Is our localism too artisinal?

IMG044I recently reviewed Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener (summary: Excellent. Buy it) and was reminded of a philosophical and yet very practical farming question I asked him over beer.

“Since the economy is contracting, and for many reasons we believe the trend will be a general worsening of quality of life, what is your succession plan—what will you do when people can no longer pay for gourmet baby lettuce mix or pints of berries for $6.50?”

Jean-Martin did not have an answer to this question. I also talked a lot about Eliot Coleman in that review, and I don’t recall him answering this question either.

Both men are very intelligent and well-educated. Both men have looked at many factors: industrial agriculture is extractive, and so by definition is unsustainable; climate change; the depletion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. They have, correctly I think, argued that human-powered, small-scale farming is a good response.

Both men have also plotted a course for profitability—they are farming for all the right reasons, but they aren’t going to give the food away. And, they want to show other would-be farmer’s that we can reverse the trend of retirements, foreclosures, auctions and consolidation that has been ongoing for decades.1

Fortier also struck me as—ahem—a bit of a doomer. Which is to say I think he has drawn the logical conclusions from the evidence at hand.

And so I was surprised when he didn’t have an answer for my question.2

 

I think it is great that so many people are living a more local life. I love the joy of a local economy—I write this with my belly full of local and homemade food, wearing a hoodie made in Vancouver by my friends at Cima Coppi, and wearing Dayton Boots, which were manufactured maybe ten blocks from the hoodie. I find meaning and joy in these relationships. Just pulling on my boots gives me a tiny pleasure every single time—thousands of times over many years.

But most of us localists are still parasites on globalization—we need the fantasy of ever-inflating real estate to fuel renovation and construction, to fill government coffers with tax revenue to be spent on teachers and nurses who shop in retail stores and take trips. We need all these rich urbanites to buy our hand-crafted goods and lovingly harvested veggies.

It sure doesn’t take much to stick a pin in the bubble, as we saw in the US housing market in 2008—which spilled over into Canadian retail and caused a lot of damage. Recently Tim Hudak campaigned on slashing 100,000 jobs. How many of those well-paid government workers shop at the farmer’s market or buy veggies through a CSA?

So I worry. Localism has a large component of seven dollar loaves of bread, ten dollar pints of ice cream, four dollar tomatoes—and stratospheric prices as soon as you start talking about clothing or shoes.3 How resilient is this localism? How much change can these businesses withstand?

I don’t think these things are very resilient at all. During the Great Depression, there was a surplus of goods and services because people didn’t have enough cash. With the amount of  personal debt we are piling up, people don’t have a lot of slack in their discretionary spending—consumer spending is brittle, susceptible to small perturbations in interest rates, resource prices or the new normal extreme weather events. Regardless of the “value” of goods, if  people do not have disposable income, goods will sit on the shelves.

I don’t have any answers to this—other than I think shoe repair has a great future.

I do see a pattern, though I can’t give it a name. Those of us in the emerging alternative economy—organic gardening, Eastern Medecine, yoga, gourmet kimchi, Reiki, herbalism, coaching, soap-making, organic make-up—you get the picture; we seem to think we should do what we love, and be able to buy a house and a car like everybody else.

We think doing what we love should pay us just as handsomely as doing what we hate.

That is backwards.  You should be paid well for doing what you hate—because otherwise you wouldn’t do it. The most mind-numbing and least demanding jobs should pay the most. There is an enormous Boredom and Repetition Premium owed to factory workers.

So I don’t know. Localism has activated a lot of love-based work. But I think, when money is tight, people will be pretty quick to switch to two-dollar loaves of bread from the supermarket. Filling day-to-day needs at day-to-day prices seems like a largely untouched market—and when I say needs, I really mean needs, not fancies, or desires, or penchants, or whims. Needs.

Obviously this is a problem. If you want to be a small, local, non-artisinal baker making normal loaves of bread for the supermarket, you are competing with the megacorps that put the local bakers out of business4 in the first place. How do we balance between differentiating ourselves against the megacorps and becoming instantly irrelevant in a financial contraction?

Looking at the challenges of artisinal bakeries vs. local bakeries vs. megacorp bakeries does not even begin to deal with the challenges brought by low-wage, low-rights manufacturers. It is cheaper to send fish caught in Canada to China to be deboned and sent back to Canada. 68% of garlic consumed in Canada is grown in China—despite the fact that some Chinese farmers won’t eat their own vegetables thanks to the industrial pollution.

It is incredibly difficult to compete on commodities with globalized labour—but that still doesn’t make us any more resilient, so at the very least we should have a plan. When do you abandon the artisanal? Can you shift to lower-paying but higher-importance goods, or are you just going to stay with the sinking ship?

