Archive for February, 2012

The Church Model of Community Organizing

Sharon February 23rd, 2012

Note: I wrote this in 2008 on the oldest iteration of this blog, and I think it bears repeating.  A couple of years ago I gave a talk at a Transition Group that began by passing out their list of committees to get people to join, and was struck by how often I hear the same things over and over - it is hard to get anyone but the obviously previously engaged.  But some of that is how we present it.  My sense is that many organizations get going with a lot of enthusiasm, build up with core membership among those with time and leisure and previous understanding, and then often stagnate, and fail to become truly community organizations.  This isn’t universally true - I’ve run into some great, growing, really integrated groups, but it happens often enough, and I see and hear it in my talks to various groups often enough that it is worth repeating.

Not too long ago, I had an argument with another peak oil writer about what level political action on peak oil and climate change should proceed. I suggested that perhaps the municipal level was thinking too large - that what we need are neighborhood groups, he argued in favor of city levels. Now I’m not at all sure that this is an either/or issue - I suspect we need both. But the discussion was useful for helping me clarify some thoughts I’ve had about what might be needed to move the “peak oil” and “climate change” groups from their present role - as thinly spread “special interest” groups and towards becoming a larger, and more powerful network.

The fact is, historically speaking many large scale social changes have worked best on a neighbor to neighbor, very intimate scale, either instead of or in conjunction with larger scale practices. For example, food and gas rationing during WWII were being flouted until neighborhood pledge groups were started, and block captains became responsible for helping people adhere to new policies. The same programs were used to manage civil defense and volunteer labor groups. The reality is that top down management is very difficult without some micro-level programs to work with - which is why in times of war, women’s groups, and other social and cultural institutions were always among the first groups mobilized.

Please understand, I begin this with no implied critiques of any of the response groups out there - on the contrary, I admire what all these groups have accomplished, and believe their work to be of the utmost importance. But there are several limitations to such in-person programs - first of all, unless you live in a population center, they are thin on the ground. The nearest such groups to me are 15-30 miles - an awfully long drive for someone committed to cutting emissions.

And such groups suffer from the same problems almost all political/special interest groups do - small membership and heavy burdens on the few people willing to do the work. If, in fact, we’re in the process of sliding off the plateau, as the data suggests, we are going to need to get more people involved, and quickly. Moreover, these groups reinforce the notion that community is something you mostly create with “like minded” people who agree with you. But there’s simply no chance that most of us are going to spend the coming decades working primarily with people who live 15 miles from us - we are going to have to get local - real local. That is not to say that I don’t see the real and practical value of spending time with people who already “get it,” or of devoting some time and energy to exchanging ideas about approaches with others in person, but our primary work must be local - perhaps on the municipal level, but if we’re really returning to a foot economy, probably even more so at the neighborhood level.

So I began to consider what would be required to start neighborhood groups that might engage people within our existing communities, and enable those communities to start preparing for climate change and peak oil. And instead of looking at leftist community groups, I started by asking myself what the most successful social organizations are in my area - successful at attracting membership, but also successful at getting members to do their share of the work.

So far, peak oil and climate change groups have focused on the other people who have figured out what is going on. But right now, in the early stages of the crisis, there are simply too few people who have put all the pieces together. With another decade to prepare and teach, such an approach might work. With only a short time, the odds are against it. Compare this to churches or synagogues or mosques, who invite in nearly everyone in a given community, opening their doors as widely as they can.

If we are to have success we are going to have to use a different model, one that I call “the church model” – I say this not to be alienating to those who are not religious, but in recognition that religious communities have been far more successful at building community structures than many secular community organizations, and that if we are to create overarching community organizations that sustain us in hard times, and enable us to manage our communities in the face of crisis, we’re going to have to use a successful model.

