News archive

December 2008: Transition or Hobby? Have We Got Change Underway?

November 2008:More Tales From The Riverbank, plus Mushy Peas

Sept 2008: Abu-Dhabian Chaps Recognise Urban Farming and Buy Glebelands Next?

Aug 2008: Tales From The Riverbank x

Jun 2008: Tales From The Riverbank ix

Feb 2008: Tales From The Riverbank viii - Green Revolution II?


December 2008: Transition or Hobby? Have We Got Change Underway?

Anyone who has watched the film End Of Suburbia will be clear about the nature of the challenge for the UK and many other countries in order to survive, and even prosper. So far central government has responded to resource/climate/economic meltdown by advocating increased shopping. Assuming state leadership may be some time coming what is action within the wider public like so far?

Some early 2008 positive stuff encompassed make’n’mend, homebaking, allotmenteering, etc all well covered by the mainstream media. Most of this was amenity/choice rather than necessity but useful skills none the less. Some green figures such as Caroline Lucas pointed out populist important themes such as bus services, inequality of wealth but most politicians said don’t be alarmist. Survivalists found salvation in a real threat to stock up for and cults everywhere warmed up for busier times.

The Soil Association and many Peak Oil writers were certainly up with the issues and campaigners finally got onto a runway in late 2008. The reaction to what will in due course look like a very reasonable act, showed just how many middle class people in particular like flying. Amidst the wider public the biggest change so far has been simply to buy less, albeit compared to a decade or more of extraordinary consumption. Food shopping reduced for the first time in decades with cheap frozen growing and salads and fruit sales shrinking.

Writers began to investigate self-sufficiency issues again with Simon Fairlie and Graham Harvey hindering otherwise well informed pieces by assuming grazed pastures were perpetual energy machines. Clive Ponting updated his seminal history of the world and only he and Jared Diamond seem to have really got the significance of forest cover. To their credit writers from the early 1970s seem to have remained busy Eg Francis Moore Lappe, and avoided saying we told you so.

Regular issues of the Organic Grower magazine by the re-emergent OGA showed a network of commercial growers alive and kicking just at the moment their routes to the public were shrinking under the weight of ZanuLabour’s laissez-faire adventures. Lack of planning central or otherwise seems a recurring societal theme, state collusion with global capital is perhaps less surprising.

Permaculturism and Transition Towns continue to sound very positive while so far offering some serious red herrings. We certainly all want examples and inspiration but the hobby-necessity axis was apparent here with Wwoofers busy weaving on holdings while the owners earned their crust elsewhere. Permaculture designers reached plague numbers while occasional practitioners got hungry before getting back to town. The grain consumed by 70 million people alone seems to be an issue beyond most people involved . Unfortunate parallels with the LETS movement of the 1990s seem clear enough.

What could organised campaigners have done? Some ideas;

Trees, trees, trees. Keep planting, even Tolkien saw a tree solution. Organisations such as TreeResponsibility and Trees For Life in the UK and the Japanese Government have kept at it aware that it takes 25 years minimum for real payback.

Wood heating in the UK. Wood stoves of poor design however popular are a poor answer. Legal, efficient designs are readily available but little recognised in the UK. Laissez-faire no help to the market here. Any transition campaign could raise funds to buy woodland locally (upland or north facing slopes might be as little as £1000/acre). Planting woodland is a perfectly achievable local project with tangible outcomes such as secure fuel.

Public transport/mass transit. Car ownership will dwindle but walking/cycling initiatives have been generally tokenistic. Buses and trains serve commuters better than most but buses in particular suffer culture resistance outside of Ken’s London work. Haven’t noticed any direct action on bus access and fares so far.

Solar Thermal Heating. These type of solar panels heat water efficiently for much of the year but are much confused with PV or electricity generating panels. The latter does not seem relevant at present. Mass introduction of solar thermal would seriously reduce the UK energy bill and might prove a better return than giving public money to bankers.

Food Production. Much talked about but little happening beyond individual gardens and growers. Local planners got away with giving permissions on fertile land for developments nobody wants to buy or edge of town retail to destroy existing central facilities. Beyond Farnham and Unicorn schemes (and perhaps Soil Ass. Land Trust) seems little appetite to acquire land despite its relatively low value.

Control of, and access to, land is one of the big historical issues which as food prices rise will re-emerge. Is there a grain mill in the region? Do we have a local brewery? Experiments such as Fife have shown plenty of threads to pursue.

