On resilience

IMG_4931No prizes for guessing that this was our local Sainsbury’s the day after the snow fell. To be fair it was a combination of equipment failure and panic buying but the same thing happens every time we get a period of severe weather.  The system collapses, people get angry and we realize that there is no slack, no resilience in it at all. I had a quick look on Google and I could see that there were people complaining everywhere – broken by the fact that they’d been forced to buy brown bread instead of white! This kind of event is almost designed into the system. Some time in the 20th century the notion of public good was set aside by the food industry in favour of profit. One kilo of asparagus is flown from Peru at the cost of 8 kilos of carbon released into the atmosphere Our passion for fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits may not (like meat production) be releasing methane into the atmosphere but it’s making up for that with all the other greenhouse gases  involved in transporting it a thousand miles overland, and even if you buy local produce, when the infrastructure collapses because it’s not properly maintained, the milk, the fresh seasonal veg and everything else that needs to be brought to market stays put and sometimes even rots in the ground.

I had a hilarious conversation with someone at the Lost Gardens of Heligan harvest meal last autumn.  He was a Cornishman, and he said he’d asked at the local Tesco if they were selling locally caught fish.  “Oh yes” he was told, “It all comes from Newlyn [about five miles away] but it has to go to the distribution depot first”. This isn’t the fault of the producers, it’s the result of a ‘designed for profit’ but completely sclerotic distribution system, designed in such a way that it has no resilience at all.  There’s nothing in storage,  and we’re only saved from serious disorder by the fact that the events that cause breakdown don’t usually last very long. Yet.

The alarming fact is that we’re not facing a number of separate  problems – climate change, ecological destruction, food security, poverty, migration, social breakdown, artificial intelligence and war.  They’re one big one!

You’d  have to be pretty old to remember this, but some of us may recall the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue back along, as we say in the West Country.  The cover was one of the first pictures taken of  Earth from space, with the slogan “We can’t put it together, it is together” .

Here we are, all looking for ways to save the earth by eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream once a week, when what we really need to be doing is thinking in a different way altogether. When the big man in the shiny suit comes around offering to take the load off us we need to consider his (or her) offer carefully. It comes with strings attached – read the small print!

Lets take a look at the Potwell Inn store cupboard:

Last night was one of the coldest I can remember. Our first floor window ledge went down to -3C. That poses a problem for us because we live in a 1970’s concrete building that grows black mould on the interior walls as soon as it gets cold. Yesterday we tried to go out but the pavements were covered with sheet ice and lethal and in any case the shelves in the shops would probably be stripped bare.  But here in the Potwell Inn – this is what resilience looks like. We have food – not exotic by any means, but plenty.  We have oats and bread flour and I suppose we could even broach the barrel of wine we made in the autum.  We could walk a quarter of a mile to the allotment and pick fresh vegetables, even winter lettuce. We’re not self-sufficient, in fact I think that whole idea is a dangerous myth.  If there’s a way forward out of this mess then it’s not going to happen if we separate from our neighbours, it’s ‘dog eat dog’ economics that has brought us to this place. The way forward will involve more trust, more dependency on neighbours and a lot more generosity of spirit. As the American cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his second Earth Day poster back in 1971 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thinking globally and acting locally is the only way we can make this work. There’s nothing we can ‘pass a law’ about that will work faster or more powerfully than our local choices.

  • Would it be hard work? – yes
  • Would we have to do without some stuff we enjoy? – yes
  • Would it change the way we need to live? – yes
  • Would it be difficult to understand?  See Michael Pollan’s rule – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg”
  • Wouldn’t it be going backwards? – no –  going forwards into a sustainable future rather than one blighted by hardship and starvation.

Is this a nag? Well let’s say this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. But I’m an optimist and there’s a crocus in flower right next to where I’m writing and I’m driven by the thought that we don’t own the earth, we just borrow it from our children and grandchildren.

Snow tomorrow ?

img_4900This is the season where the weather can be all over the place, and today as we walked down to the allotment we noticed the automatic greenhouse vents were open.  It was no more than 5C with a cold north westerly wind blowing and the ground was still frosted, but the sun was intense and a very little 6’X4′ greenhouse can soon heat up even in the winter. If we were on a mission it was mainly to get the three recently finished beds under cover before the snow. They need to warm up ready for the early plantings, but in addition I wanted to clear the way to build the hotbed, the wormery and the last two raised beds, as well as get rid of a few of the really nasty weeds – like bindweed and couch.

img_3596If we do get a substantial fall I’ll need to go up and clear the nets of snow.  In the past we’ve seen very strong steel frames bend under the weight. I received another photo this morning of the rapidly growing pile of very fresh and hopefully very hot horse manure that my friend Annie is saving for us and so I sorted out a dozen empty compost bags so we can transport the manure back in our little car.  Really I’d love a pickup – we had one many years ago and I loved it – but Madame very properly reminds me that you can’t take grandchildren out for the day in the back of a pickup. Warm clothes?  No probably not.

