Solstice thoughts

Growing our vegetables

I’ve been composing this post in my mind for weeks. Today, the day after the shortest day and the longest night, seems like a good time to write it down. The solstices are a significant time for me as they mark the turning points in the seasons. The changes in our plants, and how I feel, are tangible and real at this time. Everything slows, turns inwards, and becomes more reflective. I’m not promoting any particular religious outlook here, Christmas or New Year are close enough to be celebrating light in the darkness and hope for the future as well, albeit in different ways.

Over the past few weeks a few things have happened on the farm that have made me sit up and take notice of changes that extend way beyond the limits of The Oak Tree. My work of growing our vegetables for our Community Supported Agriculture scheme, and my other work of writing, selling French sea salt, and various other sidelines that all help to keep me in red wine and coffee, keeps me busy, and occasionally stressed, but it is self-defined work. By self-defined I mean that, within certain constraints such as “harvest six veg boxes”, “finish article on seaweed fertiliser” and “post three bags of salt”, I can choose how to organise and spend my days without anyone else controlling me. I also spend a considerable amount of time on the farm, which, while at times it can be a harsh environment, does have a natural, therapeutic honesty.

The first thing that struck me recently is that within a very short space of a few weeks several people, both members of the CSA and wider friends of the farm have called in and told me about how their work has abruptly dried up, and how concerned they are about this. If it had just been a couple of people I might have simply put it down to the individuals’ changing fortunes, and fully expected them to be back on their feet in a few weeks, or months at the most. But it was a steady stream of people that I couldn’t explain away so easily. Some said they had lived through recessions before, but nothing this bad.

The second thing was that struck me as significant was how a different group of people have arrived at the farm, usually in more of a hurry, sounding extremely stressed because of the increased pressure on them at work. Many times this seems to have been having an effect on their health.

My natural reaction is to want to help. I feel very attached to our little community, and in these uncertain times, I am frankly in awe of the generosity and goodwill that we enjoy among CSA members and wider friends of the farm. Perhaps this is something to do with joining together to realise the practical goal of producing our own food together? Or perhaps you’re just a great bunch of people!

I obtained planning permission for this wind farm - a major achievement!

I’m a great fan of the blog know as “The Archdruid Report”. Before you again suspect a continued pagan theme here, I repeat that I am (genuinely) not promoting some religious viewpoint. I am not sure enough of my own tenuous understanding of the spiritual world, which as it happens encompasses an inconsistent mix of Christianity, Buddhism and general new age ideas, to try to foist any of my beliefs onto other people. Rather, this post by blog author John Michael Greer articulates ideas about the economy and work that I have been trying to express for years.

My “proper jobs” which I did from graduating in 1991 to returning to the UK from France in 2007 were as an engineer in the IT and the Wind Power industries, with a couple of study breaks. During these years I learnt a great deal, saved up the money for The Oak Tree and developed a burning determination to get out of “proper jobs” and work on the land. What my salaries could buy me (and they were never that high for the industries I worked in) always struck me as far too much compared with the actual contribution to society that I made. I was, in general, well respected for the work I did, so this wasn’t a personal lack of productivity, rather it was the nature of the society I lived in. For most of my career I lived on far less than I earned with the notable exception of one month where, just to see what it was like, I blew the lot on clothes, beauty salons, meals out etc. It was fun, but not that great.

Your mud-splattered grower used to frequent such establishments

I used to try to articulate this as “What I put in doesn’t justify what I could take out of the economy”. But in the heady days of the 90s and early 2000s, to coin a phrase from my previous career, this was simply “input not acceptable” to most people. When I read about “Peak Oil” (Google it if you’ve not come across the term) and then encountered the Transition Movement in around 2005, suddenly I felt I wasn’t alone. This wasn’t a particularly reassuring experience – before then I could kid myself I was just being paranoid and that things weren’t that bad. I’ve not even mentioned climate change. I began to suffer from what I now refer to as “apocalyptic exuberance”. It seemed apparent that things were going to end badly, so why not party and enjoy the descent? And I had met people though Transition Ipswich who felt the same way.

And then the economy imploded. Anyone who watched the BBC Robert Peston documentary on the economy recently will understand that our economic woes are the result of a calling in of the massive debt we have all been living on. Even if as individuals we have avoided debt, our government was borrowing and spending the money for us. So now we have to live on what we actually produce in real terms, which explains the high current rate of inflation, and the drop in people’s incomes.

I hope that John Michael Greer, aka The Archdruid, will forgive me quoting a particular section from the post I refer to above.

“…  two implications… of core importance for the shape of our future. The first is simply that those of my readers whose plans for the future depend on holding down a job may have a very hard row to hoe. The shift under way in the economy will more than likely squeeze the current model of economic life from both ends—as it becomes harder to find, keep, and earn a decent living at an ordinary job, businesses will continue to fold, debase their products, or both, and so it will also become harder to convert the income from an ordinary job back into goods and services worth having. One of the core themes I’ve been discussing here for some time now, the need to move at least one family member out of employment into the household economy, is in part a response to that situation; what you produce yourself for your own consumption doesn’t pay a share of the costs of the economic superstructure. Beyond that, the deterioration of the official economy is accompanied, as pretty much always happens, by the growth of alternative economic networks that allow goods and services to be exchanged outside normal channels; it may be a while before those networks become solid enough to support more than a few people, but taking part in exchanges through these networks even in their early stages may be worthwhile.”

