It all started back in 2012 when I led a workshop called 'Design Your World' at the Occupy Camp in Totnes, Devon, U.K. The aim of the workshop was to focus our shared vision. We all knew Occupy was losing momentum but we wanted to continue our social gatherings on the land, feed ourselves, make decisions by group consensus, and take back the power to meet our own needs.
At that time I already had 2 or 3 years experience of growing squash and really valued squashes as a very tasty, nourishing food that stores at room temperature for months. Squashes and pumpkins are great because they're easy to grow, are a low input/ high output crop with very low maintenance and watering, and most importantly because they provide a good winter survival food.
Starting a community cooperative to grow the squash just made a lot of sense.
The Dividend System
We meet on weekends throughout the year to work together on the many necessary tasks involved in growing and harvesting the squash. Then each person gets paid a share of the squashes according to the total number of hours they have worked, as a fraction of the total number of hours worked by everyone. With this system the risks and gains are shared equally by all members. We also grow a few other vegetables such as courgettes (zucchini) and spinach on a 'gift economy' basis for picking over the summer.
The work is carried out in phases through the year and we send out group emails explaining where, what, and when there is an activity planned — then those who feel like it come along and work. We always drink tea and eat cake.
Here are the steps we go through each year for our squash co-op:
1. Ground preparation (March - May):
- Lay down mypex ground cover sheeting (recycled plastic fibre mesh) over the ground and pin it with metal staples. The mypex blocks out the light and kills off the grass underneath. It lets the rainwater through and prevents water evaporation from the ground surface.
- Cut square holes into the mypex spaced one meter (about 3 feet) apart in a grid.
- Dig out he soil from each square and fill with a mix of compost and rotted manure. Then recover the holes with mypex squares.
2. Greenhouse work (April- June):
- Sow seeds into individual pots in a greenhouse or polytunnel. We call in workers for a sowing day.
- Sow two or three species that will not interpollinate, usually butternuts and a C.maxima variety.
- A couple of people in the group take on the role of greenhouse co-ordinators and are responsible for raising our plants from seed. In hot weather this can mean watering every day.
3. Planting out (June):
- When they're about 15cm (about 6 inches) tall, transport the baby squash plants to the growing site, taking care not to damage their delicate stems. Plant them out into the holes that have been prepared.
- Several planting days may be necessary as not all the plants are ready at the same time.
- Water the plants and protect them with bottle cloches — 5 liter (about 1 gallon) plastic bottles with the bottoms cut off. This gives them a temporary halfway house to outdoor living.
4. Aftercare and watering (June- August):
- Remove the cloches after two or three weeks when they have started to mature. By this time they should have become slightly spiky and therefore resistant to slug attack.
- Replace any plants lost to slugs (this can be a lot on wet years).
- Water the plants as needed; being sure to regularly monitor ground moisture. Make sure the ground doesn’t dry out (especially at the early stages), as the young plants could easily go to flower too early before the vines have developed.
- It's good to have a substantial rainwater collection system, but on dry years it may be necessary to bring water in. We fill 25 liter (about 7 gallon) containers and drive car loads of containers to the squashes (keeping at least 10 containers on hand at all times).
- The vines will grow and cover the whole area in a thick mass of leaves and stems. In July they will produce flowers and start developing squashes. In September the leaves die off leaving the squashes exposed for the sun to harden their skins (which improves storage).
5. Manure management (July- September):
- Collect fresh manure by the trailer-load from various local equestrian centers (which is easier done on dry ground in summer). It's free to take but we give them a squash or two as good will.
- Pile up the manure and cover it near to the growing area. In two years this will have rotted down to feed another generation of squashes. We typically rotate two or three piles of manure to keep well stocked.
6. Harvest day (mid-October):
- Gather the squashes and pile them up keeping smallish ones separate. Compost any dead plants. Remove and clean the mypex and staples and store until next year.
- We sell the smaller squashes to a local veg-box scheme (Community Supported Agriculture). This gives the co-op some cash to pay for seeds, potting compost, and the transport of manure for the following year.
- We then share the main part of the harvest into dividends. o squashes are taken until all agree on the dividends. The workers then load up their vehicles to take home their winter's supply of tasty, nutritious squashes.
7. Celebrate (October - November):
We celebrate completing a year of work with a pumpkin party. We rent a hall and bring in food to share — pumpkin and squash recipes are encouraged. We have DJs, a bowl of sangria, pumpkin pie, and cider.We also set-up a squash display with information and photos about our project. It's a great time to recruit new members.
8. Seed saving (February - April):
Only squashes that have stored well through to at least February are worthy of having their seeds collected. We also select for good taste and size.
And that's about it. May the people of world grow squash!! For more information (or to connect with other squash growers) visit the Squash Co-operative facebook page
All photos courtesy of Totnes Squash Cooperative