The “church model” has three factors that are very different from groups like the Relocalization and similar groups I’m familiar with. They are:

1. Low Barriers to Entry
2. They have something to offer immediately to many different demographics
3. They have a plan and a routine for dealing with crises

The first factor is enormously important if we are to move beyond regional groups to the local level. Right now environmental groups tend to have a fairly high entry barrier – that is, you have to be fully aware of climate change or peak oil, and aware enough to consider working on these issues a high priority. Given that the majority of the country still considers these problems secondary to others, that’s fairly unusual. It is unlikely that in a crisis involving energy shortages, we’ll have the gas to drive the distances between such groups. This means that we need to engage not a few aware people half an hour from us, but our neighbors.

How do we do that? We lower the barriers to entry. Instead of having “peak oil” or groups for the climate change aware, we have “neighborhood coops” or “community preparedness” groups. Robert Waldrop, founder of the Oklahoma City Food Coop, observes that he doesn’t talk much about “peak oil” with the people he works with – instead, he talks about how good local food tastes, and about how hard it is to make ends meet. The name doesn’t matter (except in the sense that a cool one would be helpful) – the common ground does.

We also have to lower political barriers - the truth is that environmentalism is associated with the American left. But the left has been too powerless too long to bring about massive social change in most regions. The nation is too politically divided for that. Thus, for these groups to thrive, they must avoid political purity tests - it doesn’t matter whether your neighbor hates Obama or loves him. What matters is that the two of you have common ground in other areas. I don’t deny this can be tough - but it is necessary. In some regions, the political idea of environmentalism will be a positive advertisement - in other places, the emphasis will have to be on personal security, autonomy, conserving what we have, saving money. We will need to be culturally flexible to create such a network.

The second and perhaps most important thing that such groups have to do is offer members an immediate reason to work together. There are some of us, who will do thankless work for long periods with no reward, but most of us join groups for selfish reasons – we want to find community, we want support, friendship, a platform for our ideas. We may also care about the larger world, but we get some gratification from being together and doing the work. Churches do this well – when people join a church, eventually they are asked to do their share of the work, to donate money and volunteer, but initially, they are offered something – friendship, a pleasurable worship experience, a meal, religious education for their kids. We need our groups to provide something now, not just hypothetical help in the future.

Meeting the needs of multiple demographics is challenging, but it is one of the things churches historically do well.  Consider ride programs for the elderly or disabled, babysitting for young families, youth groups for teens, often support groups for those undergoing hardship - many churches consider the range of their possible audiences and consciously seek to make a place for them.

One of the things most deeply missing from many environmental organizations is fun - come to a meeting, join a committee, write letters, watch a depressing movie about the crisis, share a potluck while you do it is what passes for a party.  And there is a place for this - but someday watch _Eyes on the Prize_ or another history of the civil rights movement, and watch the part where they point out that much of what was done between times was just getting people together and singing, celebrating, reassuring.  Throwing parties when there’s something to celebrate - or reassurance gatherings when there’s something to fear, singing, dancing, drinking, eating, having fun - these are an important part of gathering people together.

We are now in the early stages of a crisis, and many of the people who join with us may be undergoing personal difficulties and troubles. It is not feasible to have a “climate change” group that has no support or solutions for the victims of climate change now, for example.  Saying “work with us right now for a troubled future, but we have nothing for your troubled present” is not an answer.   That doesn’t mean we have to be able to fix everything, or that we have to immediately have the funds for major investments, but we do have to be able to offer emotional support, a lift for someone out of gas, a casserole for a neighbor dealing with illness. We need to start where we are again. We also need plans for the longer term, but we have to start small, with the ordinary work of human exchange – I think too often, our community building efforts have ignored the importance of these small things.

Finally, such groups need to begin creating a fully community focused (ie, includes all the people who are here now) plan for the longer term. How will people in your neighborhood get water? Who has space in their yard to grow food? How will you check in on the elderly and disabled? Where will the kids go to school if the buses stop running? Your first steps should take you towards your next ones – today, a carpool to get neighbors to the grocery store, tomorrow a bulk buying club and a Victory garden group to make fewer shopping trips necessary.

