Saturday, January 31, 2009

Wither the local produce market?

Saturday morning, and I picked up my shopping bag and headed over to the produce market in the nearby seaside town.

This little market started in the grounds of the town pub, which overlooks the sea, about 18 months ago. The market features a number of small stalls, as well as a fruit and produce stall and a fishmonger. I go to top up my fruit and veg, and buy whatever I need that my garden isn’t producing. I like going because:

The fruit/veg is a local, and grows most of his veg locally. This is a bonus when you are trying cut down on your food miles. I also like to put as much of my food dollar as I can into local pockets.
It saves me, and lots of others, trekking into the nearby regional town about 15 kms away, where the fruit/veg choices boil down to Woolworths/Coles.
Over the last 18 months I’ve gotten to know the grower and his family, and it’s very nice to exchange pleasantries and talk about what’s good, the weather and life in general.
By shopping here, I cut down drastically on packaging, as most of the veg is weighed individually and packed straight into my bag.

Okay, so today I’m angry. All over the country you read about farmers’ markets opening, but it seems in my part of Australia, this can’t be allowed to happen. There was a petition to sign today, because it seems the local council is not going to approve a development application from the pub to hold the market (eighteen months after it started, mind you), and it looks like the market may be a thing of the past. I am flabbergasted. I can’t think of any good grounds for this. The market fills a need in a small town, and does so with what I can see as little disruption to the residents.

So of course I signed the petition and will try to get to the community meeting on Wednesday night. I’ll also shoot off an email to the new mayor, who got up recently on “green” and “community building” issues. I want to know, “What gives?”

This isn’t merely an issue of where I buy my vegies. It’s about preserving choice, and allowing people an alternative to big-business food retailers.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Budgeting and the GFC

The GFC is casting its gloomy spectre, and is threatening to become the LFC: Local Financial Crisis. It’s an opportune time to audit our expenditure in preparation for a battening down of the hatches.

Fortunately for the sake of marital harmony, Action Man and I have a similar outlook on how we deal with money. We only ever spend what we have. We save to buy big ticket items. We have never countenanced the idea of going into debt to buy consumer goods. We pay our credit card in full every month. On the other hand, “budgeting” as such is something we haven’t done overtly to date. We kind of keep a mental tally of where the money goes each month. We thought that having a clearer idea of where our money goes would help in the event that we need to cut expenditure in the future. It’s been an interesting exercise to say the least!

Action Man bought a ready made Excel spreadsheet from http://www.easy-budgeting.com/ for AUD$5. The package includes income and expenditure spreadsheets where you plug in figures you anticipate for the year ahead, a monthly tracker and for those of you who like whiz-bang graphics, a whole suite of pie, line, and bar graphs outlining your anticipated and actual spending and saving.

Because I am the one who probably has more idea of what we spend, since I do almost all the shopping and pay the bills, I sat down the other day and plugged in everything I could think of that we spend in a year. Some areas like the kid’s expenses and medical expenses (of which we hardly have any, touch wood) were a bit hard to estimate, but I stuck in figures that will hopefully be overestimates rather than underestimates.

I tried to be as honest as I could with the expenditure estimates. For example, when it came to estimating books and magazines, I thought oh, $x will be about right. Then I really thought about it and had to admit expenditure on books alone was probably about $2x so the total was probably closer to $3x. That went in, even though I was sorely tempted to put in a lower figure to make myself feel better.

At the end of this process, you come out with a total expenditure for each month and year. Then, you start entering what you actually spend, and the macros in the spreadsheet do their thing. Areas where you overspend come up in red, underspend is in green. Percentage of estimated expenditure comes up next to the actual figures, so you know how much breathing space you have.

Anyone with any financial background would probably think, yeah, sounds like a normal spreadsheet to me. To someone like me, though, with no financial background, playing around with the spreadsheet was pretty interesting. Over the next few months at least, I’ll keep plugging figures in to see how we track.

So what has the exercise proved to date? Well, it confirmed what I already knew: we are living within our means. More than that, though, it threw up into relief potential areas where we can cut back our expenditure should push-come-to-shove. Handy information to have.

A lot of the frugal blogs out there talk about the value of budgeting in relation to those who have gotten themselves into a bit of a financial hole. To me, though, I think anyone can benefit from going through this process, in a hole or not. What do they say? Knowledge is power!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Resurrecting the blog

Last year I started this blog, Spades and Spoons, to record our experiences in our kitchen garden, and what we do with our produce in the kitchen. A simple blog, with a simple focus, chronicling a fairly simple life.

Eight months ago, if you had asked me why we grow a sizeable proportion of what we eat, I would have had a few innocuous reasons at hand: it’s fun, it’s easy, I like to save a buck, it’s satisfying. So far, so ho hum.

I stopped blogging after a few months for a lot of reasons. I got busy with work, the garden got quiet in winter, I started to have doubts about why I was blogging at all. I mean, who cares about my broccoli? And so it stood, neglected, for eight months until now.

In early 2008 when I started this blog, the storm clouds were gathering on the horizon in the form of the sub-prime loans debacle but the storm hadn’t hit yet. Now, though, the Global Financial Crisis has taken hold. It is hard to see how anyone on the planet will escape some impact.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not) I’ve been reading books by Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defence of Food. While focussing on the industrialization of food in the United States, the books make sobering reading for anyone in a developed country. On one hand, they are an indictment of how we have allowed our food to become so remote from our lives, how big business is forcing farmers into work methods that degrade our environment and don’t give them a decent income, all for the sake of cheap food. You soon come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “cheap food”. On the other hand, he gives us a prescription for the future that just might work: eat less, eat plants, grow at least some of your own food.

Books like these have convinced me that simple acts like growing food and living simply within our means aren’t just ways an individual can balance a budget and feed a family. They are deeply political acts. They are acts that have far more impact than any vote I make. They are acts, which if enough of us adopt them, can change the way the world works. And really, the best outcome from the GFC is if we can somehow all learn to live within our means, for the sake of the planet, both now and in the future when the economy eventually recovers (as my economics training tells me it eventually will). I believe that is what is at stake here.

So I thought about my little blog. I’ve been inspired by a few blogs about simplifying life especially Rhonda Jean's blog. I’ve decided to revive this blog and lend it’s weight to what I hope will be a phenomenon. I’ll probably change the focus a little. Gardening and cooking will still be there, along with preserving and winemaking, but I’ll also write about sewing, making do, budgeting and anything else I think may be relevant and of interest.

In the last 24 hours, every news bulletin has been dominated by the awfulness of the year to come, economically. Let’s see if we can use whatever comes our way for some positive end to recast our world into more sustainable model.