Three seed ideas were among the many elements that underlie the actions of the first CSA farmers who in 1985-86 established new ways of farming in America. Those ways have emerged in subsequent seasons to yield as many as 10,000 contemporary community supported farms (CSAs) in cities, suburbs, towns, villages and churches across the land.
Photo: Maggie Mehaffey
The CSA model has proven to be a natural for adaption and innovation. Many latter-day CSAs, however, have overlooked or bypassed some of the seed ideas as they have established a wide range of variations on the CSA theme. Yet the seeds of the initial CSAs remain viable, perhaps even more so in our era of profound global change. They are freely available to anyone who chooses to cultivate them.
Alice Bennett Groh is part of the founding group for the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, in New Hampshire. In November, 2014 when she spoke at a Peterborough Grange ceremony to honor CSA pioneers, she put her focus on three of the seed ideas that helped community farms to become established in the USA and to grow.
With eloquence and economy of language, she told of how her husband Trauger Markus Groh partnered with Anthony Graham and Lincoln Gieger to cultivate new thinking, and thereby to initiate their highly productive, economically sustainable, and environmentally radiant Biodynamic farm on rocky, rolling hills flanking the Souhegan River.
- Alice Bennett Groh speaks to an overflow crowd at the Peterborough Historical Society during the Grange ceremony honoring the pioneers of CSA. Photo from the balcony by Patrick John Gillam.
In conversations with me after the Grange-CSA event, Alice spoke further about those seed ideas:
1. The first seed that Alice recalled has to do with the ownership and financing of community farms, questions Trauger Groh engaged early in his life while living in Germany, questions he engaged again with compatriots at the Temple-Wilton Community Farm, and questions which he explored in his autobiography, Personal Recollections: Remembering My Life and Those Who Mean So Much to Me (2010).
The general agricultural situation in Germany in the 1960s, according to Trauger and Alice, was that most farms were economically dependent on using foreign workers and paying them low wages. This set up ensured that the farm workers would remain poor and have no stake in the land. Meanwhile, in comparison with conventional farms where production rose steeply with the addition of synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides and insecticides, the financial return from harvests was unsatisfactory for organic and Biodynamic farms.
In this economic and social environment, how could organic or Biodynamic farms survive and prosper into the future? At Buschberg Farm in the 1960s, Trauger and his farm colleagues of that era were all actively cultivating Anthroposophical and Biodynamic understandings. They recognized that new economic, social and agricultural forms were needed for the Farms of Tomorrow.
Understanding that isolated farms and isolated farmers had a dim future in the shadow of corporate-industrial agriculture, they strove to create a wider, village-like arrangement based on free-will associations of households with the farm. One great aim was to open the farms to the participation of many people, to share the responsibility of growing food and caring for the earth cooperatively. To make that possible, it was necessary to change the relationship of the ownership to the land, and to give up the conventional employer/employee wage relationship.
They formed a co-operative work group for the Buschberg Farm Agricultural Working Group. The group was composed of about 40 people, with three active farmers including Trauger. Together they bore responsibility for the farm and its risks.
They developed a co-operative property association to hold the farmland in trust, and to act as a co-operative credit guarantee company. Attorney Wilhelm Barkoff designed this risk-sharing arrangement in partnership with the Co-operative Bank in Bochum, near Dresden, Germany.
Nonfarmer community members worked alongside the active farmers in managing the farm, but did not interfere with it. They contributed to the farm from their own life experience. Each member of the work group was given a loan of 3,000 DM (Deutsche Mark) by their Community Bank. This functioned as a line of credit, which the nonfarmer members of the community could then assign to the active farmers to give them working capital and enable them to establish a farm budget. The financial and health needs of the active farmers themselves and their families were built into the budget for the farm. Withdrawals were deducted and income credited.
On this basis the active farmers went about their business. If they made a profit they turned it over to the members of whole farm community: if the farm had a loss then the farm community members agreed to make up the difference. They shared the risk. This approach to free-will community trust ownership of the land and shared risk was among the original CSA seed ideas.
2. While speaking at the Grange ceremony for the pioneers of CSA, Alice told also of how in the 1970s Trauger came to know Peter Berg, a farmer in south Germany. Berg came up with an idea for a box scheme – a weekly box of Biodynamic vegetables for people who wanted them, an approach which he was able to extend to Dornach, across the nearby border with Switzerland.