As I said, I don’t have any answers to this, but a couple of thoughts come to mind:

Dmitry Orlov writes about how, in the collapse of the Soviet Union, many people had very large gardens on the edge of town that were very important to feed the family. The focus was not on producing for sale, it was on subsistence and augmentation.

Similarly, in 1933 Ralph Borsodi, wrote Flight From the City,5 the story of how, in 1920, his family moved to a small farm close to New York City. He explicitly cautioned against trying to make money from your land, and instead taught that we should produce for ourselves in order to avoid spending money. They even wove their own fabric and sewed their own clothes. This is Jane Jacobs’ Import Replacement on a family scale.

Now, all of this self-provender does not pay the rent; you still need to work for dollar bills. But it does short-circuit what Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen called,

…“the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on ad infinitum.

So, I think if relocalization is truly going to be a force for sustainability, we need to be able to provide for daily sustenance instead of opening pop-up shaving machine boutiques. Sure, a new doggie-biscuit bakery keeps dollars revolving in our local economy, but when the economy hits a rough patch, it will be gone—out of business. But the megacorp selling two-dollar loaves of bread will still be vacuuming dollars out of our community, day in and day out, year after year.

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the-garden-1024x682The first piece of swag to come out of writing this blog hit my mailbox this spring, when I was asked to review Jean-Martin Fortier’s book The Market Gardener. Sadly, they did not also send me a broadfork.

Carmen and I were also able to enjoy a one-day workshop with Jean-Martin, put on by the Young Agrarians as part of the Rockstar Farmer Tour—and we even drank a beer with him afterwards. So, I got the inside scoop for you.

In short, if you have dreams of serious gardening or small farming, buy this book. Beyond that, the big question for me was why would I buy this over the Coleman classic, The New Organic Grower? I think you should buy both, but I think you should read Jean-Martin first.

I will go into more detail, but Jean-Martin makes starting a profitable small farm (grossing over $100,000 from 1.5 acres) seem possible. I could identify with him in a way I can’t with the Grand Old Silverback Coleman; Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène are young; they didn’t start with a lot of money; they live in Quebec, which is noted for winter; they have chosen a farming system based on hand tools to avoid the expense of tractors.

To explain why I think you should have The Market Gardener near to hand, I need to talk about Eliot Coleman, the Guru of modern smallholdings. Fortier is an admirer and student of Coleman, the two of them have gone on speaking tours together—their philosophies are very complementary. Coleman is a researcher, an inventor and a philosopher. He tells you what he knows, what he thinks and what he doesn’t know. He does not skimp on detail—his books are thick and packed with information.

And for me, trying to garden a few urban plots and imagine a more agrarian future, Coleman is overwhelming. There is so much detail I drown. Coleman also uses a folksy illustration style I find obscures the information—this really stands out, for example, in his discussion of crop rotation.

IMG_0872-1024x768Jean-Martin has cut to the chase and tried to produce a handbook, a plan for the new small farmer to follow. He is more detailed about budgets and costs, and yet presents topics like crop rotation in a more simple way—a way I was able to apply in my own garden this year.

Fortier, like Coleman, is very aggressive about weeding out inefficiency—even if a little Coleman goes with it. The New Organic Gardener strongly promotes soil blocks. Fortier says, in his charming French way, that soil blocks are too much work, and they get perfectly good results with standard seedling cell trays.

Coleman is great—he is much more detailed on soil amendments. He also includes more history and philosophy. Coleman is a popularizer of winter gardening—whereas the Fortier family simply plans to take time off in the winter and go to sunny places.

It is comforting to me to have Jean-Martin demonstrate successful and profitable farming with different methods than Coleman. It makes me feel like any small variance on my path might not necessarily result in a disastrous garden failure. Fortier proves what Coleman advocates—observe, experiment, and do what works for you.

So I think you should buy both books, but I would by Fortier’s first. Coleman’s The New Organic Gardener is excellent to read by your winter fire, when you have time for reflection, or feel you have incorporated enough you want to raise your game.

Jean-Martin Fortier’s The Market Gardener is the book to have at your hand, on the table while you eat lunch, on your bedside table for the few minutes before sleep. This is a direct, clear, guide for day-to-day operations of your small farm.

 

 

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Photo by mia!

Photo by mia!

One of my comfort foods is whole-wheat macaroni with vegetables. Since I am a lazy cook and reluctant dishwasher I have always just grated cheese and sprinkled it on top of the noodles then stirred it into a clumpy and unevenly distributed mess.

I have only made a cheese sauce twice before, and both times were after being roundly mocked by loved ones for my brutish standard of living.

