Local Food Northland 2016

2016 has been a big year of learning and development for us. We started the year developing our Trust Deed and a Business Plan to try to form our ideas into goals that we could share with others, and to take to potential funders.

We stated our objects as:

  1. To promote and establish community-led sustainable food systems for Northland that produce, add value, market and distribute locally grown nutritious food that supports the health and well-being of the community and the local economy while enhancing the natural environment;
  2. To contribute to a connected and cohesive, prosperous Northland by:
    • Enhancing the resilience into the Northland economy
    • Working with Northland marae to rebuild food production capacity at an Iwi and Hapu level
    • Stemming the leakage of wealth from the region iv. Rebuilding local economies within the region
    • Addressing food security and poverty at a community level
    • Supporting the provision and distribution of healthy, locally produced fresh food at a community level through a range of channels
    • Enhancing employment opportunities at a local community level
    • Creating stronger supply and processing capability for value-added goods and exports.
  3. To accomplish the above utilising a “social enterprise” model with appropriate governance and asset locks to best serve a system that aspires to support local needs while operating on enterprise values.

screen-shot-2016-12-21-at-11-28-00-amThe objects and plan was very comprehensive – perhaps too comprehensive in retrospect! As visionaries, we saw the big picture of where relocalisation of our food could go, but we also saw all the diverse parts that needed to come together to make this happen. So our business plan included five interrelated goals:

  1. A National Engagement project to engage with thought leaders in local food throughout NZ
  2. Investigating the feasibility of a value added processing hub
  3. A pilot “food hub” whereby a number of growers would be linked with a number of cafe’s/restaurants to establish a pattern for large scale substitution of out of region and imported food with produce from local growers
  4. Software development to support the above
  5. An administration function to support the above functions

Our first hurdle was obtaining charitable status for our Trust. Charities Services came back with multiple objections – mostly to do with that because one of our outcomes would be enhancing the Northland economy we could not therefore be charitable! It reminds me of the old saying about “give man a fish” versus “teach a man to fish” – obviously only giving fish away is classed as charitable!

We were unwilling to compromise and change our Trust Deed as it is very important to us that we try to build true resilience and sustainability that doesn’t rely on perpetual external funding. The outcome is that we registered as a Charitable Trust under the Charitable Trusts Act 1957, but we do not have charitable status under the Charities Act 2005 – a technicality that means that any profit is potentially taxable. But registering as a Charitable Trust means that we have restrictions in our Trust Deed disallowing any distribution of profits or assets to the Trustees (myself, Jeff Griggs and Peter Bruce) or related parties. We are firmly in the social enterprise/not-for-profit camp.

The second disappointment was that none of our initial funding applications were successful. We applied to a number of “big funders” for around $160,000 for the above projects. Initial discussions were positive but being a new organisation it was probably inevitable that we had to gain a track record before being supported by the large agencies.

We did however have success with a funding application to the FNDC/Te Tai Tokerau PHO Kai Ora Fund. So even though we had not been funded to nearly the degree we would have liked we continued to do what we had planned but in a more limited way.

We scaled back our “National Engagement” to the idea of a research project in the local Northpathways-cover-thumbland community around the idea of developing a “regional food plan” and perhaps a “food policy council”. Our research had indicated that other parts of the world with effective local food movements had some form of these things in place. Out of this came Peter’s research project “Pathways to Sustainable Food Systems” (supported by Northtec) completed in December.

Through the Kai Ora project and the funding from them we also held a series of gatherings across the North to discuss these issues. Peter’s research also engaged key people from across the region one on one. It also resulted in connections with overseas and national specialists, and the idea of a local food conference including these people developed – now happening in February 2017 in Whangarei. So with very limited funds the National Engagement project is happening and happening strongly.

Another unexpected boost came later in the year from Vegetable Growers Northland Inc. Peter and Jeff had presented at an event where the secretary was present and she enthusiastically suggested that they may be able to sponsor some of our work. Again this was a smaller amount compared to what we had originally asked for from the big funders but enough for Sean to start work to start work on our database/website that should be operational shortly.

