A Cooperative Harvest

Denman potato co-op effort reaping the benefits of community teamwork.

Leaving aside big questions about the future of food, society and life on earth, there are many motivations to grow potatoes co-operatively and locally.

Consider this: data collected by the US government over the past five decades shows that the nutritional content of vegetables has declined by up to 38 per cent. (It’s unlikely this is much different in Canada). Modern agriculture has spent decades finding ways to grow crops that have a short growing season, that store and transport reliably and have uniform shape and color—at the expense of nutrition and flavor. And the environmental damage of chemical-based mono-farming is far too extensive to document here.

SPUDS members have the power to decide how the food on their table is grown. They don’t have to think about transportation, storage, marketing or profit. Quality, nutrition, and environmental sustainability can take priority.

The seeds of this project come from Cortez Island, where a potato co-op has been running successfully at Linnaea Farm—an organic farm and educational centre—for 24 years. Several members of the SPUDS core group had visited Linnaea at one time or another. They had nurtured the idea of replicating this very successful project for years, in the meantime engaging in a variety of other food and agriculture-related projects that in many ways prepared the ground for SPUDS.

Bjorge has fond memories of her years participating in an informal network of families that would take turns congregating at each others’ gardens to work en masse while the kids played in the woods.

Fireweed, another SPUDS founder, has been organizing monthly vegan potlucks with films and speakers, often focusing on food issues, for years. A few years ago, she was instrumental in founding the Denman Island Garden Parties in which groups spend one Sunday a month volunteering their time to a local organic farm.

Janes has been developing a permaculture farm on his Denman property. And several out of this group have been involved in both organizing and selling their wares at the Denman Island Farmers’ Market.

“Really, SPUDS is part of a continuum,” says Fireweed.

The idea for a potato co-op was tossed around periodically over the years, but didn’t germinate until an appropriate source of funding was found. Freedonia, an innovative Canadian Foundation committed to grassroots empowerment, provided a start-up grant of $4,000 to cover fencing, fertilizer, seed potatoes, a cistern, tools, and the costs of preparing the field and building a root cellar for storage.

The next step was figuring out where SPUDS would put down roots. An ad in the local paper asking for a gift of land tenure received no less than seven responses! The project ended up at the Hermitage, a non-profit Buddhist retreat centre situated on prime farmland.

The project has widespread community support on Denman. As well as the generous offers of land, SPUDS has received lots of advice from local organic farmers as the group made the transition from organizers to farmers. And 30 memberships feels like plenty (the Linnaea project, which has been running for a couple of decades, has about 25 members).

But nothing new happens in a small community without encountering some opposition. For SPUDS, this showed up, for an extremely brief moment, in the national media, when an article in Macleans Magazine about local food sustainability initiatives quoted a Denman farmer “gently mocking” the project.

“Any fool can grow a potato,” chicken and turkey farmer Gavin Guppy was quoted as saying. “You don’t need a lot of room and you can grow a lot of potatoes. So I don’t know why you’d need to pool your resources.”

As attacks go, this was pretty mild, and didn’t stir up any bad feelings, but Bjorge still took the time to write out a response—if only for the satisfaction of putting her convictions into words: “Collective activity, especially amongst neighbors, can be a powerful counterpoint to a dysfunctional, atomized culture…” wrote Bjorge.

“Our potato co-op exists to revitalize local and regional food production, promote co-operative values, build community and provide the participants and their families with healthy staples.”

Perhaps any fool can grow a potato—assuming they have reliable access to land, which is not a given for many people, and sufficient water, which isn’t always the case—but growing potatoes in bulk is quite a different story, says Bjorge.

“All of us had grown potatoes—maybe lots of potatoes—in our own gardens, but the scale of this gave us a lot to get our heads around.”

The group gathered a bounty of information from seasoned local farmers, and had many long discussions about the pros and cons of different types of potatoes and growing methods. And then they went out and did the work. It was a crash course in co-operative farming.

“It was way harder than I’d expected,” Bjorge adds.

This dissemination of agricultural skills and knowledge is a big part of what makes SPUDS tick. “In a way the whole thing can be seen as training,” says Janes. “It’s training people in how to work together to produce a food source that isn’t totally dependent on fossil fuel transportation.”

The SPUDS team has no illusions that their project is going to feed all of Denman Island, but they do expect it will increase the community’s capacity to feed itself.

Bjorge says that while Guppy was the only one who openly mocked (albeit gently) the co-op, they did receive quite a few questions about why potatoes and not something more… interesting.

“We did need to think that over,” she says.

In fact, there is much to be said in defense of the potato. It may be humble, but like the humble characters of stories (for example, to stay with the vegetable theme, Jack and his magic beanstalk), the potato can be great. It’s the world’s fourth largest staple crop (behind rice, wheat and maize), provides easily digestible protein, and can be cooked in an amazing variety of ways, from French fries to potato bread.