But if there is one thing the Small and Delicious Life is about, it is enjoying the making of life as much as the consumption. So last night I made a cheese sauce. It was delightful and fun to make—truly 400% better than my bestial and unevenly melted grated cheese. Furthermore, there seem to be alchemical reactions between butter and milk and a shake of flour—this has all the makings of a lovely internet wormhole.

As is my modus operandi, I googled and opened a bunch of browser tabs on how to make a cheese sauce, and one of those posts caused me to lose my mind.

When will it stop? When will this whole bloated shit-show just implode from the weight of our idiocy? You see, when you buy pre-grated cheese, it is covered with anti-clumping and anti-fungal agents.

Of course it is. As anybody who has grated a nice cheddar knows, it will clump like crazy. And so, in order to have the convenience of not having to bend your arm at the elbow, Industrial Products Inc. must lacquer each shred of cheese with cellulose—wood flour—and various other Better Living Through Chemistry Gross Domestic Product Enhancers. Hey, here is an idea—want to prevent your cheese from clumping? Simply grate it fresh from the Mother Clump—the bloody block it was made in.

I am sputtering with anger as I try to write this, and struggling to keep the profanity to a minimum in case my lovely old grandmother wanders onto this webpage. But what the hell?

I just want some cheese. I like it on my toast, I like it on pizza, I like it in sandwiches, I like it on pasta, and I like it on crackers. I am a man that is very happy with bread and cheese—I love both bread and cheese. I really like cheese.

What I do not want is anti-fungal chemicals that are used to manage the stupidity of pre-grated cheese.

This is really about surface area. A block of cheese does not have very much surface area. If a little mould gets started, you just cut it off and eat the rest. But when you increase the surface area an order of magnitude by grating it in a giant factory, then you put it in sealed plastic bags, drop them in a box and ship them around the continent—well, you can see how mould will grow.

Of course, since you have just carefully powdered each and every shred of your stupid pre-grated cheese, the last thing you want to do it mash it down again. And so each bag has lots of air in it, and each box has to be big enough to hold all those bags of air around all that fluffed up cheese. And so now we are wasting fuel, cardboard and plastic, all so we can eat some anti-fungals and wood flour on our fucking nachos.

 

Man. I am sorry Grandma. I lost it there. Still, it is not like you don’t know I am from the sweary side of the family—I do keep a lid on it when we visit. Love you!

 

How did I come across all this? Because there were several warnings that pre-grated cheese does not make good cheese sauce—you can’t cook with it properly. Small surprise really since it is no longer cheese, it is some sort of monstrous cheesewood. Perhaps you can panel your rec room.

Hey, just for kicks, why don’t you google ‘listeria grated cheese’? That’s right—if you want to get sick there is no better way than industrial ‘food’. Factory widgets for dinner—what could go wrong?

So. This is the world we have built—a world in which it makes sense to industrially grate cheese at a greatly increased risk of sickness, coat it with poisons and wood dust, bag it and box it and ship at great fuel cost, in order to use it only in a smaller range of ‘foods’.

And that is all I have to say about that.

 

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In the calmness of bees.

Bee bombWe have honeybees flying in our backyard again, and they have brought our family a noticeable sense of comfort.

Our bees died last fall. Likely it was the varroa destructor mite, archvillain of many news stories. Carmen has noticed our bees die before we move, and she thinks this is no coincidence. I hate moving too.

So yesterday I picked up a new package of bees from an apiary just a few miles up-island from us. A ‘package’ is the most common way to buy bees. It is a mesh-walled box full of adult bees and a mated queen in her own little mesh cage. Packages are often sold by the pound–this one ended up being over three pounds of bees, so probably over 10,000 bees. The queen is in her own little cage because she is not necessarily these bees’ queen, so they might kill her as an usurper. Keeping her in the cage for a few days allows her Queen Pheromone to spread through the colony and bend them all to her service.

Actually, they bend more to the service of the continued spread of the colony. You can easily introduce a new queen, so obviously they are not loyal to genes. The reproductive strategy of bees is to grow large hives and then send off swarms to colonize distant hollow trees or other nooks, and as long as they are doing that, they are happy.

I realized as I was driving back with this package that it was almost exactly four years ago that I picked up my first package of bees. In fact, as I drove away from my weekend bee workshop I was listening to the 2010 olympic gold medal hockey game as the winning goal was scored.

Four years with the bees. My first package came out of Chile, shortly after their devastating earthquake. Apparently only three packages from that entire shipment made it to Vancouver alive. Who knows how long they sat, under what conditions, as Chile struggled to rescue people. Needless to say, that colony did not last long. The next succumbed to a wasp invasion. Then we were beeless, as we knew we were moving to Victoria, which until recently has had a moratorium against off-island bees.