Clive, Jeff and Peter at the Grand Round – Whangarei Hospital – November 2016

Our stakeholder engagement continues to grow, including us being able to do a presentation at the Northland DHB “Grand Round” in November, building relationships and linking local food to basic health provision.

Then this last month we have started discussions with another party about collaborating around a cooperative “food hub” concept, which would potentially include the value added project as well.

So although nothing has worked out exactly as we envisaged we are on track, and our networks and knowledge are much broader. Our local food conference in February promises to be highly significant and is being widely supported by some key stakeholders: Northtec are providing the venue, Northland Inc are providing some sponsorship, and we have Anne Palmer from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore speaking on the North American food movement experience, and Professor Barbara Burlingame, of Massey University on Local solutions to global problems. Massey University are also sending a number of representatives.

2017 promises to be an exciting year as we see the fruit of some of our efforts and continue to build alliances, networks and tools for the relocalisation of our food networks in Northland.

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Clive McKegg, December 2016

Northland Food Council Hui

As part of our food re-localisation project we have initiated meetings with interested people across Northland. This is about discussing options and developing membership of a “Food Policy Council” from a wide cross section of education, health, growers, processors and so on in Northland.

The first took place in Waipapa and involved interested parties from Four Seasons Farms (eco-biological production of food or Community Seed Banking), Edible Kerikeri (utilising public spaces for food production), Far North Resilient Communities Trust (Timebanking, facilitation of all types of community development in the Far North), and Far North Civil Defence and ourselves (many of the participants also wear multiple “hats” in other organisations – the beauty of Northland!).

img_1564The second meeting was hosted by Te Rarawa in Kaitaia and also included representatives from Healthy Families Far North, Four Seasons Farms and FNDC. We were warmly welcomed by Executive Officer Kevin Robinson. Obviously the emphasis on a sustainable local food movement hits a chord with all concerned with the future of our communities and our tamariki.

One of the key ideas to come out of our hui was the importance of creating new stories that show that there are alternatives to our current economic models and that communities can rise up and make a difference. Out of this thought came the idea of working collaboratively with one Northland community to create prototype for other communities to learn from. Watch this space!

Thanks to FNDC/Manaia Health Kai Ora fund for help with our costs for attending these meetings :)

Sacred Economics – Pt 1

sacred-economics cover art“Within every institution of our civilization, no matter how ugly or corrupt, there is the germ of something beautiful: the same note at a higher octave. Money is no exception. Its original purpose is simply to connect human gifts with human needs, so that we might all live in greater abundance. How instead money has come to generate scarcity rather than abundance, separation rather than connection, is one of the threads of this book.” (pg 10)

Charles Eisenstein writes with a rare clarity. While I don’t subscribe to all his conclusions, his analysis of the current global economy is spot on, and I’ve learnt much from this book about how the current system has developed, why it has enslaved the world to a cycle of near-irreversible self-destructive consumerism and what some of the keys might be to moving on from this current nightmare.

Connecting human gifts with human needs

Eisenstein’s hypothesis is that society did not develop our present money system as a way to facilitate competitive enterprise in the form of barter as such, but to facilitate mutual gift-giving of resources that would be wasted if not shared. In fact there have been societies that have functioned in a much healthier way without life being denominated in terms of money. He says:

“Let me be very naive for a moment so as to reveal this core, this spiritual (if not historical) essence of money. I have something you need, and I wish to give it to you. So I do, and you feel grateful and desire to give something to me in return. But you don’t have anything I need right now. So instead you give me a token of your gratitude—a useless, pretty thing like a wampum necklace or a piece of silver. That token says, “I have met the needs of other people and earned their gratitude.” Later, when I receive a gift from someone else, I give them that token. Gifts can circulate across vast social distances, and I can receive from people to whom I have nothing to give while still fulfilling my desire to act from the gratitude those gifts inspire within me.” (pg 20)

The fact that human gifts and skills are not being well utilised in our highly developed world (most people don’t love the work they must do) and human needs are very largely unmet through a massive polarisation of wealth illustrates that what we have come to now is an absolute failure.

