Friday, 20 June 2008

How do we know?

OK so we have this bloody great challenge to make a rapid and managed transition away from fossil fuels and create community resilience. I’d not expected oil prices to start to spike so soon or so quickly but now they have, we’ve just got to sort ourselves out even more urgently.

Lewes is one of the most high profile transition towns so people often ask me, How do you know it’s working? I was at SEEDA (South East Economic Development Agency) this week trying to get funding for SETI (the South East Transition Initiatives, of which there are now more than 30 emerging) and they basically told me I’d only get government funding if we were able to demonstrate behavioural change in terms of per capita CO2 emissions saved. Not on your nelly!

So how do we measure success? This morning I ran into a friend who was getting on a train. She’d dropped out of Transition Town Lewes because she was too busy. But, she said, she’d been busy creating a new vegetable garden and cycling to Lewes from Ringmer. How could she get the council to make the Ringmer Lewes Cycle route to happen more quickly? Someone else admitted she was taking the train for the first time because of rising fuel prices. Another friend passed on an old book in a cotton bag. One of my neighbours was riding home on a new bike last night and my next door neighbour asked me over the weekend about where to find willow for a raised bed of vegetables to replace his lawn.

How do you measure those changes? How do I know they were as a result of Transition Town Lewes? Is the change fast enough? I don’t know and I don’t care. I am trying to do what Joanna Macy, the deep ecologist, says: to free myself from the tyranny of constantly trying to calculate our chance of success.

Friday, 13 June 2008

Getting oil out of our food

In Transition Town Lewes we’ve been asking for a while how we will feed ourselves in a world after oil. Now it’s a relief to hear this question go mainstream. The answers that arise are varied and often exciting. The Food Programme last week featured communities growing their own food and ended with an interview with the eloquent Kath Dalmeny from Sustain. ‘We’ve got to have a vision of what we want to world to be like when the oil prices become too high,’ she said. ‘There are some examples of this already: there are park deparments who are allowing land to be used as community gardens, Crown Estates, training up small producers. There are community supported farms such as Tablehurst and Plawhatch in East Sussex issuing shares. We’ve got to get serious about this stuff if we’re going to grow enough food to make a difference.’

She pointed out that we cannot wait for government to take the lead and suspects a lot of initiatives will come from local people demanding them. ‘If you look at the carbon footprint of the food we eat, it makes most sense to grow our horticultural produce - perishable salad leaves and so on - very close to where they are consumed. That way you can take away the need for refrigeration. We need a growing policy for the UK, a kind of vision that would genuinely take oil out of the equation.’

Monbiot, too, writes about how small farms and smallholdings across the world are far more productive than broadscale agriculture. Almost all commentators, other than the Monsanto gang, are pointing in the same direction: in a world with less oil we will feed ourselves locally. It’s common sense. Last weekend a group of us planted a small urban edible garden in public view just opposite St John’s Sub-Castro. A quick covering of foraged cardboard, compost and straw excludes the weeds in this no-dig garden and provides a mulch for the pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, sweetcorn and marrows (by request of the owner).

Lewes must be at least 20% garden. And we’re blessed with a number of excellent local farmers and growers. We can feed ourselves, sooner by choice or later by necessity. I know what option I prefer.

Friday, 6 June 2008

Change is in the air

We are on the brink of an agricultural revolution, my friend Robin said the other day. Robin left his job in IT to start growing food only three years ago. His one-acre walled garden in Southover has been feeding Lewes with Japanese vegetables, via Bill’s, the farmers’ market and Circa, since then. We were talking as we weeded his new 10-acre field at Isfield where I’d dropped in to visit. In just a few weeks he’s already turned this piece of land into an incredible edible landscape, with hundreds of different varieties all interplanted for pest resistance and companionship. This year he’s trying out oats as well as other experimental vegetables.

The idea is also to help people to learn important land-based skills, and the venture attracts regular volunteers from London who appreciate the sanity of manual work in a beautiful setting (now officially proven to be good for you!)

Working with warm soil after a few days of rain has always been a peak experience for me. As we worked a powerful waft of honeysuckle crossed the field and stopped us in our tracks. Robin has also been researching intermediate technology farming solutions such as small pushable tractors, and solar-powered rabbit fences. He spoke of the difficulties of pioneering this approach as solutions are hard to come by in a world where big is best.

Robin is one of the few people I know who is living, now, with a probable future with less oil. People who are able to respond positively and practically to peak oil are few and I am grateful to this man as I know he is one of the people who will feed my family. Meanwhile, we are also on the cusp of an edible garden revolution, with a conference in London about urban agriculture and some inspiring films about backyard food growing. I’m having fun doing my bit for England, with pots out front growing vegetables. And this Sunday, I will be planting a small edible garden in a public place in Lewes. Meet me at the Lewes Arms at 2pm, if you, too, want to participate.