I suppose it was inevitable that I’d come away from our weekend in the Brecon Beacons with the thought of cooperatives on my mind – after all we came across three such ventures in a village with less than 100 inhabitants. There was a community woodland, a community allotment, a community council – oh and the orchards preserving and promoting local apple varieties.
Yes, of course, they’re sometimes a complete pain in the backside to participate in. It’s almost impossible to recruit active members, there are always members who think that cooperatives exist to implement their particular vision without regard to anyone else’s wishes, there are those who memorise the articles of association down to the last comma and then use them to prevent any decisions ever being made. You have to cope with both perfectionists and, at the other end of the scale, members who never actually complete a task. But you’d have to deal with these minor irritations in any workplace and none of them are a valid argument against cooperatives per se. We’ve helped set up three over the years, and lived in a couple of communes. My mum was a dedicated Coop member, so I think I’m pretty well qualified to write about them.
Think of it this way. Imagine three or four farmers, each isolated on their own farms but personally dedicated to reintroducing once ubiquitous local grains that have been rendered virtually extinct by agribusiness and chemical dependent hybrids. If they never meet or talk to one another there’s a danger that vital work is triplicated and vital insights are never passed on. But if they cooperate, the work takes off much faster, and if they incorporate as a legal entity they can raise money, enlist supporters and invite other farmers to join them in their quest to revive these vital “Landrace” varieties – that’s to say varieties uniquely suited to the specifics of climate and soil that characterise one localized environment; and voila meet Welsh Black Oats!
The same goes for the apple varieties we saw at the weekend. The apple is a promiscuous hybridiser and probably 99% of hybrids are pretty rubbish, but the 1% may well make it possible to grow apples at 900 feet – I’ve seen them – or in salt laden air, and I’ve seen them too. Many cider apple varieties – aside from having marvellous names like “slack ma girdle” and “Chesil Jersey” each add irreplaceable flavour notes like leather (marvellous) , creosote (don’t ask) or petrol (ditto). Of course you can grow Golden Delicious – apples for people that don’t like apples – or Cox’s Orange Pippin which are so disease prone they need spraying twenty something times to keep them looking good for the supermarket. This cornucopia of varieties and flavours as well as uses would have remained a secret known only to a few farmers and died out altogether as the orchards were grubbed out under EC regulations decades ago, but they began to cooperate and share their centuries of expertise and bring (for instance) craft cider back from the grave.
Ask yourself – who does it suit to kill off all these traditional varieties? You already know the answer. As ever it’s the agribusiness suits who want to sell their overpriced and chemically addicted saplings and seeds. Fighting for changes in the regulations is a losing battle. Allotmenteers will remember when some Ministry clown wanted to ban many traditional varieties of potato like the King Edward. The only way is to organise and cooperate and never accept the high price of collaboration with the giants who, even now, are buying up landrace seeds in the developing world in order to create hybrids that will force farmers into penurious contracts with the seed merchants, artificial fertiliser producers and chemical giants, who are often part of the same conglomerate, behaving like mafia thugs, exacting protection money from the poorest producers.
Think of cooperation as a kind of underground guerilla movement that’s almost impossible to silence or to shut down. Not only are they effective ways of keeping traditional varieties alive – and this will become a matter of life and death as the climate catastrophe stalks up on us – but they are also powerful ways of building up local communities and teaching the skills that will become ever more important as the money runs out. Even a few days in Mid Wales will teach you that what keeps these threatened farms alive on their marginal land, is a rich complex of history, experience and the obligations that flow from generations of mutual help and trust. And yes – before anyone reminds me – these are precisely the communities that are being crushed between government neglect and housing shortages caused by second homers. But even these challenges could be addressed by self-build housing cooperatives run by local people with the stamina to fight the nimbys, working hand in hand with local landowners and local councils, and – though it won’t be popular to say it – many of the most significant full-time incomers only predominate on community councils and cooperative projects because the locals can’t or won’t join in.
The biggest enemy of change is apathy and defeatism, especially when they’re combined with the six words that always foretell collapse – we always do it this way. Let’s do it different!