Laurenc L. DeVita
I’m a denizen of Sierra-Plumas land, or the “Lost Sierra” as some clever person has named the area, and I’m also a sociologist studying overpopulation and resource depletion, and seeking real world solutions to the increasing problems we face. I’m keenly familiar with the special problems of our little towns and struggling county governments. Success for me would be a healthy Plumas-Sierra area where I could get really, really old, and my kids could live and have families.
The pot of gold at the end of my rainbow is called “resilience”.
Resilience is the ability of a system to recover from shock or misfortune. When the system is our community, it means rapid response, as we have seen in business fires in a couple of our towns, where, after the fire was over, people worked, and other people helped, to re-establish services to the community and income to some of our people.
Resilience is also the ability to carry on daily business during hardships of long duration. For some, the recession is over, but for many small towns in the Sierra, it started sooner and still lingers on. When your community was founded on resource extraction; on gold, timber, and cattle and dairy, and either regulation or market conditions diminish your ability to harvest and sell, then you either find new ways to extract value from where you live, or your children move away and don’t return. Your population gets older, your infrastructure and improvements lose value. There, resilience means you find a way for the next generation to make living in the community.
Sustainability is an important part of long term resilience. Sustainability means to “optimize” rather than “maximize”. Sustainability literally means living within the surplus of the system. It means maintaining healthy soil, and good transportation, and strong community ties.
One big player in sustainability in the local area is Feather River College. Not only do they feature sustainable practices when possible, sustainability is a subject of study there, and many people know Darla DeRuiter, who often organizes students and the community to raise awareness for issues of sustainability and resilience.
We can think of resilience as based on five things: food, energy, commerce, people, and environment. The five are really part of one thing, and there are different names for it depending on what your focus is. For me it makes the most sense to simply refer to the interaction of those elements as “community sustainability and resilience”.
It’s important to note that different approaches identify different elements. If you mostly care about making money, you are going to talk differently than if you mostly care about the environment. I mostly care about the mountains and people and towns of the Sierra, so for me, there is no way to tease out one element: they are part of a whole that doesn’t function without all the parts.
The most important is food. Increasingly, in the world in and the United States, we’re going to experience widening food shortages, and the cost of food is going to go up. We are already seeing increasing food prices. In general, food inflation is expected to be about 2.6% a year, though selected items, our favorite protein items like meat and eggs, increased more.
Though there will be ups and downs, we can expect, world wide, for food prices to continue to rise.
This is likely for several reasons. In the short term, the drought has taken a toll on California agriculture, from almonds to cattle.
In the long term, climate change will make farming difficult. The misnomer “global warming” makes us think we’ll just stop trying to grow tomatoes and grow passion fruit instead, but it isn’t like that at all. Global climate change means lots and lots of unstable weather. With unstable weather, farmers don’t know what to grow. It means storms out of season and crop destruction before harvest.
Temperatures are increasing, and winters in some places like the Sierra have been getting generally milder. In temperate zones, winter is a factor in restraining some populations of pests, for example some insects don’t survive deep cold, and small mammals may experience a population bloom if long winters don’t deplete stored rations.
Weather has long been a driver of human history, from the ice ages which created Beringia, the land bridge which allowed modern humans to enter the Americas from Asia, or the migrations of humans out of Africa, which were often influenced by weather, evidence suggests. Indeed, some believe that weather change due to volcanic eruption in the late Cenozoic period reduced the planet’s total human population to less than 15,000.
We bounced back pretty well, since there are now almost seven and a half billion humans on the planet.
There are other factors besides weather that will impact food availability. It’s no secret that most of what we buy in the supermarket is corn. There is high fructose corn syrup, which we don’t have time to discuss. There is corn starch in many products. Unless you are lucky enough to have Sierra grown grass fed beef, you likely buy beef made from corn, in a sense. The problems of mono-crops, where one has many, many acres of land planted in just one type of one crop, that is a kind of food fragility. It’s putting all your eggs in one basket, if you like.
Our agricultural process and dietary habits are blamed for a lot of environmental problems, like climate change. Many modern crops, like the wheat that is in many, many foods to make them cheaper, can’t really grow on their own. Throw a fifty pound sack into a healthy Sierra alpine meadow, and chances are few or none would survive to create new seed. Please don’t do that, don’t plant seeds that are completely alien in our alpine meadows.
Those crops need oil, and plenty of it, to make chemicals and fertilizers. We have to rely on them in once sense, because they are cheap. They are also available most of the year, which is also thanks to oil.
Indeed, it is oil that makes it cheaper for us to buy bananas, which don’t grow here, than apples, which do. There is a complicated reason why that is, but at the base of it is oil which makes it cheap to move people and things around the globe.
But, oil is, without a doubt in my mind, responsible for climate change and many other negative effects, such as acidfication of the seas, which will also dramatically impact food price patterns, as 25% of the 7.5 billion eat primarily or significantly from the sea.
