Sunseed: developing, demonstrating and communicating sustainable living.

So how to tell you everything I have learnt in the last five days at Sunseed without rambling on for pages and pages? I'll give it a go! Sunseed was set up 25 years ago as a place to research, develop and demonstrate low-tech low cost technology to try and combat desertification. It has developed over the years to become more focused on educating people here in Europe about sustainable living in general (through demonstrating sustainable production and consumption of food, energy, water and, well, everything really). I went there because they were celebrating their 25th year, which is a long time to have existed as a living working sustainable living project, and it seemed like it would be a good time to meet people who had been involved at different points in it's history and potentially learn from a range of experience.

I have to admit I expected it to be pretty different to our aims (a bit of a hippies running to the hills project), and I arrived preparing to leave within days (and find something more useful instead). I couldn't have been more wrong. It was a brilliant week of getting a taster of some very practical skills, as well as learning thought provoking facts about what's going on in this part of world (and further a field), and what potential solutions they are trying out here to try and solve some of the problems.

The co-ordinators really know their stuff too, from the project manager (Jeff - who some of you might know from his Manchester days), right across the six departments:

* Sustainable living
* Appropriate technology
* Eco-construction and Maintenance
* Organic Growing
* Drylands Management
* Education, Publicity and fundraising

As well as working on all these areas, Sunseed runs courses (permaculture, bio-construction etc.), weekly seminars (for the visitors and locals) run by the co-ordinators run or long term vols (e.g. on eco-build or stove building, or whatever), tours on a Tuesday (of 1 department).

I felt immediately welcomed and part of the group - impressive considering how many people pass through and how short a time I was there. As Tony (one of the other very short-term volunteers like me) put it, there was a complete lack of clique. I found this really inspiring, having experienced short bursts of living in communities with a relatively high turnover of people and seen people become quite burnt out from it. So I talked to as many of the residents about it as I could throughout the week, and managed to get Jeff and Kirsty all to myself for the afternoon on Friday for a proper big chat.

Ok I haven't managed to keep it short as there was too much to learn. The sections below are Structure/Trustees, Project team, Recruitment, Decision making, Conflict resolution, Ownership, Finanaces, Final thoughts and advice for us - so feel free to skip to certain bits.

How Sunseed is structured and some thoughts on that....

The structure of Sunseed is that there is a project team who live there and run the project on a day to day basis (made up a co-ordinator who is there for a minimum of 3 years and co-ordinators for each of the above departments, who are there for a minimum of 1 year). Then there are six trustees (one per department) who don't live at the project.

Until recently all of the trustees have been english and based in England. This is partly because the project was started by english people and then has kind of carried on like that in a way because it has been more practical in terms of them meeting up. However there are now 2 spanish trustees, which makes more sense – in terms of having more contact with the project.

The role of the trustees:
To have a long term vision of the project and it's aims so that there is continuity in the project and to keep the work of the residents (who are relatively short-term) in line with the long term aims of Sunseed.

The idea is also that each trustee works in or has experience in the department they represent (so in the past appropriate technology has been someone from CAT for example, and now is James from V3Power).

The trustees come out to Sunseed once a year and their role is to promote Sunseed outside of the project. The reality is that sometimes there is very little involvement from the trustees and they can be quite remote/distant. People are really busy with their own lives/projects, and the project is basically run by the project team in the field.
This can be a problem for example if residents come and want to change things and try new things out, and can undo good long term work of functioning systems (without realising it).

Ideally Trustees would have more time to play this role of maintaining some continuity and also be going to different festivals and events promoting the work of Sunseed (to recruit volunteers, get funding, but also educate people). Also it can be frustrating if they get involved in decisions that aren't really to do with them (general daily life in the project rather than keeping the project on tack with the long term aims), if they don't really know what is going on on the ground.

It's difficult when the project is split between two places (England and Spain). That is starting to change now as there are now Spanish Trustees and residents, also Paul (a Spanish Trustee) has moved close to Sunseed and has more regular involvement in the project, and James who has very recently become a trustee is living near by at the moment too and has hands on involvement.

