinking about this issue. The Powell River Farmer’s Institute co-sponsored a 2009 seed-saving venture, which was promoted on Texada by PR farmer Wendy Devlin. Last winter, Wendy visited the Texada Garden Club and handed out seed packets for several types of garden vegetables to anyone interesting in seed-saving. I took 15 Styrian pumpkin seeds provided by a volunteer in the Powell River region, which we have since grown into six rather happy pumpkin plants.  They’re perched on well-fertilized hills containing rotted chicken manure and seaweed, about five feet apart.  Growing like crazy in the mid-July heat! We’ll have Styrian pumpkin seeds to share come October, if all goes well.

But our attempt to grow pumpkins in 2008 utterly failed due to several obvious-in-hindsight errors which could have been avoided by doing more research or having guidance from an expert. Confirmed optimists like myself call that a “learning experience.”  This year we’ll make different mistakes, no doubt. I believe that you can’t truly garden successfully just from reading about it on the Internet or in gardening books; experience counts, especially hard-won experience.

Which brings me to another, somewhat sobering thought in closing.  After several years of gardening, Linda and I are still really novices. We get some pretty good crops every year, but we make lots of mistakes, too. What will happen when the global price of oil takes another sharp turn upwards, making store-bought food a lot more expensive, so that people with even less experience than us must try to grow their own? Yes, we can help each other, but that will amount to novices leading other novices. That, and sustaining vigorous seed genetics, gives us something to ponder as we continue our adventures in seed-saving.

Fifty miles, fifty days, fifty percent (or more)

By David Parkinson

It's the time of year when the autumn-planted garlic sends up delicious scapes, and soon the bulbs will be ready to harvest.

It's the time of year when the autumn-planted garlic sends up delicious scapes, and soon the bulbs will be ready to harvest. (Photo taken well within fifty feet of my kitchen.)

This year, we will be celebrating the fourth annual Powell River eat-local challenge, also known as the “50-mile diet”. This event is our very own regional spin on the 100-mile diet, which started out with two Vancouverites named Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon, who decided to try to spend an entire year eating only food from within 100 miles of where they lived.

Alisa and J.B.’s main reason for carrying out this experiment was to learn about the ins and outs of eating from sources as close to home as possible. And they certainly learned a lot, experienced some real difficulties and challenges, and in the end wrote a book about the whole thing. In this day and age of increasing sensitivity to the ‘carbon footprint’ of food, one way we can control the fossil fuel consumption of the food we eat is by eating food which is produced close to us. And the idea of spending a period of time devoted to eating local food is catching on in all kinds of places.

Meanwhile, as those two were just getting going on their year of eating locally, Lyn Adamson, the Program Director at Career Link in Powell River, caught onto the idea and decided to start a similar project up here. But, this being Powell River, she had to go and change the formula: since the extra 50 miles doesn’t really get us much more food production, we limit the radius of the foodshed to 50 miles (80 km, more or less). This takes in the entire Upper and Lower Sunshine Coasts, much of the east coast of Vancouver Island from Campbell River down to Nanaimo and inland to about halfway across the island at its furthest point.

The idea is simple: anyone who wants to participate is welcome to do so at their chosen level of participation. The usual ‘entry level’ is 50%, meaning that you will attempt to get half of the food you eat from sources within 50 miles of where you live. Some participants go for 75%, some for 95%, and the real hardcore cases might go for 100%, although that level of commitment is not for the faint of heart. Like most diets, it works better if you can convince the other people in your household to go along with it — no one wants to be eating local potatoes and kale while surrounded by others eating Chilean grapes, Thai mangosteens, and Turkish taffy. That’s just not fair.

The period of the eat-local challenge has traditionally been six weeks, but this year we have decided to step it up a little bit in the interest of getting the numbers to line up. So we’re proposing a 50-day stretch to go with the 50 miles. Right now it looks as though the challenge will begin on Saturday August 9, 2009 and will end on Sunday September 27, 2009, which is the second day of Powell River’s annual Fall Fair.

