The Edge of Dartmoor, Southern England
Jolene's back ached as she patiently gathered the seeds from the huge broccoli plants that grew next to the greenhouse. In the ten years she'd been gardening, it didn't get any easier on her back. Her friends had suggested she set up a hammock where she could take occasional breaks, but there was always so much to do. Hammocks were for lazy Sunday evenings, not workday afternoons.
It had been incredibly dry that summer all over southwestern England. By September, the reservoirs on Dartmoor were lower than anyone could recall, and the River Dart was down to a mellow trickle, the tiniest memory of last winter's stunning torrents. The water shortage had made it a difficult year for Going Organic's members, most of whom cultivated small patches of land, either in their back yards or on land leased from local farmers, without the use of chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Very few had wells, and the water board's restrictions limited them to early-morning watering, by hand, between 5 am and 7 am.
Jolene had no complaints. Being up with the dawn had given her a summer filled with beautiful memories, and a joyful intimacy with the wildlife that lived on the southern edge of Dartmoor. There was the pair of peregrine falcons who hunted for their breakfast of mice and rabbits at that time of the day; an old badger who regularly came home to the woods from wherever he'd been foraging; the myriad birds - and the skylarks, oh, the skylarks! singing their timeless praise at the break of another day. Before the daily paper arrived, before the telephone started ringing - those were the hours that Jolene loved the best, when as the poet William Wordsworth put it, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!"
Wordsworth had been writing about another time, two hundred years before, when his generation had been changing the world as Jolene and her friends were today. Then, the struggle had been against feudalism and the power of the landed aristocracy. Today, it was against globalism and the power of the corporate dollarocracy, but as in Wordsworth's time, they were winning ! The legal and political victories were beginning to push back the invasion of local cultures and economies by corporate tentacles, and you could feel the optimism in the air as news of the various victories flashed around the Internet and onto people's dinner tables. Last month the World Trade Organization had reluctantly agreed to include community and environmental representatives on its various committees; and just a few days ago, Jolene had heard that the World Bank was going to be subjected to an independent audit to examine complaints that its projects undermined local economies.
Jolene and her friends had launched Going Organic three years earlier, as a way to satisfy the growing demand for locally grown organic food while enabling local people to earn some additional income. There were several organic farms that operated local brown box schemes, providing a weekly box of fresh fruit and vegetables to their customers, but there was a limit to how much they could grow. The other brown box programs in the area depended on imported food, which sometimes came from as far away as France, or even California.
The idea behind Going Organic was that by pooling their produce, small growers and backyard gardeners could operate their own co-operative brown box program, contributing to the sustainability and self-sufficiency of the region while earning some useful income. All that was required was a central storage building with cooling facilities, and a system to record what crops members would be providing each week. For Jolene, this meant checking the garden to see what was ready, logging onto the Going Organic home page on the Internet to post the information, then delivering her contribution to the depot once a week. For co-op members without Internet access, there was always a neighbour willing to extend the favour.
From the six they had started with, the scheme had grown to involve fifteen hundred growers in just three years. The only rule was that you had to grow your food organically. If your garden was not certified organic, you had to make a formal application to become an organic grower, and enter the seven-year transitional process.
It was the variety of the members that astonished Jolene. Stockbrokers and students, factory workers and artists, shopkeepers and consultants - they all enjoyed the process of growing extra food and contributing it to the community pot. Their youngest member was ten-year-old Jesse, who grew radishes, parsley and seven varieties of lettuce. Their oldest was ninety-five-year-old Brenda, whose leeks, kale and parsnips helped keep the program going in winter and whose compost was the talk of the region. And then there was Charlie, an ex-con and loner who had asked a local farmer if he could cultivate the strip of land that lay fallow along the edge of a field. He religiously brought in a sack of carrots every week, for which he received the princely sum of £20. Quite a few of the members grew food in their neighbours' gardens, maintaining the flower beds and giving them fresh produce in exchange for the use of the land. Between them, they distributed food to 7,000 local people, delivered mostly by bicycle, with their trademark aluminum towing carts.