Instead, money has become a way to reduce human life and the natural world into a reductionist, centrally controllable machine-like and decidedly un-sacred place. He says: “…reductionist science seems to rob the world of its sacredness, since everything becomes one or another combination of a handful of generic building blocks. This conception mirrors our economic system, itself consisting mainly of standardized, generic commodities, job descriptions, processes, data, inputs and outputs, and—most generic of all—money, the ultimate abstraction.” (pg 9)

Instead of enabling well-being for society, our economic system has become the tool of crippling the linking of human gifts and human needs. Money as we know it is not the answer, money is actually the problem.

“It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is now precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity, and forestalling our most generous impulses with the words, “I can’t afford to do that.”” (pg 22)

Reductionism and commodification

As an accountant by training, I know how powerful the story behind our economic system is, and how hard it is to break out of that mindset. We are trained that everything can be expressed by some sort of a monetary value: time, goods, people, resources, land, water, entertainment, culture etc.

When we link this to the other unquestioned assumptions of our age – maximisation of wealth as expressed in possessions and net worth, and the value of individualism, we have a toxic brew for dehumanisation and destruction of the earth.

Eisenstein shows how society has moved progressively from very little being denominated in monetary terms to almost everything. Much of what was once regarded as the commons – the common property of humanity for the good of all – is now private, protected by private ownership, regulation, patent law, digital rights management and so on.  This has had the effect of not just separating us from our joint cultural heritage but also of separating us from each other and ultimately from our own worth. In a generic world where everything is exchangeable nothing carries any kind of meaning – including our lives.  We see this in western culture where although we have an abundance of stuff we are the most dissatisfied of generations.

“…the products of slave labor embody the spirit that goes into them. Who but a conscript would produce the crappy, dispirited, toxic, ugly, cheap objects and buildings that surround us today? Who but a slave would be so resentful and unpleasant in providing services? The vast majority of our “goods and services” are made by people who only do so for the money, who only do their work because they “have to.” I want to live in a world of beautiful things created by people who love what they do.” (pg 199)

By denominating almost everything in terms of money, we can “own” what was once the possession of all, limit it making it scarce then make a profit. By denominating abundance into money (a scarce commodity) the abundance of the world is withheld from the needy and wasted by the powerful.

“When everything is subject to money, then the scarcity of money makes everything scarce, including the basis of human life and happiness. Such is the life of the slave—one whose actions are compelled by threat to survival. Perhaps the deepest indication of our slavery is the monetization of time.” (pg 31)

The non-organic nature of money

If almost everything is denominated in terms of money, things once intrinsically valuable not only lose meaning and true value, but the status of money is elevated to a higher value than the goods that it is supposed to represent.

Almost everything in the real world decays over time – food, fabrics, timber, manufactured goods, even ideas and culture. They need to be refreshed and nurtured. Even land if left unkept losses some of it’s intrinsic value (an orchard left to become overgrown say). This is why gold was regarded so highly in ancient cultures – it did not rust or decay like everything else.

Money as we know it on the other hand (because it can be loaned at interest) functions in the exact opposite way. It gains value over time. Money, something that has no intrinsic value but is simply supposed to be a way of linking human gifts with human need, has now become something to be desired above all else, to be hoarded rather than used to benefit society.

Eisenstein argues that this is actually not just ridiculous, but it is at the heart of our inequality and what he calls “wealth polarisation“. Those who somehow have money gain more for doing virtually nothing, and those who don’t get worse off. The scarcity of money drives economic slavery.

The problem with interest

“Economic thinkers since the time of Aristotle have recognized the essential problem. Aristotle observed that since money is “barren” (i.e., it does not leave offspring like cattle or wheat do), it is unjust to lend it at interest. The resulting concentration of wealth had been seen many times already by 350 BCE, and it would happen many times thereafter. It happened again in Roman times. As long as the empire was expanding rapidly, acquiring new lands and new tribute, everything worked passably well, and there was no extreme concentration of wealth. It was only when the growth of the empire slowed that concentration of wealth intensified and the once-extensive class of small farmers, the backbone of the legions, entered debt peonage. It was not long before the empire became a slave economy.”

Loaning at interest – the backbone of the modern economy – only works in times where there is room for growth – new lands to conquer, new products to make, new needs to create, new resources to exploit, more gullible people who will believe that they too can be “rich”.

