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July 19, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Capital A

Don’t Panic, Go Organic: Self-Sufficiency and Urban Agriculture

The concept of ‘urban agriculture’ as a means of encouraging sustainability has been floated around in architectural circles for a number of years, and remains a favourite buzzword of many an Urban Designer. But is it really possible to kerb our environmental ills by planting a few potatoes in the backyard? Salient’s Stuart Taylor talks to comedian and self-styled opinionist Te Radar about his latest foray into self-sufficiency, Radar’s Patch, to discover whether it is indeed possible to survive off a typical quarter-acre section.

Firstly, what happened to the house and section you worked on once filming came to an end?

It was leased and went back to its landlords, who had bought it with the lease in place. They will no doubt do it up a little and then sell it and attempt to make a profit. Living the Kiwi dream they were.

And how does the project section compare to your usual abode? Has it changed the way you now live?

My house is in a bit of a better state, in fact it’s an old state house I believe. It hasn’t really changed the way I live. I potter about a little but I’m away so much that I don’t have a big garden, as it would simply die or become overgrown. And as far as being aware of products, food choices etc, I’ve always been pretty conscious of that.

How possible do you think it is to live a similar lifestyle in an urban situation where perhaps the sections are commonly subdivided and bare land is at more of a premium?

Space utilisation is what people make of it. I know people who grow vegetables in the tiny space between their house and the fence. People can grow a considerable amount in a tiny space. In fact I think the more space people have the more difficult they might find it. Less is more, as they say, and a small space, well used, can be hugely rewarding for little effort.

An interesting by-product of self-sufficiency is the emotional connection that one can develop with the process or product. How did you feel about leaving your quarter-acre paradise and its bounty?

This time round I didn’t mind, as I wasn’t as attached to the property as I was in the first series. But I do miss the chickens, and certainly the livestock from the first series. You can get quite attached to animals, even those you intend to eat. And there is always something a little frustrating about leaving somewhere just as you start to get things right.

With global trading, the seasonal variation in produce becomes less significant—that would be, certain vegetables can be bought year-round as opposed to earlier days when produce would fluctuate from scarcity to abundance as per the seasons. How do you deal with this disparity that at times could be used as an excuse against the idea of growing for oneself?

I guess it is what people are willing to do, or put up with. It’s also to do with where they shop: supermarkets or a local orchard or greengrocer? Many people might not have the time nor inclination to preserve, bottle, stew, pickle or freeze in times of plenty, but others do and love it. It’s really a personal decision as to where you will put in your effort in being a little more eco-aware. Do you buy locally produced tin fruit or bottle your own? Do you attempt to eat just those crops in season? While it is lovely to have a pantry full of home produce, the reality is for many people that it’s just not an option.

Something really positive to come from the series was the sense of community you managed to achieve with all of the characters who you met over the six months. Do you see projects like this as a means to reconnect people and to encourage active participation in the community?

I think that at the heart of both series was not a message of sustainability, but one about the importance of community. Participation in aspects of community life is essential for many, be it from sports clubs, to schools, to groups with similar interests. It’s a sharing of skills, using your money to reinvest in your community, in the form of supporting local small business, butchers, bakers, greengrocers, brewers, cheese makers, and so on. They are all a part of what makes a community a rich and vibrant place.

For me, the final real estate evaluation of the property was something of a disappointment, at least in that it perhaps represents New Zealanders’ core value system as being financially driven—‘useable space’ being declared as more economically valuable than anything put into it. What were your feelings about their reluctance to attribute any worth to the oven and chicken hutch, etc?

People buying property seem to like a blank canvas apparently, or at least something they don’t have to do too much to in order to achieve their dream. I was a little surprised that the thought of a place being set up for an eco-aware type wouldn’t have commanded a better response, but then having said that I guess she knows the market. I am sure that for someone it would have been ideal. But then again, people do paint their walls that weird off-white when selling to create the bland appealing-to-all look.

Another focus for you was the economic potential for such a lifestyle—both in terms of whether it is cheaper to live by producing for oneself and also in terms of potential income, particularly—with surplus yield—would you consider this one of the biggest hurdles for those interested in doing something similar?

The actual cost of producing some of the items didn’t strike me as being all that cheap, and was certainly time-consuming. However, many people do make a tidy sum from doing so, whereas others do so as a lifestyle decision, liking the fact that they can have a stall at the local markets, meet people, and make a little extra.

One great advantages of a supermarket lifestyle is the time-saving benefits. In your experience, does the sense of reward that comes with self-sufficiency equate the time input? Or is this perhaps something that would become more true over a number of seasons, etc, at least once you have the initial setup required?

Ah yes. Being time poor. We spent a lot of time just getting the basics set up, so each season, once you have that done, you can refine and improve. However, some things do take time. Killing and prepping chickens, for example. It’s a fair amount of effort, but again, something that you improve with over time. But, is the result worth it? Sure, it’s something you grew, but the chances of it being as fleshy as a nice free-range store-bought one may be slim, and then, given the time and money invested in rearing and butchering it, is it worth it? Again, this may be down to personal taste and pride. But, once you have systems in place, it should get easier. After all, you only have to build a raised garden plot once, then you move onto something else, while it enriches itself over the year with compost, etc.

In terms of New Zealand, one of our greatest agrarian pursuits is the use of vast swaths of land for dairy farming—do you think it is possible to meet some of our dairying needs in close quarters? Or is rearing livestock and the like perhaps a step too far?

If you mean people having a small holding and raising a cow for milk, I think for most it’s not practical. Again, it has to do with looking at the economics and your personal philosophy and practicalities of TIME. Rearing and milking a cow is time-consuming. It’s an everyday thing. And, arguably, much less cost effective. However, again, some people prefer it. The other option is small farmlets selling milk to locals direct, but there are a few laws about this.

What is your take on the difference between personal efforts to become sustainable versus the wider efforts required? Do you think this kind of grass-roots approach can ultimately lead to a change for the better?

I’d like to think so, but the reality is it’s a little bit greenwashy. Most of the refuse, resource use, and pollution comes from industry, and simply stopping the use of a plastic supermarket bag won’t change that. Again, it depends on your notion of sustainability. If it is a community thing where you support your local businesses, this is an excellent way of approaching it. Having said that, there are many great grass-roots ventures. Wastebusters, enviro-centers, resource pooling, shared allotments, are all vital and very good.

What is your take on greenwashing and voodoo marketing strategies that give consumers a false sense of satisfaction that they are doing their part?

Most people simply don’t have the time or the resources to fully investigate every aspect of their purchasing. But I think many are being hoodwinked. The belief that all free-range chickens, eggs come from happy chickens mooching around a field is a classic example. I think though that there is a huge difference in production techniques here than there are in the food industries in the US, and many people may not realise that. There was a recent furore over the chemicals in supposedly natural washing detergents, for example. Just because it’s labelled organic doesn’t mean it’s good for you.

A caution from the wise then… thanks a bunch for your time, Radar!

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