The next bees to join us were a huge swarm. My phone rang as Carmen and I were raising cocktails before our third-anniversary dinner, and I was off, with my red jumpsuit (bad)6 and my straw cowboy hat with a cheap veil (bad). But when I got to the swarm, burled on a suburban branch, I stood underneath it and felt the soothing hum of the bees wash over me. This is a strange thing. Bees buzz, and buzzing is often scary. Bees are also insects, and so are incomprehensible to humans. But I find the sound of the bees to be very soothing,7 very calming, and my family has grown the feel the same way.

That colony was strong, and gave a couple of good splits. I thought we had a good thing going as they drew white wax and raised their own queens. But then they died last fall, a blessing only in that I didn’t have to move a large colony of bees, which is always stressful. So, this year I went looking for bees again. I prefer local, in the hopes of finding bees acclimated to our region, as opposed to the packages from Chile or New Zealand. There is a queen breeder who has been part of government study in breeding hygienic behaviour in response to the varroa mite, so maybe I will buy one of his queens later.

But I brought home the package last night—absolutely stuffed with bees—and shook them onto frames of good, drawn wax, even a little honey from last year. I tucked them in and wished them a good night. And this morning, as we unlocked our bikes for the ride to school, we all commented on how good it felt to live with bees again.

We joke about our 50,000 head of livestock, the language is all about “keeping” bees. But, as J.B. McKinnon might have lyrically said in The Once and Future World, the bees have rewilded us, even if only in the smallest of ways. We feel better for sharing our lives with these tiny, incomprehensible creatures, and it is wonderful to have them back.

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Language shapes our thoughts? Who cares?

Despite being regular humans with the same eyeballs as the rest of us, did you know that if a language has words that finely differentiate shades of blue and green, the speakers of that language are better able to distinguish colours in the blue-green range?

This is just one of the Five examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think, which showed up in my social media courtesy of the TED blog.

This blog seems to show language shapes us. It is interesting, but I think what it implies about behaviour rests on bad assumptions that are closely tied to TED culture, so I would like to bring them into the sunshine.

The centrepiece of the blog is a proposition from behavioural economist Keith Chen, who has analyzed reams of data and found that people who speak a language that separates the future from the present, like English, save less money. People who speak a language that is futureless, like Chinese, save more money.

Chen wrote his own post on the TED blog, where he supplies more detail, gives links to a blog called Language Log, and links to no less than four other people who discuss why they think his conclusions are off-base. He also wrote a guest post on Language Log to expand the conversation. I found all the posts to be concise, interesting, and refreshingly civil and supportive of advancing research. I would encourage you to read them if you like to geek out on this sort of thing.

 

So, the Five Examples show us how language can shape us. But as interesting as this research is, the question isn’t whether people who speak different languages think differently, or even have different skills, or even sometimes behave differently. TED doesn’t put things up just because they are interesting, TED wants to change the world.

I think the implication is if we choose our words carefully, we can change behaviour. If only we share TED’s Ideas Worth Spreading then, at last, everyone would stop being so dumb and do what I want them to do.

The question is can we say something in a way that changes people’s behaviour en masse. We can’t reverse engineer a language, to make English futureless like Chinese. This isn’t about differentiating between shades of blue and green, this is about real-world propositions—can we word something in a way that changes how populations recycle, shop, or drive?

 

The belief—the Myth—of behaviour is that what we think is what we do. If only we could find the right words we could change people’s thoughts. If only we gave people the right information they would act differently. If only we could raise their awareness and make them Wake Up.

Sadly, thinking controls almost none of our behaviour. Most of our behaviour is determined by the physical and social system we are in. How your house is constructed is far more important to your heating bill than your behaviour. How your city is designed impacts how you drive far more than your thoughts about climate chaos.

Now, the system still allows us some choice, but within those parameters our social group makes most of our decisions for us. This isn’t a bad thing. It is pretty obvious we don’t have the time or energy to analyze everything—we need to save our thinking for important things, so we outsource thinking to our social group. This ability to outsource thinking and choice has allowed humanity to accomplish all it has; without it, we wouldn’t even be hunter-gatherers.

When you ignore these facts and focus on language, thoughts, beliefs, and values, you are choosing to continue blaming the victim, not the system. And this is why I disagree with the implications of this post. Sure, language may be able to shape our thoughts. So what? Our thoughts have very little impact on our behaviour.

What has a huge impact is systems. We must build supportive systems, what I call Compassionate Systems, instead of soothing ourselves with the old myths of behaviour.

 

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