When we start running of out the commons (what is left of our shared culture and our natural world), when we become satiated on the drug of consumerism, when pleasure no longer is pleasurable, the system starts to break down.  Then it gets nasty. The economy starts to implode, democracy becomes a commodity for sale to the highest bidder, regulation multiplies so only huge exploitive corporations are able to survive, debt becomes unsustainable, jobs become harder to find and higher-pressure. In the intensity of human suffering violence escalates and the poor and minorities usually become the scapegoats.

No reverse gear

The current system is clearly unsustainable. It is an insatiable beast without the ability to regulate itself.

While Eisenstein offers some great solutions at a macro level which could reverse the process (which I will talk about in a coming post) I’m not convinced that without a serious rupture in the current system there will be any appetite for real solutions. Our best hope is to at least aware of the vulnerability of the current economy and not to put our hope in it, but to begin to rebuild an economy of care and generosity that isn’t focussed on or indebted to the money system.

Although the details and timeline of this unraveling are impossible to predict, I think we will first experience persistent deflation, stagnation, and wealth polarization, followed by social unrest, hyperinflation, or currency collapse. At that moment, the alternatives we are exploring today will come into their own, offering an opportunity to build a new and sacred economy. The farther the collapse proceeds, the more attractive the proposals of this book will become. (pg 101)

To me the most helpful solutions are ideas we can initiate on a personal and community level. We will look at these options later.

Linen Flax Crop – Harvest and Processing

IMG_1291Harvest Day was 10th February.

This was a bit over 3 months after planting. There was a mixture of some strong mature stems and some finer, less mature stems (planted a bit close so crowded themselves we think). Height was about 90cm to 110cm – a bit lower than what we had when we grew it surrounded by shade cloth – overall a very successful crop for being grown in the open in a season that had very mixed weather conditions. 

From our plot of 50 square meters the yield was quite significant – it filled the back of our Impreza station wagon twice over. Unfortunately we put the stems together into large bundles – IMG_1286this gave us some trouble at the next stage – we should have bundled them into smaller sheaves.

The trouble was that where we came to the “rippling” stage where the seed heads are removed we couldn’t just separate the stalks into easily handled bunches to pul through a rippling comb. So it is a long process of pulling the seed pops off by hand.

The next stage after the rippling is the “retting” process. The plan this year is using 44 gallon drums for this process – also a new experiment for us.

Never saw it coming – the parable of the high flyers


Using “economic growth” based on change in GDP as almost our sole measure of national or regional wellbeing (as many of our politicians tend to do) leads them (and us) into some very strange and unfortunate behaviour. 48470558-aircraft-cockpit-pilots-airplane-captain-pop-art-retro-style-aviation-and-travel

Consider flying a commercial aircraft that has only one gauge operating. Some smart person has got the idea that the purpose of planes is to fly really high and really fast. So everything else has been disabled except this gauge that shows us a reading of speed x altitude (they have forgotten that the actual purpose of passenger aircraft is to get everyone safely and comfortably to some destination).

So the pilots, locked away behind secure doors for their safety (so that they won’t be attacked while they do their work) gaze intently at their one gauge and push us higher and faster — because that is their job after all (and they get bonuses for doing it well)!

GDP IndicatorMeanwhile, back in the cabin the passengers are getting uncomfortable from the turbulence, while the pilots are blissfully unaware that the air back there is stale, the food is inedible and the frantic cabin crew are beginning to abuse the upset passengers who are now fighting amongst themselves over who gets the clean water.

Soon wounded, sick and suffocated passengers are being quietly jettisoned out the back. This makes the plane lighter, so of course it can go faster and higher. The pilots hi-five and do quick calculations on small scraps of paper about how much their bonuses will be!

At this sustained high speed parts of the structure begin to shake loose and fall off. The pilots loose directional control – but direction was never the point anyway – just speed x altitude and that’s great without those extra bits.

Meanwhile the cabin crew are finding it too tough and parachute out, again making the plane lighter. Faster and higher! Baggage starts streaming out the door left open along with the bodies of the remaining passengers – all asphyxiated now by the lack of air at this altitude. But we can go even faster and higher now!

