Three Overlooked Seeds at the Core of CSA Farms

December 26, 2014

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

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 the overflow crowd at the Peterborough Historical Society during the Grange ceremony honoring the pioneers of CSA. Photo from the balcony by Patrick John Gillam.
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.

watercolorpaintIn 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

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.

logoCamphill 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.

0Back 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

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Waves of Change: Three Strategies for Millennial Agrarian Pioneers

February 22, 2011

Waves of change have irregularly swept through the realms of food and farms over the decades. By most reckonings, another massive wave is building toward a crest, driven by oil prices, climate change, market speculation, genetic experimentation, human health corruption, corporate interest, and consumer demand.

Chuck Hassebrook

In the context of these roiling factors, Chuck Hassebrook had a message for the audience at the Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society’s mid-February conference: “We can shape the next wave of change with sustainable agriculture.” But, he added, to do that we will need the same qualities of determination and perseverance as the pioneers.

Hassebrook is Executive Director of the Center for Rural Affairs (CRA). He also serves on the Board of Regents for the University of Nebraska, a powerhouse among America’s agricultural academies, where he is one voice for sustainability in an institutional chorus determinedly advancing industrial approaches to farms and food.

In his talk, he picked up on the theme of change in the historical period starting after World War II when the wave was propelled by power equipment, petroleum-based chemical inputs, and confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Initially those innovations made farm work easier and more prosperous.  But now, 60 years later, we must ask ‘what hath we wrought?’

There is a new wave of change now, Hassebrook said, but if we want a better sustainable future, we are going to have to take responsibility for creating it. “Each person has a moral responsibility to leave the land in at least as good a condition as it was when it came under their caretaking, and possibly even better,” he said. Then he offered three strategies.

Three strategies

1. Sustainable agriculture needs to continue to check its authenticity and find ways to make it possible for small and mid-size farms to take a fair share of the market. Studies show consumers overwhelmingly trust family-size farms more than they trust the large corporate farms, especially when it comes to ethical treatment of human beings and animals.

We need to band together to market our products to get to a place where the majority of the people who do the work are also owners of the land. That’s what a family farm is.

In the era of the pioneers, the people who worked the land owned it. Not so much now. Instead, the corporations or people who own the land hire employees to work the land for them, and those employees are in the majority of cases poor.

Hassebrook’s observations put me in mind of Trauger Groh, my co-author for  Farms of Tomorrow (1990), and one of the founders of the Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire. “If you work in nature with animals or with crops you have to take a deep personal interest in it,” Trauger said while I interviewed him for the The Call of the Land. “The hired person cannot do this. A salary is insufficient motivation. We need another way.

“We have no employees on our farm,” Trauger told me. “We have partners. At the Temple-Wilton Community Farm our principle has been to run the farm by a group of independent farmers in association with each other, not employees…Employment is the last outgrowth of slavery. If you are employed, you have to work on order. The employer sets the tone and says what you must do. People won’t want that in the future.”

2.  The second strategy Hassebrook offered involves the role of sustainable agriculture in addressing climate change. As studies show, organic soil absorbs lots of CO2 from the atmosphere and fixes it in the soil beneficially, thus helping stabilize climate in an era of wildly dramatic change.

“America and the world need our participation in the debate on climate change, not just in Washington, but also locally,” Hassebrook said. “We need to talk with our neighbors. Lots of rural folk continue their disbelief in climate change and think they are being conservative. But there is nothing conservative about that position. It is not a traditional value to put your head in the sand…If we continue to keep our heads in the sand, it may be too late to do anything about it. We need to take action now.”

In that regard the NSAS conference also heard from Abe Collins, an organic farmer who raises beef in St. Albans, Vermont, and is the founder of New Soil Matrix. His talk was titled Soil Formation as the Basis of Environmental Security and Economic Development.

“Everything good comes from the soil,” Collins said. “That’s our basic assumption. Increasing soil carbon is the key to our environmental security, and to both urban and rural development.

For many years, Collins said, the common-knowledge maxim has been that it takes 1,000 years to build one inch of topsoil. But that is no longer true. We now know how, he said, to build up to eight inches of topsoil a year to pull carbon out of the air and thereby to draw down dangerous CO2 levels in the atmosphere. “We can reduce CO2 levels substantially,” he said, “while enhancing our ecosystems and increasing profits.”

Collins encouraged land managers to enter The Soil Carbon Challenge, sometimes called the World Carbon Cup. It’s an international competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into soil organic matter. The hope is that the competition will spur further innovation.

3. – Hassebrook’s third strategy was to rein in government subsidy of large farms so that small and mid-size farms can have a fair chance. The way it works now, he said, is the bigger you are the more government subsidy you get. As long as we keep the policies that support that approach we will not have the resources to invest in organic and sustainable approaches to the land.

In 2007, the Center for Rural Affairs analyzed farms in 13 leading farm states. They learned that in those states, just 260 of the largest farm operations received more money from USDA farm programs than all of the people and communities in all of the counties combined — a total of nearly 3 million people in over 1,400 municipalities. The reality of that gross imbalance shines a sharp light on the distortion government money has brought to the realm of food and farms, and shows why small farms struggle while huge, corporate farms prosper.

Woody Tasch of the Slow Money Alliance makes a similar point about lack of support for sustainable ag. He points out that only a tiny fraction of foundation assets are allocated to organic agriculture. “We have $500 billion of private foundation assets in the USA,” Tasch has written, “and less that 0.1 percent of that — just a few hundredths of a percent — goes to support sustainable agriculture.”

What it comes down to, Hassebrook told the NSAS conference, is a choice about the impending wave of change: “We have got to limit what the big farms get. Direct payments usually go to land that is owned by a landlord and worked by poorly paid employees. We need to stop subsidizing the biggest and most powerful, and instead use those resources to support family farms, and to invest in the future of rural communities and the millions of people who live there.

In closing, Hassebrook referred to an editorial he had read a while back in the Omaha World Herald. “We can draw inspiration from the pioneers,” he said, “for they were people just like us: good and bad, poor and rich, successful and unsuccessful. But in general the pioneers had some important qualities. They had perseverance. They were visionaries. They made sacrifices to realize their dreams. They cared about each other, about community, and about the future. They saw what could be and then they did not let challenges dissuade them. They faced reality, and they were open to new ideas.”

Those qualities and attitudes, Hassebrook said, are what modern-day pioneers of sustainable agriculture need now to shape the mounting waves of change in our farms and food.


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