I was pleased to interview Liz McLellan, the brains behind a groundbreaking new site — Hyperlocavore.com. I couldn’t have found a better project (or a more obliging victim). Not only does the hyperlocavore movement have the potential to revolutionize our relationship with our communities, our neighbors, and our food, it has the ultimate advantage of being completely free! No huge initial infrastructure investment here. We’re not talking smart grid. We’re talking smart living.
Liz was willing to answer all of my questions. It’s about food safety, fuel, communities and, mostly, changing the world one home-grown tomato at a time. Read on to find out what hyperlocavorism is all about.
This interview was originally published at TNTeam.
TN: First off, what exactly is the Hyperlocavore community? What is yard sharing and how does it work?
Hyperlocavore.com is a social network built to support people in starting and nurturing yard sharing groups.
Yard sharing is a way to gather resources together to get growing your own food cheaply and with less time and effort. It’s also a way to deepen community resilience.
Let’s say you live in an apartment, you have a green thumb and really miss digging in the dirt. And your neighbor (friend or family member) Mrs. Jefferson has a nice big yard but has arthritis and a bum knee. Another friend, Joe, also would like to lower his bills but still eat lots of organic fruit and vegetables. The three of you form a yard share group. You agree to grow for one season together as a test run.
Now what happens? All three of you eat better food that has traveled zero miles to get to your plate. It is in season, delicious and has a low-carbon impact. Mrs. Jefferson has two younger people in her life, a shared meal now and then and fresh flowers every day, she not only is eating better, but is more connected to the community. You and Joe are saving money, getting fit, eating better and diminishing your climate impact. And I haven’t even gotten to how much your kids love the garden, how much they are learning about life and healthy eating, and how much they liked making that apple pie with Mrs. Jefferson.
Now imagine 10 such arrangements in a neighborhood, add a few block parties and you start to see real change in people’s lives and their ability to weather this layered and complex storm made up of climate change, peak oil, and the broader economic meltdown. That is what a more resilient community looks like.
That’s just one way to look at yard sharing though. Some people are starting to do what I am calling serial yard CSA farming. Kipp Nash in Colorado has talked a number of neighbors into letting him grow food on all their yards. They each get a share of very fresh organic food, fruit, herbs and vegetables every week, and he sells what is over and above that at the Farmer’s Market. I just read about a florist that is doing exactly the same thing. Both businesses are low-carbon impact, high social and local value and serve to knit together each community more tightly.
Or another model. Imagine your faith or community group setting up an eight yard farm and growing fresh produce for the homeless, domestic violence shelter or school in your area. How much more fun and healthy than a canned food drive is that? We can set you up for that in about five minutes. It is a program you can get going for very little cost, that can have a huge impact on the health of your community, both for the people gardening and for the people who get to eat better!
Food is so central to civilization, culture and our security both emotionally and fiscally. The impact you can have is completely positive for all involved.
TN: I love your list – 100 Reasons to Become a Hyperlocavore. How long did it take you to put that together, and was it all you?
That was all me, but I was essentially highlighting the good work of other people. I think it was a few days but, I’ve been gathering those links for years. That post gets me a lot of really encouraging emails.
I wanted a way to point to all the things that were inspiring me to move in the direction of building the site. The motivation comes out of a deep desire to help people see all that they have around them, to make the most of all this trouble we see on the boob tube. I wanted to have something I could point to that would put a fire under people’s butts to encourage them and let them know that the other side of all this trouble is a new way to be in the world that can be very pleasurable. I strongly believe that we can thrive in this so-called ‘down turn,’ and that maybe on the other side we will find something we forgot we needed so much – real community. I want also to link people to the real food trend, the transition town approach to community resilience and a lot of other really positive developments happening in the world. There are so many people doing great work out there, who share a vision of community resilience in the face of all this trouble. I needed to be able to point to these people and make the positive vision concrete, doable. It was also a chance to inject some funny into all this bad news. The negative news is relentless and debilitating if you consume it constantly.
I think I also needed a means to convey a vision that was not so word heavy. Most of us are now post literate — we don’t get our information from wordy documents. Many of us are visual learners. I hope that people follow the links to videos that tell the whole story in a more accessible way. And people love lists. Follow all the links and you have a “big picture”… and a positive practical path to go down with other people!
Growing a garden is something we can all do if we work together. Community gardens are reporting huge wait lists. Starting alone can be overwhelming. Space can be tough to come by. Yard sharing just seems like an obvious win for all to me.
TN: What happens if someone doesn’t live up to their end of the agreement? Is there a built-in way conflicts are handled by the community?
As with any group of humans there will be conflict. Weather may destroy your peach tree crop. How people handle it is up to them though. Adults expect that weather and accidents happen, mistakes are made, crops sometimes fail or are eaten by gophers.