The pilots are of course unaware of what is going on out the back behind their protective door. Even when their fuel runs out their massive velocity towards the ground keeps their instrument registering positive results. In the final seconds they look at each other with pained expressions of surprise.

The recovered Black Box reveals their final conversion:

10:02:14 I never saw this coming, we were doing so well.

10:03:35 It must have been a bloody terrorist.

10:04:41 End of recording

(Alan Greenspan – Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006, wrote an article in 2013 about the 2008 Global Financial Crisis famously called “Never Saw it Coming – Why the Financial Crisis Took Economists By Surprise”)

By Clive McKegg, March 2016

Linen Flax Update

Our crop this year is near Whangarei in rich volcanic soil. This is the third year we have trialled plantings of Linen Flax here in Northland.  Sylvia preparing the soil by hand to make sure it was as fine and weed free as possible

As usual we prepared the soil by hand – removing weeds, roots and stones. This was done around Labour Weekend. Planting was done the following weekend, using some imported seed, some seed left from the first year, and some from last year. This was very interesting to us to compare, as we were concerned with the viability of the seed from the first year given it was fairly immature when we harvested. Plus we wanted to see whether the germination rates would different.IMG_1136

November and December were fairly dry, so we watered a couple of times a week. January has provided us with some nice showers so far to finish off our crop.

While the fresh seeds did germinate quicker, the seeds from prior years were only a little behind and in the end the yield has been very similar – which shows the viability of keeping seeds for replanting.

IMG_1178We also grew the plants in the open this year as an experiment. Matt loaned us his scare-hawk to keep the birds off for the first few weeks. That proved very effective as one of our main concerns was with birds wrecking havoc in the beds.

We didn’t count on an enterprising rabbit making a home in the middle of one bed. The combination of easy digging soil and nice cool tender flax proved to be too big a temptation – leaving quite a few broken precious stalks that we gathered up.

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Nearing harvest now, the plants have flowered and the stalks are starting to brown at the bottom. The rain has been a welcome relief to finish the crop off nicely. A great result we think!

Where too from here?

We would love to see a network of small growers producing linen flax in Northland, perhaps through a co-op of some sort. The potential for local processing is huge, as is the potential for value added products.It would be great to sort up a small-scale shared processing centre somewhere.

We would also love to talk with anyone with experience with spinning linen flax or equipment for the processing. At some stage soon we are wanting to organise a gathering of people interested in taking this further.  Please contact us if you would like to part of this kind of network in Northland.

Clive

Gardening Revival in Kaikohe

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Mike, Jeff Griggs and Mike’s son Connor

I recently visited a new Social Enterprise started in Kaikohe by Mike Shaw and friends – the Kaikohekohe Food Co-op (or KFC for short). 

Kaikohe is built in an area of rich volcanic soil and has a history of food production. But the combination of closure of local businesses through centralisation policies, resulting  joblessness and poverty – along with easy supply of cheap but often lower-quality food through the supermarkets has sent local horticulture into steep decline in recent years.

Mike and his wife Allison have been involved in community and pastoral work in Kaikohe for over 30 years. Mike sees the promotion of local food as a logical part of helping the community to be resilient and healthy in many ways – job creation, healthy eating, and bringing the community together over common goals being just a few of the valuable outcomes.

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Dripper tapes are used for efficient use of water

The gardens are situated just on the outskirts of the town, on land that was previously used for horticulture until the damage caused by Cyclone Bola in 1988 closed down the venture and that land was leased for dairying. The land is obviously well suited to gardens – surrounded by established shelter-belts, near a river providing water through drippers and it is easily cultivated. The area so far planted is close to half a hectare, and there is room for further expansion.

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Given that Mike is new to horticulture, the results are spectacular. He has been assisted by his son who works full-time on the project, friends, other relatives and community members. The work is also supported by a local Northtec Horticulture tutor who takes a keen interest in what could be a pilot project for a revival of horticulture in Kaihohe.  The project has also received support from the Kai Ora fund: a joint FNDC/Te Tai Tokerau PHO programme to encourage healthy food production.