Right now there are municipalities dealing with some of these questions -but for the most part organizations attempting to prepare for a complicated future have tended to be limited, smaller, narrowed - and to assume that these smaller groups will be able to step in to gaps when a crisis comes.  In fact, however, we have historical evidence that community organization starts with the full buy-in of the community.  At this moment, there is no chance of getting that around peak oil and climate change - the latter is too politically charged, the former simply too esoteric to most people.

At the same time, better communities, better food, safer neighborhoods, better public health, healthier kids, more greenspace -these things do exercise the minds of most of us.  Establishing truly communal organizations that can step into the gap in the long emergency or as the long emergency becomes acute will require we take lessons from communities that have been successful in the past.


Food Preservation and Storage Class Starts Tomorrow!

Sharon February 15th, 2012

Here’s the syllabus - I still have a couple of regular spots and one scholarship spot available, so please email me at [email protected] if you’d like one.  The class runs six weeks starting tomorrow and is asynchronous and online.  Cost of the class is $100.   Hope some of you can join us!

Week 1,  - Introduction to Food Storage, How much, where to put it, and how?  Can I afford this?  Overview of food preservation methods, their energy and economic costs.  Storing Water, making space.  Food safety, thinking about the food future, recommended reading.

Week 2, : Water bath canning 101, Preserving with Salt, Sugar and Honey, Bulk purchasing, sourcing local foods, finding food to preserve, what food storage can and can’t do, eating more locally year round.

Week 3: Dehydration basics, Tools you need and where to get them, Menu making and how to get people to eat from your pantry, Setting up your kitchen for food storage, Storing herbs and spices, Sourdoughs and grain ferments, Preserving foraged foods.

Week 4 : Lactofermentation; Special needs, dietary and health issues;  Storing food for children, pregnant and lactating women; Storing medications, gluten-free storage;  Basic dairy preservation;  Building up your pantry and Managing your reserves. Reducing food waste.

Week 5: Pressure Canning; Beverages, Teas and Drinks; Preserving in Alcohol, Coops and Community Food Security; More Menus and Recipes; Root Cellaring and in-Garden Storage, building Community Reserves.  What will we eat when in a low energy future?

Week 6: Season extension, Preserving Meats, Sprouting, The next Steps, Getting Your Community Involved, Teaching others, Food Preservation as a Cottage Industry, The long view of food storage and preservation.


Independence Days Update #1: In the Bleak Midwinter

Sharon February 10th, 2012

The weather of our discontent continues - weirdly warm for upstate NY in winter, plants and animals blooming or returning too early.  The pussywillows have catkins, my elderberries have green buds, the daffodils are up and we saw a red-winged blackbird yesterday - all of which are signs of late-Marchness in upstate NY, here at the beginning of February.  Mud season, usually a month from March to April, has been going on steadily since the hurricanes back in August.

That said, even when you know it is a sign of wrongness, it is hard not to appreciate less wood burned, easier barn access and more days outside for the critters.  The goats, unconcerned about climate change, do appreciate all the opportunities to follow me around and get in my way - everyone needs a dozen does to help them carry firewood (help here is defined as “stand in front of me and refuse to move, stick your face in the wood bin to check for any snacks left lying around, untie my shoelaces and then nibble my coat buttons), hay or water (tripping me while I’m doing the water is the little one’s favorite game).

The calves and our buck goat who gave us four cryptorchid babies this year went to the butcher on Tuesday, so we were able to open up the fence and move the remaining couple of bucks down the hill with the does.  The poultry (ducks and chickens) will move up to the barn that held the calves and bucks, for several reasons - first to get them further away from the house where they have been flying over the fence and trashing my perennials, and also because that gives us more space down the hill for goats.  Moving everything around is a bit of pain, but well worth it.  So was the baby beef operation we did this year - we are hoping to do more next year, since this was so successful.  We are also debating buying a heifer calf to be raised up as a milker as well.

Real seed starting (rather than the little bit of desultory stuff) commenced this week - early tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, flower and herbs that need a long season got started this week, along with some more things that require stratification.  I also took geranium cuttings for spring as well - both brightly colored red, white and pink, and lemon and rose scented.

