20 July 2009

Chocolate and Collaboration

For the last three years we have been living in a conservative rural area, where the unemployment/ welfare and illiteracy rates are well over 50% (before the recession even). There's plenty of places like this, all across North America. We both came out here, from large centers of Environmental and Social activism, as an act of going to the "frontlines". At the time, I felt that if all the activists stayed clustered in self-affirming sub-cultures, that we would all end up preaching to the choir, so to speak. I had never lived in a rural area, and I had grown quite cynical about the effectiveness of my urban protests, boycotts and activism through selective consumption. I wanted to become a producer, at least of the majority of my own goods, but our ultimate goal was to start a micro-CSA. We knew that we could keep our costs down in a rural area, and have ultimately outdone our own figures, living comfortably on $100 a month (including rent, utilities, food, transportation, you name it). Granted, it is a very different life than I had once lived, but it is full of rewards I would not have otherwise found.

There is one undoubtedly necessary piece missing: community. I am quite satisfied with the practical aspects of our lifestyle, I would not easily go back to flush toilets, grid power, or anything less than fresh, high-quality, organic food grown by the output of my own physical labor. But I'm simply aching for some creative community outlets. I recently heard an interview with Frances Moore Lappe and she quoted a study done on the physiological effects of collaboration: it stimulates the same brain center as chocolate, a well known pleasure center of the brain. I have proven the inverse of this study, though experience, that social isolation is impoverishing, unhealthy and ultimately depressing. It saps my energy from the work I love to do in the garden. I have grown to realize that what we do out here is ultimately unsustainable without community, and that creatively working in collaboration has always filled my reserve of energy, rather than draining it.

Our original plans for a micro-CSA, growing a variety of vegetables, grains, meats, eggs and dairy products for just one or two families or individuals, would easily have supported our financial needs, and allowed us to make responsible choices in investing in the tools and machinery for growing food in a post-Carbon Climate Change context. In our plans, we gave ourselves two years of building our soil, and providing for our own needs first, while we put the word around in the local communities, mostly having to explain what a CSA is, and why it is a more sustainable model than a market food economy. We also gave our rural neighbors time to get used to us, used to new ideas and ways of doing things, (and there is no doubt that people were curious about us when we moved here), before trying, let alone accepting, these alternatives. We lived by example, and watched as the same cars drove slowly past our raising barns, grazing animals and growing crops of vegetables and grains; very few actually stopped to meet us, they just watched, and definitely talked (we heard some pretty amusing rumors about us, accidentally making their way back to our ears).

In other words, I do not feel that our expectations were unrealistic, we had a solid plan, a realistic idea of the amount of hard work it would require, and had scaled our income requirements to fit a very modest local interest in fresh, organically grown food, available at or below supermarket prices. But I am still at a loss for words to explain the utter lack of interest in what we offer. Anywhere else I have lived, we would have a waiting list. And this lack of interest is intimately tied to our social isolation, we simply have not met people who share our same concerns about the world, and about the future. Individual people have shown us kindness, done us favors (which we have enjoyed returning almost more so than the acceptance), and tried to make us feel welcome, but not one of them has been willing to collaborate with us. And that is the one thing we simply cannot do without, the one thing that makes our life unsustainable.

When I started this blog, it was my attempt to find that sense of community and collaboration over the internet. I wanted to explore the possibility of using virtual spaces to organize and activate, while remaining on the "frontlines", in the communities where alternatives are hard to find. I have found friends, and supporters through this blog and other online platforms, but I need to feel that the work I am doing every day is contributing to a larger social goal, not just maintaining our existence here, and that is hard to do "virtually".

I have only occasionally referred to the social aspect of our life here, partly because I am sometimes at a loss for words about it, partly because it sounds like a bit of a sad story, and I only want to share it publicly if it has some sort of point. And I suppose it is only just recently that I have put the pieces together, and fully understood the power of collaboration. Without community, we are constantly hobbled, unable to reach our potential. And it is really that: constantly striving to reach my ever growing and changing potential, that defines my purpose, my goal, my spiritual practice in life. Being hobbled for too long has begun to trick me into thinking that I cannot go any further.

Which leads me to a decision we have been ruminating over since winter, we're moving on from here. It's difficult to know when it is time to move on, but there's simply too much work to be done for us to be stagnating. I have used our three years here well, getting some serious gardening and animal husbandry under my belt. I have also gained confidence in my resilience, my ability to adapt, and in my great satisfaction in living an agrarian life. The cynicism I once held for the effectiveness of my actions on making a positive social and environmental impact has been transformed into resolution, courage, faith.