The project uses bio-intensive techniques to reduce weed and pest issues. No sprays are used and minimum amounts of fertiliser are applied directly at planting to ensure there are no run-off problems.

Mike taking time to show myself and Jeff around his spectacular gardens

Mike taking time to show Jeff and myself around his spectacular gardens

Food grown is being distributed to the community through the co-op, which will shortly have an online presence using the same software as the Northland Natural Food Co-op in Whangarei (soon to be rebranded as the Whangarei Food Co-op). In fact there will be a cross-over of food available between the two co-ops to enable a greater range in both. At present orders can texted to 021 842 302.

The Kaikohekohe Co-op will also operate as part of a new Thursday night market in Kaikohe starting 28th January, a collaboration with Jess Tuckerman. Mike and Jess were both participants on the “Thrive Northland” joint Ākina/FNDC training for social enterprises.  At the night market food from the garden will be sold with other local food along with art and crafts. The market will also feature kappa haka, story telling, massage and music.

Great work everyone!

by Clive McKegg

 

Local Food Northland – Progress Report

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Ideas from our stakeholder meeting

Further to the Relocalising our Food Project, on 21st October we gathered a group of business and community leaders at the Whangarei Library to talk about the process from here. Some great ideas emerged including:

  • Potentially working in to supply increase the supply of local food to institutions like the hospitals, restaurants etc and what sort of infrastructure would be required
  • Ideas around enhancing access to fresh local food in Whangarei via the Tikipunga market and potentially a mobile food truck for those without access to markets
  • Enthusiasm over establishing a local directory/software portal
  • Local food demonstrations at the Saturday Whangarei Growers Market (these are starting on 5th December)
  • R & D work for new foods that can be grown locally taking local food and preparing/processing local food in new ways
  • Collaboration with CBEC over bringing local food content into their current work in schools
  • Potential for working with local health providers to deliver food education – growing, preparing and serving – with families caught in poverty and poor health/obesity
  • The potential for appropriate connections to local government through the enthusiastic representatives of WDC and FNDC who attended

We have set up a website called localfoodnorthland.org to promote these ideas.

Since the meeting we have done considerable work on addressing the next steps around developing a governance structure and structure for tax free donations (we have a Trust Deed prepared ready to set up a Charitable trust), creating a business plan to enable partnering organisations to see exactly how their resources are proposed to be used, and defining the specific projects, objectives and rolls required to accomplish our mission.

This business plan will be available for public scrutiny shortly. Thanks so much to those who have contributed to this process – collaborative project development works! If you would like to help with this or any aspect of the project please contact us. Jeff, Peter, Sean and myself have been the main instigators so far but thanks too to Bindy, Lisa, Anne, Sylvia, Ross and others for their assistance, suggestions and editing work.

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Eco-nomics

Forest_layersHealthy economies depend on a vast complex network of interconnected facets. In a way they are very similar to a natural eco-system. What can we learn from this organic metaphor when applied to restoring our ailing communities?

Within a healthy forest the larger, more established trees and plants shelter and provide nutrients for the emergence of new types of growth. This undergrowth in turn protects the larger trees from predators and disease, and retains moisture, microorganisms and insect life in the soil.  Layers of interdependent growth develop, contributing to the well-being and viability of the forest as a whole. Animals, birds, insects and microorganisms work in harmony and there is no waste.

When a forest has had the undergrowth removed the whole becomes vulnerable, there is no emerging life and the soil is eroded. The forest will eventually recover on its own if the damage is not complete, but this may take hundreds of years. Intervention is required to rebuild the ecosystem and repair the damage.

Does this sound familiar?

Similarly, our economy has become devoid of much of the “undergrowth” of local emerging enterprises. Young people are not staying in the area and becoming core primary providers of necessities and support services also tend to be less local.

Larger enterprises are increasingly not locally owned, and often become the equivalent of “exotic” or “alien” varieties rather than native fauna. Like our pine plantations, these take more from the soil than they give back. Like our soil, our local wealth, community cohesion and culture is depleted and exhausted in the process.

