Wency Leung seems to think that people “who are choosing to give up the rat race in favour of looking after their families and communities” are something new and different. I know it was an old UK sitcom but “The Good Life” was based, to some extent, on the real experiences of people who wanted to do more than just have an allotment at weekends. (You cannot, of course, watch it here on your computer, as they can in the UK ,thanks to digital rights management.) Did it not make it here on PBS or KNOW?
Mind you, 5 acres in Duncan is a bit different to a large backyard in Surbiton. The title, by the way comes from Shannon Hayes, U.S. author of the new book Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture.
Possibly a bit of departure for me? Not really. If I were forty years younger … well at the time of “The Good Life” I did have an allotment, and I dug up the backyard too. So did lots of other people, encouraged by the BBC – “Mr Smith’s Gardening Programme” was my favourite – and other media. Not that I gave up my job, or that we became self sufficient. And people now are also turning to growing their own here – and there – in a big way. Some are even persuading their neighbours to let them dig up the lawn and plant veggies in return for a share of the crop. Partly this is a reaction to the inadequacies of what is offered commercially – stuff that is almost devoid of taste. And also the practices that depend on long distance transportation – and the use of irrigation in the great Sonoran desert – which are not at all sustainable. People are dubious about labels like “organic” and reluctant to shell out for the premium prices demanded. But they want to know that their food is indeed grown without harmful pesticides or GM seeds and so on.
There has also been an issue in this region for a long time about the use of land designated under the Agricultural Land Reserve which is not actually used for agriculture as it is claimed that many of the lots are “too small” to be farmed economically. Which, obviously, the “radical homemakers” would dispute since their concept of viability is different from agribusiness. But even at agricultural prices, 5 acre lots are not going to be within the financial reach of most, and it is unlikely that enough cash could be generated from veggies to support a mortgage. But there are, it seems, still plenty of people who want to buy up a big plot in the ALR and build a huge house and have a gigantic “yard”. Such “estate homes” are a bit of headache since they benefit from the designation but don’t produce much at all.
If we had sensible policies to the use of recreational psychoactive plants – instead of following the very obviously failed policies of our neighbours to the south – we could have a very useful, legal cash crop that might solve many of these issues. But I cannot see that happening any time soon. And the land use pattern of this region currently is of such a low density that alternatives to single occupant cars are difficult to provide. If we see many places which convert currently productive land to small holdings, we will have even worse traffic problems,.
But I would like to see more land in the ALR used for growing food that would be available locally for those of us who have little room to grow more than a a few pots of herbs and a tomato plant. And there are plenty of places where the land is neglected, used only for parking wrecks of old cars and trucks, or illegal tipping and other activities. Many have said they would like to see at least part of the Garden City Lands – recently acquired by the City of Richmond – used for food production. But that would be community gardens not places were people could live on their own plots. And the best allotment sites have quite a lot of space devoted to internal roadways and parking, for if they don’t they will not get used. Possibly if we had a different designation for small lots like “horticulture” we could prevent the nibbling away at potentially food producing land for other, less important uses.
Anyway it is time for the discussion to be about land use first – with a nod towards accessibility of course. Land that can be use for growing food is scarce – and we are losing far too much of it to stupid, anachronistic policies like The Gateway, that is taking the best land and using it for storing empty containers. We do need now, and will increasingly need in future, food that is grown close to where it will be consumed. And the use of techniques like composting and permaculture mean that old models of production that rely on mechanization and heavy use of chemicals can be supplanted. “Radical Homemakers” will be part of the solution, no doubt, but in an urban region we are going to need solutions that will work for those who are less radical but who still want to see change.