I’m still pruning fruit trees, which I should have done earlier in the winter - normally early February isn’t too late, but this isn’t a normal winter.  The goats and the rabbits have eagerly devoured our offerings.

We had the first winter litter of rabbits when Marigold, one of our does kindled with 9 beautiful babies - this is the first time we’ve crossed our American Blues with the Cinnamons, and I’m anxious to see what color combinations we get, and also whether the Blue’s faster rate of growth gets transmitted.

A kind reader sent me a box of cloth diapers from her children (THANK YOU) and I’m expecting a few more, so I took the time to sort out what I’d saved from my own kids - it turns out that there was more than I thought that survived my children (and a lot of it had come from a friend of my mother’s with twins, so more than my four) including some wool diaper soakers and a few precious wool covers - my favorites.  I may knit a few other covers as well - but I’m glad to be able to cloth diaper again.

The foster stash is in increasingly good shape - which is a huge relief.   The main issue for me, given where we live, our one-vehicle situation, our ongoing schedules and Eric’s work schedule is that I may have to go four or five days before I can go shopping for children’s clothing, and yet the kids have to be dressed - and for visits or trips to synagogue, dressed fairly nicely.  I think I can now do that for just about all sizes, which is a huge relief - after all, no one either wants, in a house full of 7-10 overstimulated kids to either take all the children to a store or worse, be the one stays home with them alone while the other goes shopping - this gives me the time and space to get everyone settled without dragging kids out all the time.

We’ve managed to do almost all the major reorganization of the house, except for the garage (which will by necessity be done next week since we have to clean out the freezer in said garage to put the beef from butchering in).  We’ve now got the door between the kitchen and dining room gated, so that we can use the wood cookstove while foster kids are at our place (previously we tried to gate around it, but really can’t cook on it that way, so had just been only using the other stove).  There is still cleaning, sorting and organizing in small places yet, but we’re WAY ahead of what we’ve been.  I suspect it will all go to pot when we finally get a large sibling group placement that stays, but at least we start ahead.

I haven’t done much on  building up my pantry - actually, sort of the opposite, as we’ve been rearranging it, I’ve been working on us eating down some things.  Still, the time to build on this will come.

Skill-wise, the main thing I’ve been working on is figuring out whether couponing is worthwhile for us.  I’ve never bothered much since we purchase so few things at the supermarket.  Foster care, however, has changed some of that - besides the desire to sometimes offer familiar foods and snacks as kids transition to our home (we can work on food issues gradually, but comfort is the most important thing initially), we also now need more things like toothbrushes and toilet paper - and need toiletries that can go home or on to other placements with kids.  I’m still not totally clear on whether this is worth doing for us generally - while using the occasional good coupon is always nice, serious couponing and sale shopping requires a. more driving (in some cases, Eric goes past some of the stores coming from work some days) and often the best savings are found in buying the smallest sizes, which increases net packaging.  Still, I’m playing with running the numbers and seeing what we can make work for us within the bounds of our general environmental priorities.

Best of all, we began the week with a lovely celebration of Tu’Bshevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees.  We ate fabulous things - including Key Lime pie (with limes brought back by a friend from a FL trip), Black Forest Cake (from cherries frozen over the summer by another friend), Banana Cream pie (from totally non-local bananas) and apricot-applesauce.  It was wretched and delicious excess, and a lovely time was had by all.  I celebrated the actual day by planting the seeds of some quinces and apples gone mushy to stratify.  It may be too late (I planted others in the fall) but hope springs eternal, which is kind of the point.

Ok, official results:

Plant something - Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Hawthorn, Quince and Witch Hazel, Coneflowers, Galliarda, Geraniums, Eryngium, Echinops, Basil, Dianthus, Alyssum, Parsley.

Harvest something: Eggs, Milk, Beef and Chevon.  Also fruit tree prunings for bunnies and goaties.

Preserve something:  Nope.  Should can some applesauce from the soft apples, though.

Waste Not: All the sorting out and organizing have been great - the kids are thrilled with the exciting “new” things we find in the back of the attic or in boxes, and we’ve managed to give away a lot of good stuff.  Otherwise the usual composting and feeding wastes to various critters.

