A few weeks ago the nice people at Transition Chepstow welcomed me to a meeting to plan for the second year of their landshare. Its an unusual set-up: land rented from an organic farmer has 20 individual plots plus a larger one for the Transition group to work collectively. Rent varies according to how much produce a person gives to the farmer, who in future will sell it at his new shop next door.
The group are working hard to put transition principles into practice, or as one of them put it to me “practically doing it” by creating a source of local food. If their first growing season is anything to go by, Chepstow will be well fed. I happily went away with a huge bag of their summer glut. Helped in no small part by a legacy of good soil and generous helpings of organic muck the plot was lush and laden with produce.
Of course the other thing that had gone into the site was a large amount of labour. It was only once I’d headed home that it struck me that of all the communal garden projects I’ve visited over the year, this was the first with a completely voluntary work force- no paid coordinator, no staffed organisation behind it. Just the passion, commitment and graft of a group of people motivated enough to get up and do something. Then do it again.
There are various ways to look at this. Yes, volunteer gardeners aren’t paid money but they get plenty else out of it, not least some fruit and veg. So you might say that volunteering is just a certain type of work with a particular kind of value which earns certain types of rewards- health, happiness and all those other things more important than cash.
But the significance of the volume of unpaid work which goes into the alternative food economy is often neglected. Legions of WWOOFers have for decades been a mainstay of organic farming around the world. Then there are the volunteers and trainees at community projects, many of which wouldn’t be viable food enterprises without all these hands. If the alternative model is to transfer, as many would like, to the mainstream then success will depend on a guaranteed supply of such labour. But willing volunteers aren’t always easily sourced. And is it sustainable or just for a food system to function on such a basis?
Something I’ve heard at a few garden projects is that it can be hard to get people to help with bureaucratic tasks- “people want to enjoy gardening in their spare time, not working out budgets”. There are plenty of nice creative aspects to gardening, but some of it is down right tedious. If it gets harder to find people to get everything done, so projects fall fallow. Just the way things are in some senses – gardens grow, bloom then may fade.
Judging by the enthusiasm and foresight of my Chepstow hosts I bet they’ll be gardening for many seasons to come. I thought this image summed up the pride and satisfaction they take in their work: an idyllic landscape of rolling rural scenery, but take a look at which way the bench faces.