Friday, December 30, 2011

Radical or not?

On another blog I sometimes comment on, I was recently very gently accused of being "radical" and "anti-private property" by someone who surveyed the posts on this blog. I think there's a little more nuance needed here, so let me explain myself.

First, let me say that I embrace the term "radical" in its etymological sense of "going to the root" of something. Yes, I have radical views. I am not satisfied with explanations or solutions that scratch the surface of issues. I also like to look at the historical and cultural contexts of ideas. Relating to this, then, I wouldn't say I'm "anti-private property." I'm not keen on sharing my underwear with anyone else. I am, however, against the commodification of land. I do not think access to land should be determined solely by ability to pay. And I think community ownership and commons should be more widespread.

Historically, the idea of land as private property that was bequeathed upon North America is only a few hundred years old. It was by no means a "natural" progression, even if one does believe in a teleological notion of history. It stems from the British enclosures, a centuries-long process with two thrusts: changing and consolidating open-field systems to enclosed fields owned by individual farmers, and eliminating rural peoples' use rights to common and waste land.

In this process, many farmers were robbed of land – their means of production/reproduction – and the feudal guarantees of security they once had. Enclosure changed land from a life-support system to a commodity to be owned and exploited for private profit. And it did not happen smoothly or easily; generations of people resisted, were killed, were impoverished.

Prior to the enclosures in Britain, there were complicated rights and obligations of various resource users. For example, villagers often had the right to collect fuel from uncultivated land, and pasture animals on common land – all subject to local and frequent negotiations. The enclosures appropriated the commons, and took those various rights and bundled them all together and gave them to the owner of the ground.

This “dominium plenum” (total lordship) way of thinking about property is “common sense” to us today. The owner has a right to use his/her property; it is wrong for all non-owners to interfere with the owner in his/her use of it, and non-owners may use the property of the owner if and only if the owner gives permission. The owner has also transference rights. There are rules in place to punish non-owner interference, regulate cases of damage and liability. (This is more complicated, since rights can variously be permanent, temporary, absolute, exclusive, transferable or nontransferable, etc. One small example: the state retains the right to expropriate land for a highway)

Although private property is dominant in Canada, there are other ways of organizing ownership in natural resources, such as land or water, today. The suggestion that land should not be treated as a commodity is admittedly fairly radical in North America, outside of the land trust movement. But it isn't just an idea relegated to those heathens in the Global South who have not received the enlightenment of capitalism in all its glory. There are two examples from northern Europe - Norway and Scotland - that could teach us a thing or two.

Norway has extensive areas of land owned in common, basically governed by the same legislation since the 12th century. There are three types: farm, community, and state commons. In the case of farm commons, a farm usually holds infields privately and the outer uncultivated lands, for timber, grazing, hunting, fishing etc., are held jointly with other farms. More than 50,000 farms had shares in jointly owned land in 1986. Community commons also exist – their profits (under law) must first be used to secure and improve the commons, then can be used for developing more industry, activities, and community projects such as hydroelectric power generation. Thus, lots of resources go back into the local community.

This type of ownership is possible because property rights are not unified, but more like a “bundle” of rights which may be parcelled out to different owners. This is called resource-specific property rights. For different types of resources there are different rules regulating who has access to the resource, how regulations of use come about, and how it can be transferred to any successors. The ground-owner and the user/owner of a specific resource are often different persons. On joint farmland, for example, one farm may own timber rights to coniferous trees, another a certain percentage of grazing rights. These rights are negotiable between parties and local solutions are more easily arrived at. Note that I said the farm owns: in Norway the right to use the farm commons is attached to a particular property rather than a person. This was intended to keep farmland in the hands of farmers.

Is this possible here in Canada? Or perhaps a form of community ownership, being undertaken in Scotland, is more appealing? I'll go into that example in the next post.
Further reading:

Sevatdal, Hans and Sidsel Grimstad. 2003. Norwegian Commons: History, Status and Challenges. Landscape, Law & Justice: Proceedings from a workshop on old and new commons, Centre for Advanced Study, Oslo, 11-13 March 2003. Available at:

Berge, Erling. 2002. Varieties of property rights to nature – some observations on landholding and ownership in Norway and England. In Schmithüsen, F.; Iselin, G.; Herbst, P., Eds. Forest Law and Environmental Legislation – Contributions of the IUFRO Research Group. Available at 
Berge, Erling and Hans Sevatdal. 1993. Some notes on the terminology of Norwegian property rights law in relation to social science concepts about property rights regimes. Revised version of a paper presented to the IV. World Conference of IASCP, Manilla, 15-19 June 1993. 

Goodale, Mark and Per Sky. 2001. A comparative study of land tenure, property boundaries, and dispute resolution: Examples from Bolivia and Norway. Journal of Rural Studies, Volume 17, Issue 2, 183-200

Saturday, December 24, 2011


I think my subconscious knows the days are getting longer.

I've been a bit itchy without anything growing in our house or yard (for some reason, I kill houseplants) so I decided to go to the last Farmers Market of the season and get a sprouting kit.  Then I forgot to.

Last night, I dreamed our neighbour came over and planted two rows of perennial flowers in our front garden bed. I was pleased that we'd attract pollinators and admiring glances, but - THERE WAS NO ROOM FOR TOMATOES!