Where? We are going West, we are looking at certain areas from Oregon to British Colombia. But most importantly, we are looking for a community in which our skills and desire to work creatively, collaborate, and contribute to building a sustainable local food culture are welcomed, appreciated, and allowed to flourish. When? Next June is the goal. We have our garden and market garden this year to bring us through the winter, and time enough to organize the move, and begin to make contacts. The market garden was our last compromise to try and work within the established market food economy, and possibly influence it from within. The conventional farmers around here are skeptical at best, about organic production methods, and we hoped that our flourishing garden, high-quality produce, and low levels of disease and pests would give them a new impression. But those are mostly pipe dreams, and we mostly knew that already. In reality, the market garden is what we thought it would be, one big gamble. If we hit our luck, we will take the money and run.

Regardless, we are moving under our own steam, by bicycle. It will be a grand adventure, decompression time, a journalistic look into how climate change is affecting the land and agriculture, the best way to travel, and an opportunity that a dairy-maid hardly ever gets: a month of exploration with nary a bleating, clucking mouth to feed.

There is one place we have our eye on, the Slocan Valley in South Eastern British Colombia. They have some very inspiring community initiatives going on there. Including an Integral Forrestry Innitiative that sustainably manages a massive region of the local forest. As well as Canada's first Grain CSA in the Creston Valley. (This is just one of many sites and articles describing the Grain CSA, if the link eventually breaks, simply search under "Grain CSA Creston") This project really got me excited. In it's first year there were 200 shares sold, and 600 plus a waiting list for 2009, for local organic Wheat, Spelt, Kamut, Hulless Oats and Lentils. I have become particularly interested in the question of supplying regional grains, especially as more and more people are growing their own vegetables, but do not have space to grow grains. And in my own experience of growing and hand-harvesting our grains, it is a task more efficiently done with a community investment in small or appropriately scaled machinery.

We will continue to blog about the season of growing and preserving our food this year, but as you can imagine, our focus has shifted in many ways. Our eyes are on a broader horizon. And we invite you to continue following us on our next big adventure.

This summer's crop of organic bread wheat


jimmycrackedcorn said...

Is that a typo in the opening paragraph?

'living comfortably on $100 a month (including rent, utilities, food, transportation, you name it).'

What? I can understand the food part, perhaps, since you're producing your own, and maybe transportation if you rarely go anywhere and have an old reliable truck. But even if you already own your land wouldn't property taxes be will in excess of $100 a month?

mostlypurple said...

Wow. Self-sufficiency has a downside. who knew.

-wishing you success

Anonymous said...

we have lived in New Brunswick for the last seven years, doing basicly what you are doing, which is a wonderful thing, hard work but very satisfying. In the sixth year our local neighbours have found their way to our farm, buying the things that we produce, after having driven by slowly wondering what on earth we were doing. Persevere, it does happen!!

Amanda said...

I have been reading your blog for a few months as I have been dabbling in my own striving for self-sufficiency.

And I read this and I was sad for you and the lack of community but I was excited too. Because I live on Pender Island, in BC. There are approx 2500 people living on this island and many are committed to a self-sufficient lifestyle, or striving toward it. I find your blog really encouraging and I hope your bike trip may take you through vancouver island and the gulf islands.

Thank you for your honesty and beautiful writing. I'll keep checking in to see where your adventures take you!


Margaret said...

I live in BC and drove through the Kootnays once, it is a beautiful place which I hope to visit again. If you choose to move there,I'm sure you will love it.

I wish you all the best - actually I'm a bit envious of your new adventure, and look forward to reading about it in your blog.


Derek said...

I've been following your blog for at least the past half year, though this may be the first time i've posted.

*eyes caste down in lurker shame*

At least i think so, anyway.

I am a US expat now in Denmark, and though the media may portray it otherwise, The move actually had a similar affect for my "self-sustainable community" as your transplant into rural america. Consumerism here is rampant, with astronomical home prices, and reliance on cheap imported food, and industrial pig meat.
Now i have to admit to myself that where i came from in the US makes a huge difference, i came from Arcata California, which if you are unaware, is probably the last refuge of dyed-in-the-wool hippies on earth.
But there was also a very solid undercurrent of progressive permiculture, and appropriate technology innovation; the place was like a community test lab for radical sustainability experiments.
This harsh contrast incountered was not what i was expecting, and ultimately has driven my family to do the same as you, and find like minded people. As it turns out or research and travel in europe led us to growing transition communities and permiculture experiments ongoing in Portugal of all places. We are planning a similar transplant their in the coming year also.
I just wanted to add support to your thinking that the community matters, that your thinking suffers from constant opposition, and simple "just don't get it" thinking from your peers.
I say find that someplace special, connect, collaborate, and advance with strength and vision.
Keep up the blogging to.

