Reviewed by Rod Skinner (a Somerset Transitioner)

ISBN: 9780955222528. Paperback: 320 pages £8.50.

This is an important book for VON; a collection of 127 articles and letters to the editor written for VOHAN News and then Growing Green International by one of our best thinkers and writers, Dave of Organic Growers of Durham/Growing Green, Darlington, who died in May 2008. Publication in book form was made possible mainly through the hard work of David Hicks, the editor.

The book is easy to read because each article is an individual chapter and can be read separately as if reading it in the magazine. Possibly this approach is too rigid. Some articles were too long for one issue of the magazine so were continued in the next issue, 6 months later, and some readers would not have the previous issue to hand. Therefore some of the first part of the article had to be repeated so that these readers could understand the second part. When reading the book, most readers will read the two parts together and find the repetition annoying. In my opinion it would have been better to have put the articles back together and have slightly fewer but longer chapters. Three of the articles just exceed six pages; most are much shorter. Dave did his research, gave it a lot of thought and then, in most cases, put his conclusions very concisely. ‘A short history of the world’ is exactly that; just over two pages!

Dave writes for all

Dave checks the aubergines. Photo: Richard Glynn

Some of the topics might appear difficult, but Dave writes for all, so he explains technical terms where he has to use them. However, he keeps to scientific convention and credits all his sources in footnotes, which are put into alphabetical order at the end of the book just before an alphabetical index of chapters. Seeing all the articles together like this, the reader is struck by the wide range of topics covered. From soil science to the Common Agricultural Policy, from mulching to feeding the world, Dave was not afraid to speak his mind with passion. For the reader, this can be entertaining!

Dave didn’t like gurus. Biodynamics and its ‘guru Rudolf Steiner’ are thoroughly demolished and ‘Organic gardening guru Bob Flowerdew’ is another one to suffer. When Dave put his scientific mind to companion planting he looked at the literature in English, German and French and: ‘found about 500 alleged instances of companion planting effects’. Only two (carrots with onions and Brassicas with celery) were agreed to be beneficial by all the sources he looked at. ‘It is also remarkable that not a single one of these authors cites any source for their data or describes any experimental results to support their assertions. In my experience this is typical of almost everything written about companion planting, which has to be regarded as totally unreliable’.

Even his fellow vegans were not let off. Keeping pets is described as: ‘a form of exploiting of animals’ and is criticised on ethical, environmental and health grounds. ‘Vegan absolutism’ is criticised in two articles, although he concludes: ‘Absolutism is wrong (though even that statement is not absolutely correct – there is room in this world even for a few absolutists, like prophets, who are needed to draw attention to a problem without necessarily pointing the way to its solution.)’

Dave would have hated anyone to think of him as a guru; of course he was a fallible human being like the rest of us. Therefore I am sure he would have expected a reviewer to do a proper job and report any errors that are found. I have found one in ‘Some factors affecting the outcome of composting’: ‘The body with the greatest surface-to-volume ratio is a sphere.’ Of course he meant to write: ‘The body with the lowest surface-to-volume ratio is a sphere.’ That of course is a tiny slip within a very useful article.

A huge contribution

Intertwined with the science, politics, economics and vegan philosophy is the continuing story of Dave’s own project, the workers’ co-operative, Organic Growers of Durham/Growing Green. As well as supplying a box scheme, it carried out invaluable Vegan Organic research and made a major contribution to Jenny Hall and Iain Tolhurst’s book: Growing Green – Organic Techniques for a Sustainable Future. Dave was passionate about the soil and developed a zero tillage system using mulching and a separate permaculture hayfield with a blend of lucerne and tall fescue. Other major contributions were to chipped branch wood and energy accounting.

The workers’ co-operative running the box scheme was eventually converted to community-supported agriculture. However, trying to get the customers to help with running the project proved a step too far and the project closed. This was a great loss for VON; otherwise, perhaps the project could have continued in some form and survived Dave’s passing. But he lived long enough to write his own testimony, which forms the last chapter of the book, characteristically ending with a quotation from Marx: ‘Even an entire society… are not owners of the earth. They are simply its occupiers, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations …’

This book can be purchased from VON’s shop: www.veganorganic.net/shop. If you are a VON member it’s available at a reduced price.

This review appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 28 (Winter 2011/12), p38.