The project team and some thoughts on that....

As well as the co-ordinators the team is made up of part or full time volunteers (who can be there for varying amounts of time). Kirsty feels like there is need for a longer term contract (2 years) for the residents – especially garden and dryland, as it takes time to learn what is going on and understand the systems, before you can really start working on improving them.

Jeff feels 1 year is long enough if there is a really good hand over (other than these two departments). Five years would give people a longer term view and more of a sense of responsibility for the project which would be great (otherwise if you're just there for a year, sometimes at 10 months people are starting to look for other work and take it if they get it). The trouble is you then reduce the number of people you have to recruit from even further – 1 year is do-able – 5 years is a long time to ask people to commit to.

Either that or it would be good if everyone in the team was up for making a long-term commitment and they changed to being a totally field based project/community and people stayed there and ran it.

Recruitment
I asked how they managed to get such a good team – especially in terms of people being good /welcoming with the volunteers and visitors as well as their own speciality. They said that it isn't really possible to know that from the application process – it's something they get to know when people come out there which is why there's the trial (for the individual and the group), and the probation.

  • Application form
  • Interview – try and get them to come out and visit (not always possible)
  • Trial period (for a month)
  • Probation period

Long term volunteers come with a project in mind (or get given one when they arrive) – e.g. creating a hydroponics system using the grey water system.

Decision making
There is a hierarchy as people have longer experience and view of the project – the decisions have to be taken in the context of the long term aims of the project. So Jeff basically gets the final say on all the decisions.

They try and make the decisions together, either within each department, or at weekly staff meetings where decisions are taken by consensus- it's only if it is something that doesn't make sense in terms of the overall project (e.g. long term aims, effectiveness or lack of resources), that Jeff steps in.

Jeff found that pretty hard at first – both having the overall say and as he hadn't really worked by consensus before (had been involved in projects where decisions were made by the group but had always worked pretty independently). Kirsty also found that way of working pretty difficult at first, as she was used to working by consensus – but after a while saw that it was necessary and made sense in terms of the long-term view and continuity of the project.

Trust is important – that people accept that the decisions are taken with their and the projects best interests at heart.

Each department has 90% autonomy – it's just that sometimes Jeff will challenge them on things, always comes up with an alternative solution if he is saying no for some reason – or makes sure it's really clear why it's a no.

Some volunteers have wanted to come to the staff meetings in the past, and they have let them before (a volunteer who was really into transparency in decision making etc.), but it isn't ideal – and can be difficult. Partly as they are meant to be quick practical meetings and if very short term people are there they need a lot of explaining but also because it is a time when the staff can talk about any issues with the volunteers and ask for ideas/solutions from the others.

If people are only there for a couple of weeks or even months it's difficult to see how to involve them in that. They do have a volunteers suggestions bit on their sheet, and they are open to chat about things (which I certainly got to see in practice!).

Conflict resolution

They have tried used 'Non Violent Communication' in the past – a process/tool that follows a kind of formula to help you try and deal with a conflict. An interesting comment was that it can't work unless people want to change the situation - which sounds obvious, but I think that's a really useful top tip - people have to want to empathise with the other person/people in the conflict not want to make them feel guilty (so if you're still at that stage in an argument it's probably not time to try NVC yet - maybe have a big shout at each other first and get it out the way - I said that by the way so don't blame them if that makes things worse!).

Basically they try and deal with conflicts as quickly as possible, they have a number of things that they do to try and deal with conflicts. For example Jeff has a 1:1 session with each member of staff once a month or so – it is a time dedicated to that person to make sure they are happy (with the work, their volunteers, the project) and to look for solutions together if they aren't.

At the beginning of the weekly staff meeting they do a go round – does anyone have any needs? That can be anything – ranging from something really practical (like we've got loads to do in the garden so if anyone doesn't need volunteers can they limit the number they ask for so we can have more), to emotional/asking for understanding from people. I quite like this way of doing it compared to ours – doesn't force it to be an emotional thing (as can be practical), so doesn't make it forced, but allows it to come up if needed.