We all have different politics, priorities, and approaches to risk, benefits and rewards. For some of us community resilience will be the primary motivation, for others cheaper food, for others climate change and vegetarian diets are the main motivations. Maybe you don’t care about food miles, but you want your kids to eat in a much healthier manner – put that out there. Let others know where you are coming from, what your priorities are, what your deal breakers are. Everyone needs to know what is important to everyone else. You have to respect that other person’s values and, obviously, their property. If you can’t respect everyone in the group at every turn, you should not be in the group.
I do suggest that people meet online (or off) and hash out their needs and expectations before they commit to any long-term agreement. Have a potluck, get together a few times. See how people mesh. Have an easy out after the first meeting for everyone.
Nurture the group! How about a harvest celebration or a seed shopping party in the dead of winter. Eat together often. Start your own rituals and build a real community.
A seasonal assessment is also a good idea. What worked, what did not. Who needs to pick up more slack, who is carrying too much. People need to be open about their needs just like in any human group that works well. If you are having a problem with people, it is your concern to move it towards a solution that works, or to end the relationship. I also suggest that working together is a way to bond and form trusting relationships, be overly cautious and you are likely to miss out on a lot of good stuff!
Two things I would suggest taking to heart before you start. One is for the property owner, the people you are working with are not ‘hired help.’ Try not to boss anyone around. And for the people who don’t own the space, be respectful of the property owners needs and their space. If they set up rules you cannot abide by, such as no perfume or smoking in the yard, then you must decide either to live up to that expectation or leave the group. You owe each other that respect.
We can supply you with a means to find each other, a private space online to manage your group, a space to share seeds and knowledge. My hope would be that we all see this as new territory and aim to help people get these projects going everywhere. Our collective impact has the potential to be massively positive. I hope to find that people who identify as hyperlocavores share a sense of responsibility towards that possibility.
TN: Are you personally involved in a yardshare or is your garden a one-woman operation?
I’ve done shared gardens in the past. I am currently staying in between two living arrangements, as my dad is quite ill. So this season I’ve planted a small plot at my aunt’s where I am staying in Portland. This is a very temporary arrangement though. Unfortunately, my big plans for this season have had to be shelved. But I have sent out about 8 full gardens worth of seeds to people who have been helpful or encouraging over the last five months since I started. So hopefully my vicarious gardens will show up on the site when people post pictures!
TN: Do you have a favorite something growing in your garden?
It has to be the tomatoes. There are so many varieties, and the taste of a real tomato with a little sea salt is one of the best things life has to offer. But the taste of anything you’ve grown yourself is a mind bender. Not only does it taste amazing, but you are feeding yourself in so many ways. You come to know yourself as capable of meeting your own needs in a way that is hard to convey. To feed your kids something you grew has got to feel good.
Gardening is the perfect antidote to all the media we are soaking in. It’s physical so you are moving, but it’s also amazing in the way it unbounds your consciousness. I could get very woo-woo here. At work we are very linearly focused. It’s just one way our minds work. We can also be totally open and not focused on one aspect – but all aspects of our environment. I’m about to get into Buddhist philosophy so I will stop there except to say that the states of mind one can enjoy in a garden are incredibly rich and rewarding. Gardening is the perfect balancing activity for all the geeks and internet addicts out there.
TN: I am hoping to start a vegetable garden myself over the next several weeks. For those of us who know nothing about gardening, where is a good place to start so that our first season isn’t a total bust?
There are a few things to definitely do. These are cost effective, easy and rewarding. One is lots of greens – mesclun, arugula, other lettuces. Follow the instructions, don’t plant all of it at once. You want a steady supply of young greens. Get some nice containers and do herbs or plant an herb spiral. And of course tomatoes! Sugar snap peas and cucumbers are fun. If you like bell peppers they are good to grow at home, as conventionally grown, they are one of the most heavily laden with pesticides. If you have a permanent space, start thinking in terms of edible perennials. How about a fig or lemon tree? Don’t plant anything you don’t love to eat. Zucchini is really productive, but I am not a fan of it, so I don’t plant it. There are some things that are cheap to buy organically. Stick with buying those.
Expect some trouble. Some things will work, others won’t. You may get some bugs. If so, find their bug enemy and encourage them to make a home in your yard by planting things that are said to ‘attract beneficials.’ Beneficial insects are the ones that eat the not so beneficial insects, or that help pollinate your yard.
And always check your first and last frost dates for your area before planting anything. Read up on your zone – very important. There are lots of things that just can’t tolerate a really dry summer. Look into harvesting rain water if you are in a dry area. Come by hyperlocavore and check out the How To videos on the front page. Look for the video on the lasagna or no till method. It’s great for busy people, people with marginal land, people with physical limitations, or essentially lazy people like myself.