The co-op had grown beyond their highest hopes, but this summer, because of the drought, their customers hadn't always had a full box of vegetables. The most worrying aspect of the drought was that they could no longer kid themselves that it was a one-off affair. By the normal weather patterns of the past hundred years, they should have expected one three-month drought every twenty years - not three in the past ten years. No-one said "if" anymore when they talked about the frightening realities of global warming. It was still a shock, however, to accept that this might mean the end of all that was comforting and familiar. What if a dry summer like this was followed by a winter without rain, as happened in northern Spain last year ? Over there, the farmers were abandoning lands their ancestors had farmed for centuries, maybe millennia. The thought that she might one day have to leave this joyful corner of paradise was a brooding maggot in Jolene's beautiful apple that kept her awake at night, especially when the moon was full. Why had we screwed up so badly, she asked herself, that we should have broken the very stability of the world's climate, and (in parts of the world) ended the biological flow of millennia ? All for the thrill of driving, of unrestricted rushing along the country's lanes and motorways, pouring out the carbon emissions that were bottling up the sun's heat, slowly frying the Earth ? Surely, we could not have been that foolish. To think that they had cut down whole forests and ancient woods to accommodate more cars and encourage more driving. What folly.
Today, the new laws required everyone to drive fuel-efficient hybrid cars and obliged the electric utilities to produce twenty-five percent of their power from renewable sources. But when you allowed for the ten-year phase-in period that industry had negotiated, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions was minimal. For Jolene and her fellow farmers there was one unexpected benefit in the form of the carbon storage cheques that they received in official acknowledgment that organic farming stored greater quantities of carbon dioxide in the soil than chemical farming. The cheque always came in handy just after Christmas, even if it had been paid by some oil or gas company that was using the scheme to keep on producing carbon dioxide. It was a bit of nonsense, if you paused to think about it.
As she pondered these thoughts and gathered her broccoli seeds in the special seed pouch her mother had sewn for her, Jolene found herself overcome by an immense feeling of sadness. Locally, life seemed to be growing more and more beautiful, even if her back did still ache and her lover had been away in Sweden for the past three months. Local stewardship groups were eliminating pollution from Devon's rivers and streams, community groups were slowing the traffic on residential streets, and they had stopped the progress of genetically modified foods in its tracks when it seemed destined to take over the world. Everywhere, community initiatives were blossoming, filling the region with a wonderful freshness. People even spoke of a new renaissance. And now this. What good would these seeds be if there was no water ? What good, come to that, would the land be ? It was a heavy thought to bear; no wonder her back ached.
In England, full organic certification requires seven years. In Europe, there was a thirty-fold increase in organically managed land over the years 1986 to 1999. At the current rate of change, 30 percent of all Europe's agriculture will be organic by the year 2010, which is astonishing the forecasters and policy gurus. In Wales, the new Welsh Assembly has set its sights on 100 percent of the farms in Wales becoming organic. For information on organic farming in Britain, contact The Soil Association, Bristol House, 40 - 56 Victoria St, Bristol, BS1 6BY, UK.
Brown box programs (also known as Community Supported Agriculture) are taking off wherever there are organic growers. In Victoria, B.C., several brown box programs deliver by bicycle, using specially designed aluminum carts.
Carbon storage rebates for organic growers are not yet a reality, but they probably will be soon, since research at the Rodale Institute's experimental farm in Pennsylvania has shown that by using traditional organic soil conservation techniques, farmers can double the amount of carbon stored in their soil.
The progress of genetically modified foods in Britain ground to a halt in May 1999, when 60 percent of Britain's food distributors pledged not to stock genetically modified (GM) food on their shelves. This followed a widespread consumer revolt which had roots in south Devon, where supporters of an organic farm near Totnes tore out a genetically modified crop from the neighbour's farm for fear that it would infect the organic crops. For information on the dangers of GM food, see Farmageddon : Food and the Culture of Biotechnology by Brewster Kneen (New Society Publishers, 1999), and The Ram's Horn (monthly, $20/year from S-6, C-27, RR1, Sorrento, B.C. V0E 2W0. firstname.lastname@example.org).
The fears of drought are alarmingly real, as anyone knows who lives on the east coast or the mid-west of the USA. One of global warming's key characteristics is an increase in the turbulence and unpredictability of the world's climate.
About the author
Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001), and A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US (Earth Island Journal, August 2003). He is the publisher of EcoNews (a monthly newsletter), President of the BC Sustainable Anergy Association (www.bcsea.org), and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development. He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.
His website is www.earthfuture.com