Want Not: I can’t take credit for the cloth diapers, but they were awesome!  I am totally out of peanut butter (our dumpster diving friend and our foster son’s WIC had us stocked for what seemed like eternity), so I need to add that.  I also will need to buy apples pretty soon - my kids eat 5 - 7 apples a day, and we use them in cooking, but this year’s supply didn’t keep as well as usual due to the warm temperatures.  We will buy a few bushels from the local coop.

Eat the food - Nothing really new.  We are eating the small hen turkeys we bought from a friend (we didn’t do turkeys this past year for reasons that were really stupid ;-) ) - at 13-14 lbs, they make two meals for a family of six straight and the one large pot of laotian chicken soup (basically chicken soup seasoned with lots of citrus juice and soy sauce and a bit of brown sugar, ginger, garlic and ciles until it is salty, hot,  sweet and sour, and then with added onions, canned pineapple (if we have it), and I usually stir brown rice in.  With a few extra ingredients, one chicken is 4-6 meals, depending on size and how many people are home.   The apple-apricot sauce was also really fabulous - a bunch of apples, some dried apricots (about 5-1 proportions), a little apple cider and a splash of vanilla.  You can add sugar if you want, but it doesn’t need it.  A hand blender, food mill or food processer all work equally well at smoothing it out if you want.  Just cook until the apricots are very soft and the apples are applesaucy.

Build community food systems: Not a thing

Skill up: Aforementioned coupon research.  That’s about it.

How about you?  You can report here or just stick in a link to your blog!


Food Storage and Preservation Class

Sharon February 6th, 2012

Are you gearing up for the new garden season and thinking ahead about what to do to make your garden work all year long for you?  Concerned about the rising price of food and looking for ways to feed your family through tougher times?  Want to get in on the fun and wonderful flavors of home preserved food?   Concerned about how to adapt your storage or preserving to special diets?  Want to make the most of your farmer’s market?   All of the above?  I’ll be teaching a six week online, asynchronous (ie, you don’t have to be online at any particular time) class on food storage and preservation starting on Thursday, February 16 and running until the end of March.  Cost of the class is $100, and I do have five scholarship spots available to low income participants in need.  If you’d like to donate to the scholarship fund, you can also do that - 100% of all donations goes to make more spots available to low income people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to take the class.

Email me at [email protected] for details or to enroll.


Ending “Farmer’s Wife” Syndrome

Sharon February 6th, 2012

Fairly often, when someone comes to our farm to make a purchase or do a job, the implicit assumption is that they should talk to Eric. The first time I remember seeing this was when we were farm shopping back a decade ago - we met our first realtor and visited our first farm, and the realtor led me into the house and then turned to Eric and said “Let me show you the barn.” My husband’s very calm response was “Sharon knows much more about barns than I do, I’m going to take our son for a walk.” This was the beginning of my experience with “farmer’s wife” syndrome.

Now on virtually all farms I have ever visited, everyone who lives there farms. The children help in the barns, the spouses share the duties - even if there is a gendered division of labor much of the time, as on Amish farms, the harvest or peak canning season overwhelm this and everyone who is present pitches in. It should go without saying that no farm can have anyone who isn’t competent to recapture lost livestock, fix a fence, handle an emergency birth or a medical crisis - because some days one person isn’t there. Nor can all knowledge rest in one person - because who milks or picks the beans when someone is ill, giving birth, caring for a family member or making the money that most farms don’t provide to pay taxes and bills?

Yet we cling stubbornly to the idea that instead of a family of farmers, all equally engaged with the land, if sometimes in largely different ways, that a farm family consists of a “farmer” and a “farmer’s wife” - and that the female partner is necessarily secondary. Gene Logsdon has a great essay about both why this is, and how that presumption is being disrupted by the growing number of independent women farmers:

Women rarely did the plowing however, and that seems to be the key difference. Lots of plowboys, nary a plowgirl. In other field work, women did more than their share. (I have theories but will leave it to someone smarter to explain why women didn’t plow.) The notion that males were the real farmers probably was rooted in the hunting and gathering stage of civilization where men brought home the game from afar (adventure time) and the women did the rest of the work at home (boring).

