Postcard from Spindletop
Francis grabs a scythe, thrusts it into my callus-free hands and says “let’s go”. We’re scything the Italian rye grass at the top of his patch of land in the hot summer sun. It kicks up dust. Dry grass and fibers swirl around me, stick to my sweaty skin. Images of the past fill my mind, past lives and the hard but joyful work of peasant summers romantic and ideal.
We’re clearing space for dozens of friends and neighbours coming up this weekend to work this parcel he calls Spindletop. We’ll all stay for a picnic and camping. It’s the beginning of a gradual transformation of this place, summer by summer, turning this up til now ‘farming-as-usual’ field into a fecund, biodiverse oasis of fruit, veg, wildflowers, and community.
The scything conjures dystopian futures in our overheated minds, too. “Luckily, the Dart will keep out the hungry hordes from Torbay when the shit comes down.” We, of course, laugh at the absurdity. There would be no river wide enough, nor fence tall enough. “I am become death”, the words leak out as my attention shifts to my swinging scythe.
It’s clear from our lack of brawn and technique that neither of us would be very productive peasants on our own – of course he’s lightyears ahead of me. We shift to pitch forks and begin clearing the field. It is inevitable that many more people will be working the land in the future. Him, for example. Maybe me, who knows? The only question: on whose terms?
Spindletop isn’t an organised project or a programme as much as it is a natural unfolding of his intentions and dreams from the context of present circumstance. He bought this place a couple of years ago with no experience but a horticulture certificate under his belt, but he is slowly attracting collaborators. His is an open hearted invitation to come work the land with friends and share in its bounty.
“This isn’t back to the land, this is forward to the land”, we say. And now many friends have gathered to begin weeding the area where the polytunnel will go. After another hour of two, we’ll break from that and move on to outdoor feast, campfire, guitars and beers, and sleeping under the stars.
If Francis offers a neighbourly, open-hearted pathway forward to the land, TTT, School Farm, and over 60 other leaders in the local food economy here in Totnes are looking to catalyse an open-armed, broader movement across our food shed. They joined together at the ‘Food for the Future’, the first of perhaps several summit meetings bringing together the area’s local food movers and shakers for the purpose of making fruitful connections and developing ideas for cooperative ventures. And to begin addressing one of the biggest challenges for local food economies here and throughout the UK: how do we get more people back to working the land?
This summit, and the development of a wider and more organised coalition of organisations and individuals working to strengthen the local food economy it may have initiated, sprouts from years of work preparing the soil, so to speak. Building on the work of the CPRE Farm to Fork: Totnes food web analysis, Holly Tiffen has been leading the Food Link project which has been connecting local producers, wholesalers, retailers, catering and consumers. It has also been leading a ‘crop gap’ analysis to discover hidden opportunities for local producers while contributing to food security. And this year, the Local Economic Blueprint provided additional analysis and further impetus for moving forward.
Several ideas from this event may likely be taken forward. There are already plans for a community kitchen. If nascent working groups can make them happen, a cooperative food processing facility and a marketing cooperative may come next. Whether these ventures spring up or not, simply getting people connected, activated, and organised is an important and necessary step in this long-term project of ‘relocalising’ our food system. It may also lead to a few more people creating meaningful livelihoods growing food out in the surrounding countryside, maybe just like what is already happening up on Spindletop.
Images: Kids and scythes; Francis; Food for the Future, photo courtesy Hal Gillmore.