Local Planners. After a decade or more of shameful trashing of local life room for improvement. Scrutiny of, campaigning on and embarrassment of planning departments might be in everybody’s interest. At least the UK has a planning system. Until housing, jobs, schools, etc are planned Havana style for proximity we will be cursed by travel and beyond walking distances.

Local Politics. Get elected, time consuming but some real power remains and may yet increase. Get involved before someone less altruistic does.

Action on the above would increase the resilience of a community and its chances of surviving, even prospering. Organising and attending lots of meetings, driving around the UK a lot or slipping off to Stanstead for some cheap Yoga trip will not help much. We still have some breathing space in which to act and invest in our futures – let’s use it sensibly.

Adam York

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November 2008:More Tales From The Riverbank, plus Mushy Peas

Actually fewer this period as activity and plant growth slow right down with the season. Plenty of Russian Kale standing outside and resistant to the frosts so far. A few late outdoor Lettuces have hung on and Winter Purslane semi-sheltered under mesh tunnels looking good. Inside salad leaves also looking good with a small patch of Chervil thriving in the shortening days. The flavour of the latter a real tonic, almost Liquorish in it.

Efforts continue to finalise a team for the 2009 season, inheriting soil better than ever and an almost intact green manure cover on the site. The way forward may well be to increase the number of polytunnels on site and the winter cropping potential. Recent rises in prices of conventional crops make organic/non-oil based ones seem sensible and importation can only become dearer as energy scarcity becomes a reality.

While many pretended or wanted to believe economic meltdown was just a cycle, a big bill has landed in the UK and globally, for spending 10+ years down the shops without the means to pay for it. As throughout history elites who get free of any constituency or accountability tend to behave badly and to self-interest. This time big time! In this period we have the now comic phrases about “light touch, trickle down, wealth creators, masters of the universe, laissez-faire, partnerships”, whereas many people now know they’ve just been had (again).

We all look naive now accepting tosh like PFIs, neo-Labour, offshore manufacturing, Tesco led planning, credit funded everything, elitist schooling, growing wealth inequality, invading other countries, etc but can we stay alert enough to avoid any more? There still seems quite lot for the public in the UK and elsewhere to take on board. We are as yet unable to talk about population limits (well understood in the 1960s), still not totally convinced of climate change and keen to hear out anyone claiming a technofix magic bullet is just around the corner. Natives transfixed by Trafford Centre baubles is not a very flattering way to see ourselves. Endless economic growth really is not possible and planning for survival and quality of life really is wisdom and necessity.

Anybody still thinking it’ll all be OK soon and off to crack open a few Stellas from Asda might just try 30 minutes courtesy of Jared Diamond or Clive Ponting reading up on Easter Island, Rwanda or Greenland Vikings. Peoples who thought they could do it “their way” regardless of their surroundings fail. Do we want to go the same way?

Falafel and Mushy Peas Again Delia?

While waiting for the rainclouds to clear easy to drift onto forseeing future scenarios in the drastically hydro-carbon reduced world we have now to accept. Getting harder to pretend everything will be OK/just a cycle/economic confidence/etc despite best efforts of Evan Davies in the Spring on the BBC/the Halifax/neo-Labour/estate agents/etc. Less oil+gas, less fertile soil, more people, laissez-faire….you didn’t need to be a peak oiler, survivalist or conspirasist to see trouble ahead. Charlie Windsor proving one of the saner and braver voices of late. Could he, Ray Mears and Vince Cable end up running the country for a bit?

The global issues are scary enough but the UK issues are as much we can often contemplate. Taking the 4 people per hectare of fertile land often suggested as a baseline the UK may be better off than many other countries, as long as the gulf stream isn’t switched off. Much discussion of late about the carrying capacity of the land we have but suffice to say our mild soils are too precious to waste on animal faming/indirect food production.

Less appreciated is the need to do sensible things with the large areas of upland and more marginal areas, eg north facing slopes. Sheep farming has for over 500 years degraded such landscapes and soils and continuing this process is unhelpful and dangerous. We need further afforestation, a process that fortunately appeals to much of the public already. Trees provide fuel, building materials, steady temperatures and climate, food, wind speed reduction and soil enhancement. Even Tolkien might have spotted them as saviours.

More Glebelands in urban areas will help and more organic farming everywhere similarly, with our lower inputs and more nutritious product. Will the future be however a bit like now with slightly higher food bills? What will we be actually growing? What will UK cuisine be like now that we’ve all got a lot better at flavouring dishes and cooking but the ingredients are threatening to slip away?