Commonly these larger entities will see the solution to falling returns as more centralisation. In a forest this would be like a giant tree trying to graft all the other plants onto itself, making the whole system massively vulnerable. So to in an economic sense trying to cover the whole supply chain or monopolise a whole market actually decreases the resilience of the whole system.

When the local “undergrowth” of small, local entrepreneurs is removed predators and disease move in as they do in native forest. For example, overseas investment may promise jobs for local people but these are often minimum wage low-skill jobs or imported labour who send most of their income out of the region. Our resources are stripped out with little local value added. In both the natural forest and the economic ecosystem eventually even the established native trees (larger locally owned enterprises) will succumb to disease and the soil will become so depleted desertification will result.

Answers?

If existing larger established local enterprises can act as shelter to emerging local businesses we may be able to see a reversal in this process. We can become agents of intervention for the purpose of returning the system back to dynamic balance – “eco-nomic environmentalists”. We can create a space for new native seeds to be sown (locally owned enterprises) and returning insects, microorganisms and fungi to connect the life of the soil and plants. We can be like the bees and insects, cross-pollenating ideas through cluster meetings, hui, mentoring groups, research projects etc., or like the mycorrhizza, networking the whole through internet tools.

Following the “eco-nomic” model no-one is the “king” in this. Centralised, large-scale organisation actually decreases resilience. Rather each organisation and person takes on specific projects that enable the whole economic system to be restored to health and resilience – where possible partnering with and empowering others to do this rather than try to do everything ourselves.  Instead older, more established organisations and businesses can act as “canopy” to sub-canopy and smaller plants. With the support of the whole “forest” large organisations may emerge from the top that become nationally or even internationally significant, but they are firmly rooted in and supported by the local community and the small businesses.

In this way the economy becomes a relational ecosystem, founded on the principles of collaborative, relational networks that cannot and should not be mapped into a rigid “organisational structure”.

Partnership within this may model may be financial, but more than that it will be a system of natural generosity, trust networks and friendships – healthy “co-opertition” of those that wish to share in the responsibility for creating a resilient and sustainable future together for our tūrangawaewae, the place we call home.

Clive McKegg – November 2015

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The Real “Fibre Network” – growing Linen in Northland

A resilient community is one that can fall back to meet its own basic needs in times of difficulty.

Food is obviously fundamental, energy not far behind (as many experienced with Far-North power blackout this week) but not far behind this is the need for clothing.

With that in mind three years ago we began researching alternative fabrics that could be produced locally. We found that most of our imported clothing comes from sources that are either ecologically unsound (monoculture, GE, high water demand, high energy requirement, high chemical input) or socially exploitive (sweat-shops with bad wages, poor working conditions, badly rewarded farmers etc). Even so-called organic or fair trade cotton requires huge volumes of precious water and energy-intensive processes, plus it still requires transporting from distant parts of the world. Like the food system, the fabrics of the world have been industrialised with all the problems associated with massive-scale industrial thinking.

The obvious answer seemed to us to be locally sourced fibre that can be grown and processed small-scale in a way that has a positive environmental impact. We already have wool obviously, and there needs to be much more local processing of this, but we wanted lighter fibres that had the potential to replace cotton and synthetics. We looked at Bamboo based fibres and Rayon (made from wood-pulp) but both, although organic-based, require a large amount of energy and chemically intensive processing.

Our native flax harakeke (Phormium Tenax) is another obvious choice but to process to soft clothing that is wearable like cotton is not easy. It has potential, and we are pursuing this also, but it lends itself more to heavier duty applications at this stage. Our other choices were hemp and linen flax. Industrial hemp is a great fibre but closely related to the Cannabis plant which obviously thrives in Northland – an association that can be problematic from a legal and perception perspective, so for now we decided to explore the option of linen flax (Linum usitatissimum).

What is Linen Flax?

Linen flax is no relation of our NZ flax. The reason the early Europeans named Harakeke as “flax” was that the fine soft fabric made from the “muka” in the harakeke resembled fabric made from European linen flax. The difference in the plant itself is substantial, and often surprises New Zealanders who expect the linen flax plant to be a fan shape when it is actually a completely different structure.