I believe that The Oak Tree offers us the potential to develop our part of “the alternative economy” that John Michael Greer refers to. The price of food and fuel is rising. I fear that ongoing economic decline will tend to undermine our communities. We are a group of people who, for whatever reason, have come together to grow some of our own food together in an atmosphere of fun and trust. Some people are in the CSA because they enjoy getting away from the corporate environment to somewhere peaceful and natural, others are passionate about the environment and eating locally grown food, while some simply enjoy the social side. To some extent we are a group of people who fate has brought together during relatively prosperous times, who now have the opportunity to develop an alternative local economy and mutual support to help us through what I fear may be turbulent times ahead. When the boss of the IMF talks of another great depression I stop thinking I am just being paranoid.

Another idea that I would attempt to articulate during my life in the corporate world was that of “free range humans”. We all wish to support improved conditions for farm animals, from the extreme stance of veganism, which I admire but would not follow, through to trying to buy meat that has been raised in more humane conditions. So what about humans? My allotment, and in later years my smallholding in France, were a lifeline for me, a retreat where I could be a free range human, expressing my natural behaviour in healthy conditions. They probably kept me just about sane. These days I am fortunate to be a free range human almost all the time, and when I’m not it is my own choice, ie sitting in an interesting conference or writing an article. I never underestimate how fortunate I am, even when my fingers are frozen from picking sprouts on a rainy, windy day. OK, maybe just then I hanker after a cosy office job, but those times are rare!

I believe that a simpler life, one in which we have less “stuff”, namely a lower standard of living, can be a happier one, with a higher quality of life. I took this choice voluntarily. I left the corporate world and bought The Oak Tree (not in one single move, but that is another story) by choice. I have far less money now. Sometimes I have to refuse going out with friends, or avoid buying something I really want because I can’t afford it. The range of food I eat is limited for most of the year though there is a Christmas Goose from Lux Farm and some smoked cod roe from Richardson’s Smokehouse in the fridge for Christmas day, so it isn’t all bad! And though the range of food I eat is limited to veg from the farm and cheaper cuts of meat and beans, I eat fresh, good quality food. My annual holidays are a week in the UK in a small campervan. My standard of living is low. My quality of life is high.

Hard work. but satisfying.

I spend hours chopping up firewood, a job which is extremely hard work, but curiously satisfying. We haven’t switched the central heating on so far this winter, yet our house has been plenty warm enough. I have a sack each of field beans and bread wheat from local farmer Glen Buckingham (you may have met him at the farm Christmas party) in my study – bread, pasta, vegetable protein and pizzas for next year. I’m planning a vineyard, and we’ve ordered cider apple trees – the future won’t be teetotal, thank goodness! I’m a free range human. It is bloody hard work, and I have been reached the point of wanting to cry from exhaustion at times, but such moments are rare. More often than not I feel healthy, happy and wake up looking forward to the day.

It seems that many people may have no choice at the moment but to accept a lower standard of living as work opportunities dwindle, and prices rise. I’m torn between being afraid for the future, and feeling a sense of excitement. Could this be the opportunity for more of us to become free range humans?

Our work together as a CSA this year has convinced me that perhaps the best way of facing what may be a rather bleak future is to work together to provide for some of our most basic needs. I invite you to join me in becoming a free range human if the official economy lets you down. I can’t offer anyone a job, even on the minimum wage – I don’t get that much from the farm. We’d have to make it up as we go along. Ultimately as landowner I reserve the right to say what does and doesn’t happen, mostly because my experience of consensus management where any individual can block the majority view, doesn’t work, and as the full-timer I can take an overview of the various activities on the farm. But with that proviso, I invite you to join me in working on a number of community agriculture projects that I have in mind for 2012:

  • Pastured meat chickens
  • Free range eggs (Lewis has reluctantly decided to give up his chickens to concentrate on his studies)
  • A vineyard
  • Fuel wood tree planting – a long term project, but all the more reason to get started now.
  • Wood-fired bread & pizza oven.

The future of The Oak Tree

I have longer term plans/dreams too… including dairy cows and wheat production. I am open to other ideas too. If you’re interested, please get in touch. I would like to limit these activities to members of the veg CSA, at least initially. If you’re not a member, and would like to be, there are still a few places available for veg shares from June 2012.

Our little CSA has really flourished in its first year, and the new veg share spaces available from June 2012 are fast being filled. We’ve had a couple of great parties, some fun skillshare sessions in the past few months, and I am looking forward to more in the year ahead! Our future really is in our own hands. Working on the land is hard work, and the rewards can take a long time to harvest (remember sowing the leeks we are now eating early spring 2011?) But the more we do, the better we will live, with the added joy of working harmoniously with each other and getting fresh air and exercise at the same time. See why I feel some sense of excitement about the future, despite the gloomy news on the economy? I hope you’ll come and share that sense of excitment with me at The Oak Tree.

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