Many criticize eating meat, since meat requires much more water and oil because most market animals eat corn and soy. I’m not going to speak against eating meat. We should be eating more goat and less beef, but we can still have meat.
Oil also makes it easy to move pests around the globe, a factor that might link with climate change to modify what we eat. For example, we don’t often think how dramatically the European earthworm changed the forests of the Eastern Seaboard, from the mid 18th Century to today.
So, weather, unwise agricultural practices, and the availability of fossil fuels, all impact our current food resilience.
What is our current state? Compared to a village of a similar size, Quincy is not well situated, and is quite fragile. Most supermarkets only store enough food for a few days or a week; most people don’t have much more food than that stored themselves. The climate in the Sierra varies widely, but for most areas, Northern European crops grow best: potatoes, carrots, onions, cabbages, turnips, cool weather beans. Quincy, as most people know, has an odd season; if the August freeze doesn’t kill your stuff, you’ll get something green to harvest until October.
What would it take to make the 5,000 people in Quincy (metro and East) food resilient? It would take a huge effort.
Happily, there are many people already working on that effort. We’re a long way from feeding the population of Quincy, but we’re closer than one might think at first glance.
The secret is, of course, to grow more food. Across Sierra-Plumas, from Vinton to Loyalton (great community market there) to Sierraville and Calpine (master gardeners and canners there) to Sierra City, where many full time residents garden, to Portola, where gardens and farms contribute to the Portola Coop, to Quincy to Taylorsville and Greenville, and on, people are growing more food.
The Plumas-Sierra Food Coop is a group which is peopled by staff from the counties, particularly Plumas, and a lot of work is done by Zack Ravene and Kristi Jamason. There are often other local people like Holly George of UC Davis extension, who is literally a treasure of agricultural and land use information, and Laura Rodriguez, who represents the Plumas Farmer’s Guild. The group is responsible for some wonderful work, including pro-local food policies for Plumas and Sierra Counties, and also for stitching together a food network which, if nurtured, could realistically lead to a food resilient Sierra-Plumas.
From my perspective, the local foods haven’t found a sustainable market by competing with corporate ag yet. There are outlets: the CSA High Altitude effort is a good one. That is also a project of the fabulous Sierra-Plumas Food Coop Council. There is a farmer’s market. The Coop (Natural Food Store?) buys locally grown food. Safeway does, but it considers anywhere in Northern California to be local.
I’m talking about building a well saturated market among the people of Plumas-Sierra. There are impediments to that, but people are working on it from the production position.
We could do more as consumers, though. I’d like to go farther yet.
Feeding Quincy would be easier if people didn’t need pink bananas. It would be an easier task if we would eat what grows here. Purslane is a food in many places in the world. It has several nutritional values. Yet, here, we pluck it out and compost it.
Likewise, sunchokes, or sunroots; some call them Jerusalem artichokes. They grow like crazy in the lower reaches of the Sierra, and they provide a healthy alternative to starchy foods. They make some people fart, that’s the only downside. It’s probably something many kids would find to be a benefit.
Kale grows well here, as do chard and joy choy. Cabbage does well, and it is possible turnips would be a winter crop. Chokecherries are often abundant; they are great for many things, and I’ve been told they actually make a good pemmican, though I’ve not tried it.
If we all grew the food we could, if we buy from our local small farmers, and if we all ate foods that grow well locally, we would still have want in late winter and early spring. That is often how life is for food sustainable places. However, as the years went by, we would all get better and better, and we’d pool our resources to create local food storage, and before too long, we’d work our way up to the early 1900s. We’d still buy some things on fossil fuel, flour and sugar and things like that. But we would all have our own yeast, most likely, and our own gardens. Even then, people liked oranges and things grown elsewhere.
So, growing more of our own food, changing our eating and food buying habits, and working together to maintain a community food store would help us be more food resilient, and food sustainable.
Energy resilience is both the most difficult, and simplest, of our problems. It is the most difficult because it is a long way by horse to anywhere in the Lost Sierra. Until we have electric vehicles which store enough power to go up Yuba River canyon, or at least generate some going down, we’re stuck with energy dense petroleum products.
On the plus side, we have a lot of things going. Large hydroelectric projects are environmentally damaging, but a network of small ones spread any damage out and minimize it. We especially have a lot of sunlight. Everyone should have a solar roof. Saving energy is also important: everyone should know how to regulate their home’s exposure to sun to reduce cooling costs in the summer and heating costs in the winter. It isn’t hard, it is a system of passive solar use that was pioneered by the Romans, once they’d deforested everything.
We could, except perhaps for travel, be locally self sufficient and sustainable regarding energy. There are electrical contractors and solar contractors all over the Lost Sierra.
The next element of sustainability is economic. This is really almost as important as food resilience.
I would be thrilled, if the very next time a listener spends a dollar, or waves the plastic, they think about where that dollar is going to go.
