First Published in The Natural Farmer
Providing fresh, nutritious organic food for people is a deeply appreciated service. That appreciation can inspire them to reciprocate with unexpected generosity. At least, that has been our experience in establishing Peacework Farm. Our customers have helped us stick to our resolution to only buy what we could pay for in cash and to stay away from loans that carry interest payments. Their CSA payments, in advance of receiving the food, are a form of credit with no interest attached. Besides their regular work harvesting and running distribution, or serving on the Genesee Valley Organic CSA (GVOCSA) core group, members have contributed services, large amounts of money for capitalization, and tax deductible donations to the Genesee Land Trust to buy the land to lease back to the farm.
Flash back: In 1988-89, Alison Clarke of the Politics of Food in Rochester, NY, worked with me and David, my partner at Rose Valley Farm, to start a CSA. Our first season, we provided 31 shares for 29 households. As an experiment, we asked that members pay on a sliding scale and that everyone contribute some work at the farm and help with distribution. As the number of shares grew, we expanded the core group of members who took on administrative tasks and met as a board to make decisions about share numbers, fees and distribution details. The farm work turned out to be as popular as the food. By 1997, membership had grown to 160 households. At the end of that season Greg Palmer and I left Rose Valley. The GVOCSA core group asked David if he wanted to continue supplying them with vegetables. When he said no, the core group made a commitment to Greg and me to help us find a new place to farm so that we could continue to grow for them.
We heard about and read about many properties and examined 20 or so before deciding to rent land at Crowfield Farm in Newark, NY. Two of the core members worked at the same school as Rebecca Kraai who, with her husband Doug, owned over 700 acres of farm land. The Kraais offered to rent us 15 acres of high quality sandy loam soils plus two barns and some equipment. Since Doug had been a founding member of NOFA-NY and had not used any prohibited materials on the land since 1983, this was by far the best farm opportunity we found. There were some comic moments in our negotiations. At our first meeting, Doug proposed a very low rental fee, saying he really wanted to encourage us. At the second meeting, he declared that his land was invaluable, so he was thinking of charging thousands of dollars an acre, but even that would not honor the full value. We eventually settled on an amount that was in line with what other farmers in the area were paying and replicated the five-year rolling lease used by our friends at West Haven Farm.
Starting over again, even on rented land with existing buildings, requires some financial investment. When I left Rose Valley, after lengthy negotiations and a formal mediation, I took with me the $35,000 I had put into that farm when I became a partner. That was more or less the same money I had received as an insurance settlement when my husband was killed in a car crash and that I had invested in Unadilla Farm in Gill, MA so that I could switch from teaching to farming. Some of what I took away from Rose Valley was in equipment, including a set of disks, a wagon, a manure spreader and a lot of hand tools. I owned an Allis Chalmers G tractor and a carrot washer. Greg and I used the cash to live on for that year and to buy additional things we needed to farm. We went to auctions and second hand equipment dealers, though bought a new Vermont cart and a Troy-bilt tiller. Instead of bidding against a farmer friend on a basketweeder, we bid together on the 10’ wide implement, and then had a welder cut it in half. Together, we paid $200 and each got the 5’ weeder we needed.
Greg and I presented a budget for the investments we considered necessary to the GVOCSA core group. I was determined to have some basic infrastructure right from the start – a greenhouse, a walk-in cooler, a rodent-proof area to store crops, and a cold frame. We were about $5000 short and were planning to propose to the core that we sell shares in advance to raise that money. Much to our surprise, before the next meeting two weeks later when we expected to discuss our idea, a core member sent us a check for $5000, a no strings attached contribution with no expectation of repayment. Years later, we offered to pay her back – but she refused. We used that money to purchase a Celli spader since we planned to make permanent beds with grass strips in between.
The GVOCSA core agreed to purchase food from other area organic farmers for one year to allow Greg and me time to get set up. Since most of the other farms did not want any helpers, the members signed up to do their work shifts at Peacework Organic, the name we chose for our new farm. A lawyer helped us write a lease with the Kraais and a partnership agreement between Greg and me. Two architects designed a modified solar greenhouse which Doug helped us build. An electrician provided electrical components and one of his skilled workers installed the main line and fuse boxes. A landscape designer helped us lay out the beds. And the other hundred or so households helped us clear out the mountains of stuff Doug had stored in the barns and did construction on the greenhouse, packing shed and cold frame.
We decided to situate the packing shed in a one-story wing of the old barn and built a walk-in cooler there. The compressor cost $900. The next winter, a freak ice storm collapsed the roof of that wing. Again, members helped us clear away the rubble, clean out the stuff we had moved from the big barn to the smaller barn, and then transform that barn into a packing shed. With the help of a friend who owned a vehicle transport truck, we were able to winch the walk-in up onto the flat bed, drive it the 50 feet or so to the smaller barn and then unload it into its new home. A big crew of members lifted and turned the walk-in and helped us muscle it into place.