They also have what they call a circle one evening every two weeks which is just for staff - it's not obligatory and not everyone comes which is fine. It starts with a go round, and then either that can just carry on if people want to keep talking about something, or there can be an activity (doesn't all have to be focused on talking about your feelings, it can just be to spend some proper time together).

It's a way of getting to know how people really are as quite often there is so much to do and so many people around that you can go weeks without having more than a 'how you doing - I'm fine' type conversation – it feels important to make that possible to keep things going well as a team. People take it in turns to organise it. In the summer people have been quite tired, so they have just sometimes had a go round then sat around together which has been really nice.

Ownership
Sunseed has use of 4 houses each come with a bit of land. The main house (has the kitchen, living room/library and larder down stairs, and the girls dorm, office, another room and new shower/clothes washing room upstairs); Jeff's house (where residents live and the tools/workshop is); Gayes house (mixture of residents and volunteers); Isabels house (the other end of the village - residents live there and it's where the wind generator is - previously a solar family would stay there changing each week and cook for everyone on the big solar oven, but they stopped that).

Of the four properties Sunseed owns two, has a mortgage on one and “rents” one under very favourable conditions (basically for labour exchange - they do work on it/maintain it - and the family live in it when they come out for holidays).

Finances

The outgoings are pretty minimal. They pay residents 40 Euros (a week I think though it could be a month). All the income is generated through the project in Spain. Money comes from volunteers paying to come, courses, gift aid. They encourage volunteers to look for funding – so people come funded by arasmas or leornardo. They want to start looking more into this – for example they've never used EVS before. They want to come up with blue prints of how you get funding as a volunteer and put it up on the website so that it's really easy for volunteers to do.

In the long term they would like to look for ways of making the project more sustainable. If volunteer numbers ever drop they would need a different way of surviving. They would like that to be through localising – so producing more of their own food, but also being able to exchange – e.g. they could help install/maintain people's renewable energy systems in return for chickpeas/grains etc. That might not be something that happens while this team are there still, it's a longer-term goal, but something that they would like to get working towards for the future of Sunseed.

Final thoughts and key advice for us

Kirsty talked about the personal conflict of what she wants from a project. She feels like the educational value of Sunseed is really important – that it is great sparking off a passion to learn more about something in people, but that there is also an urgency to focus on actually producing more. Should they focus all their resources on producing enough food on a larger scale not just demonstrating what it could be like and making the place look nicer etc. Ideally a project would be able to do both.
We talked about that being the aim of Kindling and about the aim of doing larger scale forest garden and general production to try and feed a lot of people (e.g. a city the size of Manchester!), to show it is possible by doing it.

Try to be as efficient as possible and work on that efficiency – e.g. full insulation, and with heating burning don't just burn it at 20% efficiency, the growing system could be a lot more efficient – more productive – it's taken a year to learn about and understand the systems, it's only in the second year that you are ready to start trying to make improvements.

People's efficiency is also important – matching someone's passion with the job that they do will make them a lot better at it/more efficient.

Some interesting things I don't want to forget and need to look at:

Darren O'Doherty - larger scale permaculture farming and keyline design and courses - something to do with irrigation that draws water up and a great piece of tractor machinery (with a T Plough bit) that does the work of ploughing, seeding, dropping in some compost and covering up all in one go....without ploughing up the land and destroying the soil structure and mycorrhizae in the top layer

V3 Power - DIY renewable energy group in Nottingham

A good book NVC is 'Words that work in Business' Ike Lasseter. There is also training run once a year at Findhorn called restorative circles that is really good (Dominic Barter.is one of the course leaders who is really interesting – look up his work).

The Kindling Trust is a not for profit social enterprise with charitable aims (Company number: 6136029).
Kindling Trust Ltd - Bridge 5 Mill, 22a Beswick Street, Ancoats, Manchester, M4 7HR