An Open Letter to The Cooperative

Thankyou and cheerio, Cooperative Bank, and please wait for your receipt. In the last few weeks, as a result of its bad debts, branches are crashing down and it has literally become more the property of hedge funds than the venerable Cooperative Retail Trading Group. Whilst its spokespeople sincerely assert that the commitment to ethical investment remains, I can’t help thinking that without the backbone of a democratic structure, the culture of fairness and responsibility is somewhat weakened.

This might seem like a straying from a gardening column (though good gardens should always lead you slightly astray)  but my particular amble from global justice campaigning to urban market gardening pretty much starts with this very financial institution. As a student agitating for the boycott of Lloyds and Midlands (now Santander) because of their reprehensible role in perpetuating the Third World Debt Crisis, I became only too aware of the need to offer people positive alternatives: to build as well as destroy or, in my now-found horticultural parlance, to plant as well as pull up. The Coop were never a panacea: they were still a bank, after all: but they represented, in theory and practice, a genuinely different, yet widely accessible, way of doing money.

Scroll on a couple of decades and, on Thursday, I sat amongst a very different Cooperative, that of OrganicLea Limited, for our Annual General Meeting. Accounts duly dispatched, we pored over Roger’s annual Top Of  The Crops charts, which rank the performance of all the Hawkwood crops in terms of their yields – kilograms, and pounds sterling, per square metre. Hannah, our Chair, invited me to comment on the findings.

Overwhelmed by the sheer detail of the charts in front of me, I enthusiastically announced that Basil had slam-dunked in at  Number Two. On reflection, this probably wasn’t the kind of stirring invective likely to steel the huddled cooperators into redoubling their efforts to confront, at the grass roots, the triple terrors of climate change; the destructive food system; and the widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. As ever, it was only on the way home that I thought of something to say, that might help add up the figures for the coop, and the wider cooperative group of volunteers, customers, supporters, blog readers. It goes something like this:

2012/13 saw us producing and getting to market, over ten thousand kilograms of fresh produce. On the one hand, that’s a lot of grub: on the other, it’s a drop in the ocean of groceries shipped in and consumed in this borough. This is why the other OrganicLea activities – the outreach gardens; the distribution of organic veg from the wide fields of East Anglia; and the System Change work (that does the pulling up), are so vital: Hawkwood can provide a practical demonstration, an education, maybe even an inspiration, but real movement depends on our doing it together.

That tonnage generated £42,000 gross income. At the start of the Hawkwood Community Plant Nursery, four years ago, our business plan projected £48,000: an ambitious target that we’re within a respectable salad’s toss of. More impressive though, is that we did it our way, as Ol’ Blue Eyes would have sung if he’d been a member of a coop. By which I mean, we haven’t “gone commercial”. Only two of the twelve acres are in intensive veg production: the rest belongs to extensive fruit and wildlife. We grow what must seem like a frightening amount of “unproductive” plants to anyone business-minded: thousands of green manures and companion flowers, but these are central to our soil and pest management plans, and these in turn have been key to our year-on-year increase in yields of those plants that do actually pay the rent.

We grow heritage cultivars that are not the highest yielding, but which carry a song that needs to be heard. We nurture a diversity of species too complex to be ruthlessly efficient, but through which we’ve created a fantastically elaborate salad mix (seventy two varieties of leaf made it into the salad bags this year) and a whole World of Chillies. Thankyou, everyone, for believing in this.

And who, the astute bank manager might ask, is this we? That’s perhaps the most impressive and confounding bit. We are volunteers, trainees, course participants, coop workers. We come together for the fun of working with nature, and the serious matter of making a contribution to a better food system, a better world. Of the coop workers, Jonny, Mary, Jo, Vi, Adam and Clare have been there, week in week out, to steer this great tractor of people power over the ridges and furrows of the seasons, but each person in the whole coop has spun an integral thread in the web that’s held it all together: from Marlene’s website wizardry to Huf’s wondrous watering system to Brian’s flair for fundraising.

So, at the end of a long, hard, sweet growing season, there is a tale between the lines of the Top Of The Crops table, one that should give us all a warm glow of satisfaction as the temperatures, productivity  and hedgehogs drop off. Going forward, is there anything this little coop can learn from the plight of the big Coop Bank?  One obvious thing is that we can and should be cheerful now, in the knowledge that it won’t always be rosy – or indeed tomatoey – in the garden. And it is a monetarist myth that growth, however much and at whatever rate, is always good: the organic grower knows that lush, sappy growth, the kind that results from an excess of available nitrogen, is a pest and disease problem in the making. Balanced growth, that’s the thing:  and in the cool times, little or none is only natural.

And, in the week that we harvested the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean seed, and began pondering sunchokes, it may be worth quoting another, earlier, American – a gentleman named Black Elk:  “Only when the last tree has died, and the last river been poisoned, and the last fish caught, will we realise we cannot eat money”.