If we spend a dollar on a service from a local business, or buy food from a local farmer, a little of our dollar leaks away because of taxes, vehicle and fuel costs, insurance costs and other expenses to the service provider, but in general, most of that dollar stays in the area. A big part of that dollar will be spent here, in the local community.
If we spend a dollar in a local business that sells retail, then the wholesale cost of that item, and all the taxes and so on, leave the area, but a lot of it stays. If it is a large corporation, then a lot of the profits also leave.
Buy something online at Amazon and cheat everyone in the community of the reuse of any of your dollar.
We can’t get everything in Quincy, let alone in Calpine or Taylorsville. But, it is amazing what we can get, because it is traditional for rural business people to do more than one thing. We see that in many of the businesses in the Lost Sierra. Even Quincy, which is a pretty big down by local standards, features main-street businesses which, for example, sell stationary and violins.
I don’t need to tell local people what the Sierra Valley Home Center carries, but you can buy a firearm there, or Sierra hardware in Downieville, which also carries a nice selection of fishing gear.
Part of the magic of spending money locally is that business people can afford to branch out. Convince them there is a market for something, and chances are they’ll try to find a way to sell it. You have to give them a chance against internet retailers, though.
Having said all that, let’s turn it around: we should sell everything we can outside the county, and the internet is a big part of that. There is no doubt we might find some outside markets for local products that travel well, and bicycling and even farm tours are proving to be profitable and those activities and events are often sold on line.
There is more we can do to help our local economy strengthen. We have several agencies and organizations locally to help do that. In Sierra County there are two chambers of commerce that do a lot of work both with buy local and outside marketing efforts. Quincy has Transition Quincy, which is part of a nation wide, comprehensive effort to restructure how we live.
The Transition concept includes all the good things people want to see in resilient communities. Food security, right livelihood, strong community connections. It doesn’t happen over night, and local efforts like Transition Quincy compete for volunteers with lots of other valuable local efforts. Even so, Transition Quincy has the essential blueprint for resilience in Sierra-Plumas.
If there is one strength Plumas-Sierra has, its the people. There is no way to mention everyone who puts effort and good will in to making our communities better. In Sierra County, Lee Adams works hard for the county, and for all rural counties with his leadership in the Rural County Representatives of California. In Plumas County, Lori Simpson is an almost tireless worker, looking for ways to knit the community together. Michele Pilar, from Plumas Rural Services has given some creative leadership, doing good work in Sierra and Plumas counties.
Many of the people who deserve thanks are retired, but we still enjoy the benefit of the work they did on behalf of our community. That is the nature of doing work for resilience: it outlives you.
There are more small groups and organizations than I know about who organize volunteers to do a thousand tasks which are necessary but unsupported by government. All the organizations and people I’ve mentioned, they are extremely valuable to our effort of community resilience. You can’t swing a bunch of carrots without hitting someone doing good in the Plumas-Sierra.
Even so, they don’t work in a vacuum. We need to provide a healthy community for them to work in.
I have a suggestion for all our people in the PluSier: say it, this is my community This is my hometown. For me, I say, “these little counties are my home; these little towns are where my friends and cousins live. This is where home is for me.”
Quincy is a wonderful home town; so is Portola and Loyalton and Chester and Chester. We’re lucky to live in these little towns, to see people we know every day, and to have the forested mountains surround us.
Let’s claim our homes, and realize they work because we care about them and about each other.
This is my hometown; I am dedicated to making it work.
At the heart of everything we do, is the environment. Our community can not find resilience in a damaged environment.
The environment is implied in every discussion, and was mentioned in the discussion of food, which brings us full circle.
There is a lot of room for discussion on this topic. I’ve taken at least two sides myself, one as a person willing to work for the environment, and another as a rural person who lives in the “environment” that is just a buzz word to many people. We need to be mindful of everything we do, to think about the lasting consequences.
We are often not aware of it, but the woods, meadows and streams we love and are familiar with are, in many cases, already very different from what they were a hundred and fifty years ago. Back then, resource extraction began in earnest, and hills were stripped for timber for the mines or sluiced for gold. The world seemed endless even a hundred years ago, when many bad decisions were made about the environment.
Resilience depends on a healthy environment, and sustainability that doesn’t consider the health of the natural world can’t be taken very seriously.
I tend to be selective. Not every “environmental” effort is really meaningful in what many are calling the Sixth Great Extinction. We need to focus our efforts to save our environment locally. Even then, we have to ask ourselves what the hoped-for outcome is, how likely it is to succeed, and what the negative impacts to local people are.
Even so, there are many on the ground examples in Sierra and Plumas of people working to preserve both the land and the rural culture which cares for it. The Feather River Land Trust springs to mind, though there are many others.
If we approach our food in a sustainable way, make and use energy wisely, invest our dollars in local businesses, give and volunteer in support of local groups, and view our beautiful Sierra as the rare and wonderful thing it is, we are on the way to building resilience in to our community.