At any rate, after the plow became the symbol of agriculture in America, the role of women in farming did recede from the public eye. Women were supposed to stick to the kitchen and leave the real business of farming to their menfolks.

This prejudice was astonishingly apparent even at farm magazines. As a journalist working for Farm Journal magazine, I often sat in farm kitchens interviewing farmers and their wives about their business. It was amazing how often the wives answered my questions much better than their husbands and how they so often did this by diplomatically and cleverly putting words in their husbands’ mouths. It was obvious that most successful farms got that way because the wives were smarter and more articulate than the husbands. But the wives knew how to keep the male crest from falling by seeming to defer to their husbands on every occasion. The wives knew they had to make their mates look like top operators so that they could borrow the money they needed to keep on going. Bankers were no different from farm editors. They wanted to deal with men: women weren’t smart enough to run a business like farming.

The answer to the question about why women didn’t do the plowing is anthropological - when tillage was done with digging sticks and handtools, in many societies women were the primary tillers of soil. But as anthropologist Judith Brown long ago observed, there is virtually no society in human history where women’s primary work is incompatible with the care of young children - and plowing behind draft animals is tough to do with a babe in a sling, and hard to do when you may have to stop and nurse, or chase a toddler away from the horse’s feet. Tractors are not good places to haul babies and young kids for long stretches either, and I know from experience you don’t fit well behind the wheel in late pregnancy. Moreover, in the era of chemical agriculture any number of things that are part of the farm experience are best not touched by women who may be pregnant or nursing. For most of women’s history, being pregnant or nursing was a normative experience for many years.

Most of us don’t have a baby every three years anymore, so there isn’t any reason why tillage or organic no-till agriculture can’t be done by women (chemical agriculture is still tougher for women of childbearing age, since so many things accumulate in body fat and breast milk). So is small-scale farming without large equipment - with the modern digging sticks. In the meantime, independent women small farmers are the only fast-growing segment of American agriculture - an entity that we all know is going to have to grow fast just to keep up with the aging population of farmers, and all the more if we are to remove the fossil fuel inputs from our agriculture and untie food and oil.

We have used language to write women out of agriculture - out of its history, out of its present, engaging in the “housewifization” of real agricultural work. The implication that the farmer’s wife is not a farmer, and is thus knowledgeable about only kitchens and babies (as important as those things are) is a diminuation, an act of linguistic violence that erases the multiple competences of farm women, partnered or not.

I look around me at the farm families I know and see women and men with a host of skills that step outside of gender. Sherri, who lives with her aging mother cuts hay for a living. Alice handles the thousand pound draft horses on their farm with skill and grace. The sheep are Rosa’s, not her boyfriend’s, as is the market garden. Louise milked fifty cows a day to her husband’s fifty and drove the tractor while he tossed the hay bales for forty years.

This started out as my farm, with my husband who was happy to give me credit, happy to do the heavy lifting, but not so interested in plants. It has become a project of two overlapping people with related interests and the ability to do one another’s work. The bees are his. The native plants and herbs are mine, the livestock are both of ours, the work is shared inside and outside as preference, pleasure and ability define. The daily applied science of agriculture is worked out between us. The pride in it is shared, and neither of us would demean our contribution by suggesting it comes primarily through the other, as “farmer’s wife” does.

The question of where the next generation of farmers is going to come from is an important one, because we’re engaged in an experiment with no historical precedent - for the first time in history, the majority of new farmers will have to come from off the farm - for decades we have been able to reduce the number of farmers by drawing off many and destroying farm cultures and communities, while still having enough to meet our needs, but the farm population is rapidly aging, the next generation of farmer’s children have already left the farm, and now we must ask who will replace them?

The answer so far is that women are a part of the answer, and I hope this will be the end of farmer’s wife syndrome and the emergent recognition of the fact that farmers come in many packages, and that a way of life is something that circles round and encompasses everyone who lives it.

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