It was a rough night, so when I fell asleep again, I dreamed that my husband had planted our front lawn to the sidewalk with cold-hardy plants. The cabbages were a foot and a half tall. (They must have started them in the fall, I thought.) But again - NO ROOM FOR TOMATOES! I was trying to decide if I could squeeze in a couple plants at the end of each row when I wore up.

Just a couple more months, and there'll be enough daylight hours to start thinking about bedding plants. But darkness is good for dreaming in.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Contest Results! ...Soon.

Are you on tenterhooks, waiting for the results of the Squash Recipe Contest?

Will the winner be the recipe my son dubbed "Creamy Delight?" Will it be the first risotto I've ever made?

Or will I cop out, claiming my teacher training and experience and the relativism prevalent in society make it too difficult for me to evaluate "best"? (I should have made a rubric to use in evaluation.)

Stay tuned - I don't know the answer yet. But don't go away upset. Look at my failed attempt at thumbprint cookies, and laugh!

I have no idea what went wrong. The next batch was much better.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Confession: I am a Landlord.

I am still coming to terms with the fact that I am.... a landlord. That's right. After the settlement of my father's estate, I now own 1/3 of two quarters of land shared with my siblings. I do not farm it. (We are renting it to a cousin to run cattle on). It feels weird to me to make money not due to any merit of my own but simply because I inherited. I do not labour at all, and yet I directly benefit from the labour of others. I don't like it.

However, I have to admit I do like owning land. Yes, even though I research alternative land tenure and am terribly committed to it in principle... I have an attachment to this land. This rooted place that belonged to my great-uncle and then to my father, with coulees that still contain echoes of primal prairie. Is it an attachment to possession, or to history, or to experience - the brome and alfalfa mix that I lay down in for shelter from the wind while waiting for the post-pounder to catch up to me as I surveyed fence for my dad five years ago? Is it an attachment to... possibility?

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Comfort Food

I know that I should be posting informative, politicized information. But it's December, and I just want to hunker down in a warm nest and fatten myself up. If you like, you can read Barry Estabrook's take on organic agriculture's ability to feed the world (after the proof, a zinger: "Given that the current food production system, which is really a 75-year-old experiment, leaves nearly one billion of the world’s seven billion humans seriously undernourished today, the onus should be on the advocates of agribusiness to prove their model can feed a future population of nine billion — not the other way around"). However, this post is going to be about comfort, and soup.

Some unanalysed part of me feels secure when certain numbers increase. Not money in my bank account, which would be sensible, but quantity of food that I've put up makes me feel happy. I'm not talking freeze-dried packets to be eaten in a steel bunker in the nuclear aftermath. I mean jars of applesauce and tomatoes, bags of potatoes and onions, and a freezer of pies and meat. I ascribe to Sharon Astyk's principle of food storage: store what you like to eat, so in a situation where you have to eat it (job loss, ice storm) you will enjoy your food rather than have it add to the suffering. Last week, I decided to make a meal entirely from stored food.

I grew onions for the first time this year. I've come late to an appreciation of onions, and I didn't know how many to plant in our limited space. It turns out that I planted enough to last until last week in storage. These are the last onions, and the last carrots. (I grew many carrots, but correspondently ate more and found more ways to use them in recipes because they were so tasty.)

 I added canned tomatoes. I added garlic:


Vegetarians, avert your eyes. I added ground beef:

I added spices, and noodles, and voila:

I made comfort.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Company's Coming for the Holidays

Do you know Jean Paré?

I feel certain that you do - if not by name, then in your subconscious, the primal palate that has been shaped by your earliest holiday dinner experiences, your first taste of sugar, and the vegetable you had to sit at the table until you finished. Purple cabbage with sesame seeds and soya sauce, in my case.

Jean's recipes have been shaped by generations of prairie cooks, and have in turn influenced another generation through the publication of her "Company's Coming" line of cookbooks. She is one of the main reasons that, in this era of rural population decline, we are still served Those Squares at potlucks, funerals, and weddings:

Yes, those squares. In 1981, Jean published her first cookbook: "150 Delicious Squares". Now, her books have sold in the tens of millions.

One of the appeals of the cookbooks is Jean's principle that recipes should only include ingredients you could easily get at a local supermarket. Unfortunately, I was raised by a hippie mother, so it goes against the grain to keep ingredients like coloured marshmallows and graham cracker crumbs in my pantry. However, they soon will appear. I am going to begin my holiday baking, and it must include squares.

I inherited "150 Delicious Squares" from my husband's great-aunt. Last year, I tried "Flat Truffles". After I'd made them, I realized that the ingredients - icing sugar, cocoa, butter - were the same as those in the recipe for icing on the Roger's sugar bag. Basically, I made a log of icing and rolled it in nuts and sliced it. My husband loved it. I think Jean went a little too far with that one. However, the Lemon Bars and Apricot Chews quickly became a favourite.

This holiday season, stop by my place and I'll feed you up. And remember Jean's homespun wisdom: "The horse is such a respected, noble animal. So if you eat like one, why would you be any different?"

P.S. The squash recipe contest has closed. I am busy testing and will announce the winner soon!