But it doesn’t take long on the allotment before an ethical dilemma creeps in, trolling me at the back of my mind.  We’re aware of all the downsides of bonfires and we compost the overwhelming majority of our household and allotment waste but after 50 years of trying every which way of killing bindweed and couch without chemicals, a very slow bonfire is the only one that’s 100% efficient.  Round here they’re called ‘burnabouts’ or sometimes ‘couch fires’ and the trick is to get a really hot fire burning in the incinerator before adding the matted wet roots. img_4896For the first couple of minutes it kicks off but very quickly it settles down to not much more than a whisp of smoke and steam.  It’s rather like burning charcoal – after a hot start you restrict the access of oxygen and then, with a bit of judicious topping up and maybe some wood chips sprinkled in now and again, it will burn immensely slowly for a week and reduce the weeds to ash that then goes straight on to the compost heap.  I know that some people swear by stacking it up and wrapping it in black plastic, or – even worse – just chucking it on the compost heap and rendering the whole heap a nursery bed for weeds. Sometimes you just have to do the least worst thing you can think of.

We at the Potwell Inn tolerate perfectionists – after all nobody’s perfect – but we resist being nagged into a state of paralysis, and when in doubt we turn to the evidence before we explore our feelings.  So yesterday I was innocently browsing on a farming website to try to find an answer to my question ‘what would happen to British agriculture if we all went vegan?’ and to my immense surprise I discovered the comments section had been infested with trolls who were pouring the most vicious abuse on farmers in general as if they were ‘all the same’.

I’ll pass on any comment about the trolls – they have to live with themselves and that can’t be a lot of fun.  But here’s an interesting fact, a real fact about which it’s completely imposible to get emotional because it is the case. I’ve seen it suggested that if all the farms turned their land over to growing pulses and vegetables we could save the planet from the coming environmental crisis, avoid the ecological crisis which is its twin sibling, and stop climate change in its tracks.

If you take a look at a map of the UK marked up according to the quality and function of its available land, you see immediately that virtually the whole south west, with its high rainfall and warm weather, is mainly suitable for mixed and dairy farming. You couldn’t convert it all to growing pulses even if you wanted to because the land just isn’t suitable. If then you look at all of the hilly land, so that’s most of Wales and Scotland, again however much we need soya and lentils we couldn’t grow it there.  The only land which is perfectly suited to arable crops is (no surprise) the flat fertile land in the south east. So if mixed dairy, sheep and pig farming were to disappear overnight it would barely add more than a few thousand acres to the available arable land, cost tens of thousands of jobs and increase the 40% of our food that we already need to import just at the time when it seems likely that the cost of food will rocket.

I loathe industrialised farming and we try never to buy its products so in no sense do I want to ‘defend’ industrialized extraction of the soil’s fertility and the impoverishment of the environment.

The only way forward is to abandon perfectionism and move forward on whatever fronts we can. Yes we all need to eat less meat if we’re not already eating no meat at all. That’s a good outcome that can only happen if we refuse to demonize people with alternative views.  The future needs to be ‘caught not taught’.  So low intensity mixed organic farming – both rural and urban wherever feasible – with grass fed cattle is worth pursuing over and against intensive pig units and cattle ‘feedlots’. Some will argue that it would put the price of meat beyond the poorest and that’s true so long as we refuse to utterly transform our whole economic system.  Market gardening around the big urban conurbations can save many food miles. Allotments are so productive they can be expanded wherever there’s a space, with all the health and welfare advantages they provide. Most people are not even cooks, let alone chefs, and so we’ll need to introduce a whole new generation to the skills we need to make palatable sustainable food unless we want the food manufacturing processors to gain ownership of veganism and vegetarianism and sell it back to us. We need to offer mentors and affordable courses for new allotmenteers. The battle’s hardly started and certainly not lost but there’s nothing to be gained from preaching from the high moral ground, and a world to be won by embracing farmers and small producers and above all buying their products thoughtfully.  Some years ago I met John Alvis, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Lye Cross Farm near Cheddar, at a Young Farmers meeting.  I was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to educating children about farming and cheesemaking, and his whole approach to land stewardship. Why make an enemy when you can make a friend?

On the right, below, the site for the 6’X4′ hotbed in the space beween the espalier Lord Lambourne apple and the greenhouse. Hopefully the adjacence of a little heat to the apple tree may offer a bit of protection against late frosts. Theories, theories – we’ll see how it turns out. If Annie’s muck refuses to heat up, it can go into the compost with more seaweed and some of the straw I got hold of when I was going to try to make a hotbed with straw and urine.  The very mention of using our urine on the allotment makes some people so queazy they stop nicking our stuff altogether.  I think we might put some signs up – what about

all crops are regularly blessed with human urine – please help yourself!