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The tools of Collaborative Agroecology

(continued from part 1 of Collaborative Agroecologies).

Agriculture at the heart of todays ecological and social challenges, with land use contributing to 30% of greenhouse gas emissions and industrial farming driving epidemic biodiversity loss. And yet agriculture is simultaneously central in the holistic solutions of our time, with potential to sequester the carbon emissions of a regenerative society, and with new/ancient agroecological models that can increase biodiversity and human-planetary health. Within this double sided coin of agriculture, there is a double sided coin of realtionships. As with all polarities, the way to reconcile this is to find the union, the middle ground and the tetrad of convergence whereby apparent opposites can become whole. There are two tenuous and paradoxical relationships to explore here: the People-Land relationship and the People-People relationship. Both have been at times harmonious, joyful and reciprocal, and at times exploitative and destructive. The human nature split is often cited as the start of the end - the beginnings of the destructive economy and ensuing decline of the ecosystems we depend upon. This story goes deeper, however, as the great separation over millennia was also the severance of people from each other, moving from collective to individual, from reciprocal culture towards instead a set of self-interested individuals narrowly defined by their race, gender, wealth and related roles in the increasingly global economy.

Part 1 of Collaborative Agroecologies (link) explored the essential interweaving of a more harmonious land-people relationship and the people-people collaborations required of this great turning point in human reconnection. These are the key strategies for cultural and food systems regeneration; the tools of which will be explored in this post. Clearly, the tool shed of modern society is no longer fit for purpose; the tools that bring suffering in the present and extinction/collapse in the future: tools of extraction, coloniality, domination, exploitation, and profiteering. To remedy this and displace the masters tools, we must sharpen and wield new appropriate scale techniques to re-integrate values into our daily work and relationships. These tools sit within frameworks of reciprocity, gift culture, indigenous wisdom/practice, food sovereignty, agroecology and collaboration. Within these frameworks there are less abstract/academic lived realms of practice, which I aim to touch upon from our early experiences in collaborative agroecology.

The small, day-to-day wonders and challenges are just as important as the larger issues and context – in reality, they are not separate but cosmically linked, just as there are as many life-forms in a spoon of soil as there are stars in the galaxy. It’s the daily practices and work that feed into the whole, just as the whole feeds into and shapes those actions. If a practice of daily courage is taken for the seemingly tiny things in life such as to say good morning to a stranger, then this has ripples beyond the ‘isolated event’, and in facts trains a habitual muscle and a mindset to take courage more automatically in seemingly bigger, more important life events, such as to speak at a UN conference or to take on a new plot of land to steward. Similar patterns manifest in collaborative practice, with the daily muscles of courage to interact honestly and effectively.

The tools for this work are many, but some useful ones we’ve practiced are:

· Non-violent Communication (NVC) and Conflict Resolution

· Visioning exercises and spaces for hope

· The Work that Reconnects

· Sharing circles

· Personal check-ins and talking stick during meetings

· Skilled facilitation and space-holding

· Deep, active listening

· Way of Council

· Regenerative Enterprise principles

Some of these, and others, are actually the most important tools in effective farming and enterprise in my opinion, and training and education in these spheres urgently needs to embrace them, moving beyond cynical or stereotyped preconceptions and into a pragmatic and values-based approach for organisational thriving. Beneath all of this, we find that working in resistance to the nature of both people and life just doesn’t make sense, it creates more tensions and extra work. Instead of forcing and manipulating conditions, we aim to embrace and partner with natural rhythms, which in turn boosts our work and also motivates people internally from integrity rather than a place of fear or top down pressure. One way this can manifest in practice is aligning our organisational rhythms to the tune of nature. Following seasonal, Cyclical patterns e.g. scheduling in ‘business review’, reflection, analysis and feedback sessions in autumn when nature is composting the years fruits and turning to root energy. Holding visioning and ideas sessions in Spring to harness the new energy. Taking more time off in the winter when nature slows down, and going with the flow of mid-summer growth and abundance.

Building from the tools above, and the feminine values of reciprocity and care that underpin them, it is possible to weave together new methodologies for effective and beautiful collaboration. For me, it is not the specific methodology or structure that is important, but the values that underpin it and the day-to-day culture of care and regeneration in a nurturing team. But structures are still important and useful especially to articulate the direction we need to move, so lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater! The structures for collaborative agroecologies operate at the farm level (e.g. enterprise structure of a CIC) and can be nested within a wider collaborative structure (e.g. regional producers co-operatives).

Structures need to be clear enough, but flexible enough, at least in this field of work. Too clear and rigid and they can dehumanise, put people in boxes, and ignore the natural complexity of life – anyone that has had to go through 6 monotonous voices over the phone to a company to get to an answer for something has experienced this! Too unclear and too flexible however also has a shadow side, and can lead to demotivation through lack of efficacy, work being repeated multiple times and a disempowered loss of autonomy, something I’ve witnessed in numerous collective projects and ‘permaculture community farms.’ So a middle ground must be found that allows people to flow autonomously with real human agency for their meaningful work, whilst also enabling a healthy flexibility and overlap with the whole. Organisations are complex, but they need not be complicated. The former refers to natural complexity which is beautiful and essential, such as that of a mature rainforest with all its overlapping relationships and functioning dynamic. The latter refers to overcomplication through modern human intellectual domination – such as the over-specialisation within a large company that on paper is the most rational business structure and yet in reality it surfaces much greater complication, inefficiencies and degeneration. I wont jump to any hard and fast answers to this above tension, and the navigation of the middle ground, but simply continue to explore and live it whilst sharing the lessons.

This is the exciting part of collaboration, we are both unlearning and learning, so self-reflexivity is becoming a key gift of our times alongside the discernment needed to decipher what solutions are real and which are masquerading. The underlying message here is that the tools of collaborative agroecologies are not necessarily as simple as we might wish. Practices of sustainable growing, appropriate technology, permaculture, social ecology, land trusts and producers co-operatives are all fantastic tools and necessary levers for transformation. But we need to look beneath and beyond this too, into the murkier, darker, womby worlds of beautifully complex relationships – of land and people in dynamic dances to the rhythm of reciprocity and nurturing.

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