Don’t do what every first gardener does and over-buy seeds, try too many things. Come by the site and participate in our seed sharing forum. Most seed packs have too many seeds for beginners anyway. People are sharing.
Definitely consider finding a friend or neighbor to share the work and the reward! Know it’s a learning process. Don’t be discouraged. Blog about it on hypercavore! Ask questions. We have tons of experienced gardeners with immense troves of hard won knowledge.
TN: Are you seeing any geographical regions where Hyperlocavore is really taking off? If so, any theories on why?
Well, Portland is probably ground zero for the idea. A guy named Joshua Patterson started a non-profit group here called Portland Yard Sharing. If you are in Portland I would look him up. I would lay the success in Portland on the fact that it’s one of the real food capitals of the world. People take their eating seriously here. Most of my extended family on my Dad’s side is here, and man can they cook. Portland has also long been a leader in sustainability, probably because it one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
Asheville, North Carolina is another place where a lot of hyperlocavores come from. I have to credit people on the ground there who are running with the idea. I can get you going, but from where I sit, it’s tough to get the word out on the ground. Anyone reading this should know I can get you up and running in minutes. You simply need to bring the idea to your community group, house of worship or just to your extended family.
We have members from all over the country at this point, but really need to get the word out. Most people when they hear the idea say something like “Brilliant!” The idea is not a hard sell. I just have no budget for advertising, so I need to rely on grassroots people to help me get the word out. I’ve only been at it a few months though.
TN: In your recent interview with About Harvest, it was mentioned that the growing community at Hyperlocavore is part of a general paradigm shift. Based on member feedback, do you think this is a permanent shift or just a trend?
I think it’s a profound shift. I say that because people from all over the political spectrum love this idea. It’s a boundary busting idea.
For people that are community- and family oriented, the benefits are obvious: integration of generations and a healthy activity for kids that is also a very teachable experience. For those focused on responsibility with a capital R, what is more responsible than a group of people owning their own food security? For those of us, like me, who are foodies with champagne tastes on a beer budget, it makes perfect sense. For those of us concerned about climate change, we understand the impact on climate of the industrial food system and we want out of it to the extent possible. For those of us concerned about peak oil and base survival, growing our food is a means to exercise control over one aspect of what we see as the coming era of very expensive energy. And for the rest of us it comes down to stretching our biweekly paycheck and ensuring our children’s health. It attracts everyone and I think it also allows people to do something that feels so much better than sitting alone fretting in front of the TV.
All over the country, these perspectives are being shared over radish patches right now. We all see that what we have been doing is not working, that it was a mistake to ditch ALL of the practices of the past for shiny new things paid for at 18% or 32% interest. Some things from our collective memory were worth preserving: recipes, secrets for getting rid of caterpillars, seasonal rituals. A lot of us are simply hoping to build a way of being that isn’t so isolating, so dependent on corporations or fast food joints – a slower life with scrumptious food, family and friends at the center.
TN: And finally, since you and I are both self-professed geeks. Do you think that Web 2.0 is going to change the face of saving the planet?
Oh, I think it already has. I think Web 2.0 has brought all of us humanities majors into the project of saving the world. I am an early adopter and a geek, but by no means an uber-geek, technically speaking. Web 2.0 puts the emphasis not on technology, but back on people where it belongs. It’s simple to use, visually stimulating, and far reaching. It can amplify the reach of a single bright voice so that voice can have an immediate impact. But it’s the voice and the ears it reaches that is the focus, not the technology. We now have the tools to unleash human creativity and capacity to gather, create, experiment, test, visualize and to lower the cost of entry or cost to try new things out. Web 2.0 simply lets us gather and express things effectively – find our tribes quickly and bring good things into being in the world.
That said, the power supply could go off tomorrow and we would still gather together to work to feed ourselves. It’s what we’ve been doing for centuries. It’s an anomaly that in the last few generations we’ve ditched that skill set.
My emphasis on hyperlocavore is actually the relationships and communities that people form offline. I am hoping to revive neighborhoods all over from my couch dressed in my pajamas – when I’m not in the garden! I want the site to be a means to support relationship building in our neighborhoods, share triumphs, help people avoid pitfalls – but the emphasis is to get people out into their communities, talking, growing and eating together.
Yes, I am all about the hyperlocal – but we have the capacity to teach each other at a distance, learn from what other people are doing far away, to be inspired and to be supported. Yard sharing is a kind of wacky idea. It’s good to have a solid group of people online that believe in what you are doing, are doing it themselves in their neighborhoods, even if they are spread all over the world. Maybe the need for the site will eventually disappear because yard sharing will just be common sense. Until that happy day comes, we’re here to help.
For more information about being a hyperlocavore, follow @hyperlocavore on Twitter, and check out Liz’s recent interviews with Twitter Road Trip and About Harvest. Or, even better, sign up yourself at Hyperlocavore.com!