Pampered Mom said...

I can relate to your desire for community. I think if I were in your situation we'd likely make the same decision. I can't wait to hear about your further journey!

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

jimmycrackedcorn, nope not a typo. We don't have a car, bike maintenance is included in that figure, about $5/mo. Food is still about $50/mo. We use a community access center for internet and internet phone. We own a very simple mobile home, and moved it onto a property with no buildings or services, where we rent, at the cost to cover property taxes $200/year. Most of our power comes from solar (already payed for itself), but we supplement with about $5 in a gas generator/ month.

It's possible, just not your typical life.

mostlypurple, it's the "self" part that we take issue with in the self-sufficiency, self-reliant lifestyle.

Anon, it's one thing to be able to sell what we produce, and another thing all together to participate with the local community to build a sustainable food culture.

Amanda, thanks for sharing in our excitement! We'll make it out to the coast one day or another, and we'll keep our eye on Pender Island.

Margaret, thanks for your well-wishes, we'll be sure to continue posting as the journey unfolds.

Derek, thank you so much for adding your support. I'm always curious about you lurkers, especially the far distant ones... :)
I am familar with Arcata, a place where the fringe is mainstream, must have been quite the shock. We are also familar with the Transition movement, very exciting, I wish you and your family all the best in finding a place to advance your own vision.

Pampered Mom, thanks for the encouragement, we will certainly continue sharing.

d.a. said...

I've always appreciated the Austin, TX (and surrounding communities) push & support to buy/grow local, but reading what you've gone through makes me appreciate it even more. I wish you the best of luck in the new effort, and that you find all the community and support you desire. Keep writing!

ps pirro said...

First visit, and I'm quite in awe of what you've accomplished and so very sympathetic to your plight. As a transplant to conservative, rural midwest USA I have been working to find my people and create community here for ten years, and the overall lack of interest and tired thinking I encounter is every bit as hobbling as you describe. Best of outcomes to you.

Caroline said...

It is indeed hard to feel sustain when so few share our hope and belief around. I hope you will find a community to your liking! If you happen to bike pass Montreal, give me a shout and maybe you could stay a few days with us.

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

d.a. Austin is a great place, only visited once, but knew right away it was the kind of place I'd be able to feel at home. And a pretty radical contrast to most of the rest of Texas, a bit of an oasis in the desert. Thanks for the well-wishes!

ps pirro, Welcome and I'm so glad you found us, absolutely love your site, I'm an instant fan. Best to you as well, finding your people and building community.

Caroline, thanks for the invitation, you are very generous! But I do believe we will be taking the northern route, above most of the big cities. Neither of us has seen much of the north, and look forward to exploring. Thanks again!

Beegirl said...

Wishing you all the best in all you do..
I think what you are doing is wonderful!

FRED said...

A very wise decision, best of luck

Tammy said...

I'm a relative newcomer to your journey but you've inspired me and I thank you for that!

I doubt I'll ever achieve a level of self-sufficiency that you enjoy (my hubby is a city mouse who likes living on the grid and having the comfort of oil-based heat) but that doesn't mean I haven't tried and had small victories! I will continue to plant the seeds and hope they grow into great changes!

I hope you don't give up sharing your journey. I know that between owning my own website and homesteading our own place, I don't get here nearly enough but you've truly been inspirational to me. Thank you for sharing it all.

Robbyn said...

Hi guys...I'm doing some much-needed catching up with my favorite blog people. I've been sick since June and had a hiatus away from the computer for the most part. I'm just reading about your relocation plans and reasons behind it. It's something I'm taking to heart, as community is very important to us and we've too long been concentrated on other goals at the expense of connecting alongside others for shared projects and relationship. I can't wait to see where this takes you guys...I hope you'll continue blogging if possible as the new doors open! We cheer you on...love, love, love what you're doing...you're such an encouragement to us

Robbyn and Jack/thebackforty

Freija and Beringian Fritillary said...

Robbyn, you've got me blushing! You are so right, it is easy to become consumed with the logistics of how to do [blank], and lose sight of the point of all these skills... strengthening our communities and relationships.

Hope you're well and healthy, and enjoy the winter downtime.