Linen flax is the same plant that Linseed comes from. Linseed is used for its oil – both for human and animal consumption and also extensively in paints and finishes for furniture. The plant has a three-month growing season from sowing seed to harvest – usually over summer. The whole plant is harvested including roots, and seeds may be saved for re-sowing the following season. It may be possible grow two crops in a year – something we will explore in future. There are number of varieties for fibre, and other shorter, bushier varieties for seed/oil production. So two years ago we decided we would try to source some seeds and grow a trial patch. We decided on a variety called Marylin from Wild Fibres in the UK. We purchased 600 grams the first year which cost us GBP35 including shipping.

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Our Journey

We planted 200 grams the first year on an area of about 5m x 1.5m. This enabled us to water easily, pluck out weeds and cover with a shade cloth shelter. We prepared the soil with lots of compost and broke up the ground to a depth of about 40cm. The soil we were working with was naturally poor, slightly acidic, mostly in northerly full sunshine so we added shade cloth to protect the crop from drying out too much and to keep birds away. We watered the crop regularly over the dry Far North summer (this was in Mangonui), and sure enough after 2 1/2 months little blue flowers appeared and the crop began to mature to a full height of 1.2m. At three months the flowers had dropped and seed pods were beginning to brown and fatten. The bottoms of the stems were starting to change colour. A storm had laid the crop over a bit so we decided it was time to harvest!

IMG_9228Harvesting consists of grabbing a bundle and plucking it out of the ground. The plants are hardy so come out well, but we found that care should be taken not to kink the stems at this stage. Our precious crop was now ready for drying and retting. The only inputs up to this point were soil, compost, water and labour. The rest of the process can also be completed just with natural inputs.

IMG_3073After allowing the stems to dry a bit, and removing the seed heads we next entered the “retting” process. This is about breaking down the pectin in the stems so that the fibre can come away from the woody portion, and is accomplished by soaking the stems in a bath of water for a couple of weeks. In some parts of the world retting is done in streams or rivers, and in some places dew-retting is practiced. Our bath made a good small-scale retting pond. As the process continues the smell can be a bit of an issue – not unlike a pigsty. Once the retting is done the next stage is to dry the stems in the sun ready for “breaking” and “scutching”. This removes the woody portion releasing the beautiful fibres for combing for eventual spinning.

IMG_3093At this scale we did this all by hand, without any real tools to speak of. To move to larger scale some tools would obviously be essential! The most time consuming part is the scutching. In our second year we allowed our flax to mature more and spend longer in the retting process. This made the scutching easier as the stems were stronger but the bonds were weaker.

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A friend who is a spinner spun some of the “tow” (the shorter, broken fibre) into a heavy thread – then knitted it. This made a light, warm fabric that would have potential for a jacket say once larger amounts were spun. We have yet to try spinning the longer lengths but these should produce finer tread suitable for weaving.

In our second year we experimented with growing more (we grew 800 grams in 4 beds) and seeing whether it would be okay without so much soil preparation and without the shade-cloth. The results were mixed. Obviously good well-prepared soil helps! A couple of friends grew some in different soils. One was coastal and sown widely apart – it did not thrive and was overcome with weeds. It seems they like to be sown close together. Another grew some in volcanic soil with plenty of water and the crop was spectacular.  They were planted close enough that they beat the weeds so no weeding was required. This year we have been offered a plot of volcanic soil around Whangarei so we are hoping for a great result. Now in our third year we are experimenting for the first time with planting seeds saved from prior year crops, plus some from what was left of the imported seeds.

Potential as a viable fabric?

It can certainly grow in Northland. It requires no input apart from soil, water and labour to grow. Processing is fairly basic – some equipment could probably be made easily enough to speed up processing. People with spinning and weaving skills already exist. The point is we could potentially grow this at enough scale to provide employment and create a local fibre without massive investment in infrastructure or R & D. Technology is available to take to a larger scale. There are production models from France for instance where this is commercially grown within a co-operative business structure. The idea is not just as a high-end craft item, but as a fibre that can potentially be used to provide ordinary local fabric, helping us to be more economically resilient, providing work and reducing the global transportation impact.

Clive McKegg