Meat and dairy products will be much more expensive and therefore regardless of ethics consumption of them will plummet. It already has across many countries, returning to more traditional territory of exclusive. Reality crops will be protein from the prolific such as beans, peas and trees, and more durable grains suited to the climate of the area.The intriguing questions currently revolve around how this is to be done. Smaller, more localised or regionalised production and marketing may quickly emerge as energy costs bite.Attractive as this seems the big bad combine harvester, freezer plant and Peel Holdings dockyard might yet prevail. It is not at all clear so far who dearer fuel and chemical fertiliser will favour.

Summer 08 has seen significant consumer movement to cheap frozen foods. Will this food stay cheap as the growers threaten to pull out and the freezing cost rises? Will Victorian style contamination of foodstuffs extend from current pesticide/fungicide residues to wider GM and F1 genetic adventures? Will there be any dollars to continue subsidy of cheap carbohydrate for Cargill et al? Will UK educated Arabian Princes continue to prop up the £/take the risk, do they like/need London enough?

Enforced seasonality is breaking upon us and the £ has moved enough to restrict imported fresh food and offer cheer to UK growers looking ahead. What next?

Correct answers only please on a postcard to Glebelands Overseas Division c/o Sale!

Adam York

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Sept 2008: Abu-Dhabian Chaps Recognise Urban Farming and Buy Glebelands Next?

The late August rain waves a have put a damper on many growers’ seasons with parts of the NW waterlogged and the UK grain harvest having moved from looking great to rotting. Our sandy soil remains a “hungry” one, but forgiving in terms of drainage and our ability to get back in the field while others are held up.

Yields have been good although the low light levels made Cucumbers, Courgettes, Squash, Lettuce all end early or tail off quickly. As long as the public keep up their taste for fresh salad leaf however we’ve got a viable market.

Our protected areas (not area 51 but polytunnels, glasshouse or similar) are now being planted with hardier, cold season varieties such as Winter Purslane, Mizuna, Turnip Tops, etc. They do their growing as we go toward Winter but are relatively static once daylength, light levels and temperature have fallen enough. Importantly they will survive sub-zero temperatures without heat simply through the barrier of glass, plastic or fleece between them and the windchill. This is extremely energy efficient.

If our season so far has been relatively successful it is important to acknowledge those making it happen. Our team this year has as ever been based on Lesley and myself but ably assisted by regulars Charlotte, Adam R, Helen and Rob. The enthusiasm generated goes a long way to combating the vicissitudes of horticulture and global challenges looming. Thanks to all and several of the more dynamic wwoofers who’ve visited.

Urban growing or farming appears to have arrived as a subject with a Google search throwing up much more than it would 7 years ago when we began. While the fluffy stuff/give me a grant/consultant fever will pass, serious effort is starting to go in to working out how on earth feeding large urban populations will work without cheap oil. While the short answer is not very well there is much even a small scale model such as Glebelands shows can be done.

Another inspiration of recent years has been Cuban efforts to survive using amongst other things urban gardens. One of those featured in the Power of Communities film Roberto Perez is on tour in the UK, speaking in Manchester on 24.09.08 but also visiting Glebelands too

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Aug 2008: Tales From The Riverbank x

The summer's OK, this one at least.

Despite several days of serious heat recently rainfall has been generally appropriate, temperatures steady and no mad winds. Those unfamiliar with fieldwork will underestimate how severe sunshine can be and the challenge of doing physical work in humid conditions.

We don hats, sunscreen and variable clothing layers but the UK is an amazingly changeable climate dominated by mild "fronts"blowing up from the SW and the oceans. Planning for each one dominates and we are never far from the BBC radar pictures for looking at the next 24-48 hours. The UK has, however, a relatively benign, temperate climate, much of the rest of the world less so. Turn off this "Gulf Stream" or "North Atlantic Drift" and the UK will be a chilly unproductive place.

To this end building Kingsnorth/Nuclear/Shopping Garbage would be suicidal acts Neo-Labour would still dearly love to commit. Fortunately western capitalism has got a permanent puncture and building anything in the UK/US is pretty much over. No more Trafford Centre (or their Spanish one),Chill Factor indoor ski nightmare, motorways, Thatcherite annoying people, talking about the value of your house or spending lots of cash on trash, period.

Interestingly so far behavior in the UK has been encouraging with make and mend/resourcefulness/car booting/growing fruit+veg all prevalent themes. Some rises in housebreaking/debt collecting/redundancy/privatisation are warning shots but overall the population appears more resilient than might have been expected.