What do participants get from being part of the eat-local challenge? First of all, they get a sense of how difficult it is to eat even half of our daily intake from nearby farms and gardens. In the summertime, this region produces a considerable amount of vegetables and fruit, but very small amounts of grains, legumes, meat, poultry, dairy products, oils, sweeteners, and other components of a balanced diet. Even getting your hands on local produce is not always simple: some of our grocery stores might carry produce from this region or from within the 50-mile radius on Vancouver Island. You’ll have to get good at asking questions and snooping around. The best place to buy really local food is directly from a farmer or at one of the markets in the region (the Open Air Market just outside of the City of Powell River, or the Texada Farmers’ Market).

Even if you do have good access to one of these markets or to a local farmer’s farm-gate, of course there are many necessities you will have to do without. There is no significant grain production within the 50-mile radius, and that means no bread and no pasta (and no cake! unless it’s potato cake). People talk about the Three Killer C’s: coffee, citrus, and chocolate. Citrus we might just about get away with— I have heard tell that some locals are getting lemon or lime trees to grow in a greenhouse, but if they are you can be sure they’re hoarding the fruit. And no way are we about to have any cacao or coffee plants growing here anytime soon. So either you go without or they fall into the percentage of your intake that can be non-local.

Here’s a good experiment: take a look in your fridge and cupboards and ask yourself for each item you see there:

  • Is this from within 50 miles of here?
  • If not, could it be produced within 50 miles of here?
  • If it could be, is it being produced in sufficient quantities that it could supply the needs of the local population?
  • If not, why not?

These are questions which anyone who has participated in the eat-local challenge has to ask themselves repeatedly for 50 days (and nights). Doing this is an amazingly powerful consciousness-raising tool: once you have examined where all your food comes from, you will have more respect for our local food producers. Quite possibly you will feel a new desire to grow some of your own food, or — if you are growing food already — a commitment to producing more food next year.

In my work as coordinator of some of the local food security efforts, I have talked about the 50-mile challenge with many people in this community and elsewhere. Sometimes people who are aware of the challenges of eating locally will disparage eat-local challenges because, as they say, we already know that we don’t produce enough food locally for everyone’s needs, so why go through this big exercise every year to prove the same point over and over? I think the best answer is: because the eat-local challenge is about more than just proving something which could as easily be expressed in the form of a chart. It’s about:

  • educating individuals about where their food comes from;
  • bringing families and households together in a common project;
  • getting the community thinking and talking about its food production, present and future;
  • creating positive connections in the community among food producers and food consumers, and among people sharing ideas, recipes, and (above all) food;
  • demonstrating to ourselves and to our politicians that there is public interest in eating more local food.

This year I will be part of a team of eager organizers. If you would like to get involved with the fourth annual eat-local challenge, please contact me. We are hoping to kick things off this year with a tour of local productive food gardens, in the hopes that that might inspire people to start growing more food. We have all kinds of ideas about involving local restaurants and grocery stores. We would like to have lots of information going around the community about where the eat-local challengers can find food: weekly emails, blog posts, possibly even a podcast! Potlucks and other opportunities to get together and compare notes and progress. T-shirts. Local art from local artists. Maybe some kind of a celebration at the end, with prizes and a final local food banquet.

We’re blogging! We’re on Facebook! We’re on Twitter! The sky’s the limit, so if you would like to help us celebrate local food and the joys of the relocalized palate, we can use your help. There will be a potluck and brainstorming meeting this Wednesday, June 10, at 5:00 PM at the Community Resource Centre in Powell River (4752 Joyce Ave., just south of Alberni St.).

And if you simply would like to participate, you can sign up here. Once you’re on our email list, stay tuned for updates and information as we get closer to the challenge. Tell your friends, tell your family, tell the neighbours! Let’s make this year’s eat-local challenge the biggest and best yet!


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