The Sower – V. Van Gogh
As a member of the Board of Directors for Fondation la Bruyére Blanche and as an agricultural consultant, Trauger visited Dornach many times in the early 1970s, and learned about the approach Berg was taking. Then in the 1980s, an American named Jan Vander Tuin also learned of this approach while visiting in Switzerland. He became passionately enthusiastic. Later when Vander Tuin visited western Massachusetts in 1985, he told about the pre-paid box scheme to a core group of people including John Root, Sr., John Root Jr., Charlotte Zenecchia, Andrew Lorand, and Robyn Van En. They formed The CSA Garden at Great Barrington, later known as Indian Line Farm.
The two communities – Temple-Wilton CSA in New Hampshire and Indian Line CSA in Massachusetts – were less than 150 miles apart. They connected and communicated with each other before the first CSA planting season in America, 1986.
Rather than an agriculture that is supported by government subsidies, private profits, or martyrs to the cause, CSA pioneers strove to create organizational forms that provide direct, free will support for farm and farmers from the people who eat their food by receiving a share of the harvest they have made possible. This is a second seed idea at the core of CSA.
3. Alice Bennett Groh concluded her talk for the Grange by telling of how in the early 1980s Trauger visited with a farmer named Asgar Elmquist and his wife, Mary. The Elmquists were houseparents at Camphill Village, Copake, NY, and Asgar was also actively farming.
Camphill Villages are set up as households, with food budgets. It was the agreed custom for housemothers to use thier budgets to purchase food for all the residents of the households. One option was to buy food for the households from local farmers, such as Asgar. The houseparents were in fact buying from him, but toward the end of each month as house budgets ran low, the housemothers would switch and shop supermarkets instead to save money. That was not working for Asgar because it invariably left him stuck with food that he had produced but could no longer sell while it was fresh.
“Wise fellow that he is,” Alice observed, Asgar proposed that the households pledge a certain amount of budgeted money up front each month to support his general farming efforts, to support the whole farm. In return he would agree to deliver produce to their doors throughout the entire month. That upfront agreement worked better for everyone.
Trauger Groh later wrote in his autobiography. “That farms flourish must be the concern of everyone, not just the individuals working as farmers.” The idea is for the community to support the whole farm, not just to be occasional consumers buying boxes of carrots, lettuce and squash. That way the farm is in a position to reciprocate and support the community. The community supports the farm out of free will association, and the farm supports the community out of the bounty of the land.
Back in the day, Asgar told Trauger that after he changed over to this arrangement, everything on the farm began to grow better. He explained that the nature spirits, or elemental beings weaving their works in the farm fields, have no relationship to money and no conception of it. If a farmer looks over a row of carrots and principally calculates what money he can earn with them, the elementals cannot grasp this abstraction. But if a farmer is instead thinking about bringing the crop to its highest perfection to nourish human beings and livestock, the elementals can in their own manner comprehend and respond.
“Elemental beings want what is good, healthy and right for the soil and the situation,” Alice told me. “If a farmer can be freed from the economic stress of counting rows of carrots to calculate how many rows he needs to make how much money, then the farmer can think instead of what the soil, the plants, the farm, and the farm community need. With these thoughts about concrete matters such as food and eating, rather than thoughts about the relatively abstract and artificial concept of money, everything grows better.”
“We can’t see the forces of nature,” original Indian Line CSA farmer Hugh Ratcliffe once told me, “but we can see the effects of working consciously with them.” Careful observation of nature, and intelligent cooperation with it, are among the great contributions of Biodynamics. And that’s how CSA pioneers approached it in the USA.
Considered through the lens of economics, CSA was not originated as some new, improved way to sell vegetables, milk and meat, nor was it thought of in any way as a “marketing scheme.” The seed efforts of CSA pioneers were aimed at the basic economy of finding ways to free farmers to do the tasks that are right for the farm, the people, and the earth. This intention represents a third seed at the core of the original CSA impulse.
The Temple-Wilton Community Farm in particular has taken up these seed ideas from the beginning. With effort it has cultivated and refined the seeds over 28 growing seasons: shared ownership and risk, free-will participation as members of the community, and intelligent partnership with nature rather than brute efforts at domination and control.
As Alice observed in the aftermath of the Peterborough Grange-CSA honoring ceremony, “it is unusual, to say the least, maybe even miraculous, that in these times of great social struggle that something that we approached with idealism and dedication has prospered and has had such a profound effect in the world.”
- Steven McFadden, December 2014