Admirable campaigning such as The Climate Camp continues but the driver for the rapid changes taking place is price of energy and materials. (People's time and labour can now only relatively decline in value of course.....) Adam Smith would have been proud,although perhaps less so with the WTO/World Bank/IMF institutions trying to manipulate markets to favour sectional interest.

On the land we have produced record amounts of our crops,even achieving a surplus of Courgettes. Comic for many in the summer but novel for us.

Unicorn, our dominant outlet has continued to shift substantial amounts in the face of fierce supermarket competition and it is heartening to see the direct but minimum handling model holding up against such extreme conditions. Maintaining any profit margin while competitors "burn"lots of cash reserves is not an easy task. Watchers in the grocery industry wonder who has the deepest pockets to stay the course, with profit taking in years to come.

Laissez-faire government at this point can be seen to be particularly stupid as suppliers/growers have been the main victims so far. Having already handed over planning permission for most useful UK retail sites to supermarkets over the last 15 years Hazel Blears recently announced action to protect independent shops! Reality and Neo-Labour announcements remain estranged.

We have continued our quest for coastal relocation and inheritors of the Glebelands business with low response so far. Do email us if you are interested. We are interested in showing what can be done on very mild costal strip areas for winter import substitution but also smaller settlements having model localised food production.Suitable sites are not easy to obtain but the idea remains very important

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Jun 2008: Tales From The Riverbank ix

First piece for a bit, largely due to too much time in the field.

The UK season might be seen as seeding+planting, followed by planting+weeding, followed by weeding+picking, the challenge being to extend the latter period beyond the obvious warmer months. Our spring has been broadly OK with crops prospering largely due to several lengthy days of irrigation using Mersey water. Flea beetle damage has been low with plants also strong enough to resist aphid colonies.

Current crops are Lettuces, Basil, Parsley, Broad Beans, Courgettes, Spinach Beet and Salad Leaves with Russian Kale,Squashes,Coriander and Cucumbers on the way.

Apologies for all disappointed course would be attenders: if the clamour continues we will rearrange in early Autumn

Much of UK population still struggling to take on board energy and food costs let alone work out what nitrate and the Haber-Bosch Process means (seemingly the means to have got nearly 7 billion people very rapidly). Anybody else think that global population may already be falling as the poor are priced beyond weekly sustenance?

As globalisation goes in to reverse anticipating the shape of localised and more regionalised life is not easy. The film "End of Suburbia" has been an excellent guide to the issues and solutions to survival, beyond taking to the hills with ammunition and crucifix, well worth tracking down. The outer suburbs of many US cities are already in some decline and encouraging falls in driving and clothes shopping are being reported. As with all processes of change a lot may not be forseen but beneficial effects may be in this too. See you at the pickling class

Adam York

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Feb 2008: Tales From The Riverbank viii - Green Revolution II?

Much news of late suggesting GM crops will be essential to boost yields in the face of continuing global population growth ie we'll starve without them. This seems essentially a rerun of Green Revolution I of the 1960s+70s where new hybrid varieties of grains, particularly rice, would save the third world.

Higher yields have been achieved in many regions as long as the nitrate fertiliser and water supply was available to "fuel" them. It was a system to turn oil into food. Unfortunately soil quality requires more than short term energy blitzes and humus has often been consumed and considerable desertification caused.

The case for steady soil fertility and yields through organic recycling of nutrients back into soil has struggled against capital intensive and World Bank backed "big farming" but shrinking fertile areas continue to alarm.

GM crops harber Green Revolution II with a similar offer to raise yields by genetically dramatic changes in plant biology. The technology is crude (lumps of DNA from one species dropped into another) and ultimately hopes to squeeze more yield out of the ground than before. Soil and energy are however finite and the disasters of Green Revolution I are there for all to see, for examplewater shortages, falling yields, cash crop agriculture, ties to pesticide and seed companies, suicidal Indian farmers. Cheap fertiliser is no more and the long slow haul back to living soil faces us, as does mass starvation......

Organic farmers are not offering exclusive food for the educated, they are offering food production that is sustainable, systems that can produce for all, year in year out. They aim to put back what they take out, a system used successfully for 40,000 years by Chinese growers amongst others.

Soil is a resource to cherish and cultivate, an inheritance for the next generation. GM crops and seeds offer quick fixes which can feed ever larger numbers of us: does this sound plausible or trustworthy? Do the people and companies lobbying for more GM introductions seem to be acting in the wider public interest? Eg the NFU, Bayer, Monsanto, Tony Blair.........

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