During the first five years of Peacework, Doug was a supportive landlord, although relations were not without tense moments as on the day he announced to Greg, Ammie (Greg’s wife had joined our partnership in 2000) and me that we would have to move our farming to a different part of his land because he found our hoop house plastic ugly. The three of us replied in one voice that a move was not an option, and he never mentioned it again. My ability to focus on the job at hand was a challenge for Doug that reminded him of his father, a doctor. Doug wrote me 9-page letters at 4 am on the importance of looking around and taking more time to enjoy life. He and his family became members of the CSA, and on the morning of my son’s wedding at the farm, Doug proposed that we become sister and brother. We occasionally helped Doug with his bison round-ups. And then suddenly, Doug was stricken with a geoblastoma, a severe and astonishingly rapid brain tumor – and he died. In 40 days he was gone leaving a very large hole in our world. Rebecca offered to sell us the 148 acres that had been the Humbert Dairy Farm. Once again, the GVOCSA members came to the rescue. Suzanne Wheatcraft was a member of our core group and also the president of the board of the Genesee Land Trust (GLT). She served as liaison between the GLT and our farm and helped us negotiate a deal – the GLT would buy the farm and then lease it back to Peacework. As a conservation land trust, this was an innovative venture into functioning more like a community land trust.
To raise money to pay for the 140-acre farm, the core committee of the GVOCSA set up a special “Preserving Peacework” committee to raise funds in coordination with the GLT. Including all of the ancillary expenses of land purchase – a survey of the property, a land stewardship fund to allow the land trust to monitor the land use on an annual basis, etc. – the fundraising goal was $150,000. Because the GLT is a non-profit organization, people could make tax-deductible contributions towards the purchase price. To raise funds for several land preservation projects, including Peacework, the GLT embarked on a $500,000 capital fund. Since CSA members had a special relationship with the farm, the fundraisers especially targeted them. After describing the purchase and lease work in progress, the Preserving Peacework committee made this special appeal to members: “So, what does this mean to us? It means our CSA is going to benefit by knowing that land ownership costs and the issues around buying and selling land are not going to be issues our CSA has to deal with, nor will the farmers need to worry about a landlord who decides to sell the land out from under them. In short, in addition to reaping the benefit of knowing that Peacework farm – “our farm” will have a stable home farm, the CSA will also be a partner in the permanent preservation of high quality organic soils, Ganargua Creek wetlands and floodplains, and hardwood forest land with important wildlife habitat and beautiful wild flowers.”
In only fourteen months, the Preserving Peacework committee raised the money to buy the farm; CSA members pledged $140,000. The GLT completed the purchase of the land in January 2006 and in March of that year signed a twenty-five year rolling lease with Peacework. The very first contribution of $25,000 was anonymous and accompanied by this eloquent note:
“I believe that the planet is in a serious ‘people created’ ecological crisis motivated by greed and perpetuated by ignorance. The privilege and good fortune of eating clean local food is mine, due to the existence of the GVOCSA and Peacework Organic Farm. … My donation of $25,000 has caused raised eyebrows and not a few gasps. Conventional financial advice dictates ‘saving for a rainy day.’ Dear people, it is raining today, and it has been raining for a long, long time. It is rare that one has an opportunity to participate in such a fine cooperative venture. I do this with complete confidence in the ethics of the farmers, the GVOCSA and the GLT. I participate with joy and hope so that my great grandchildren will have safe vegetables grown on a beautiful organic farm.”
The other contributions were not as large, but GVOCSA members dug deep into their pockets and savings accounts to come up with the money.
The land trust board was very clear that they did not want to be responsible for buildings, so we farmers purchased all the “improvements”. A CSA member contributed the money that allowed us to buy the big barn, and the packing shed. Although valuable to us, the price was modest ($12,500) since there was no other possible buyer for those buildings. We already owned the wells that we had dug on the land, one of them with a $5000 grant from the employer of one of our members that also paid for a hoop house. The purpose of that grant was to encourage healthy and independent living for employees and their families. Active CSA membership met their guidelines!
While the fundraising was in progress, Greg, Ammie and I worked with Gay Mills, GLT Executive Director, to write the lease language. Susan Witt of the E.F. Schumacher Society (now the New Economics Institute), and Kirby White from the staff of Equity Trust helped us write into the lease agreements that will maintain the land in ecological farming and keep it affordable to future generations of farmers. In consultation with the land trust, we are allowed to build homes for farmers and additional agricultural structures. Should we decide to sell our farming business, we will not be able to benefit financially from appreciation to the value of the land and any buildings we may construct.
We had lengthy discussions with GLT about the appropriate lease fee. Under the terms of their non-profit status, they cannot offer us a “sweetheart deal” on rental fees. The land trust asked me to research what farmers pay to rent an acre of land in Wayne County, NY. We were all surprised to learn that the going rate, ranging from $35 to $50 an acre, just covers the land taxes. As a result, we agreed that Peacework will pay the land taxes and all insurance and other local fees, but only a small administrative fee of $300 a year to GLT.
Three other organic CSA farms – Roxbury Farm in New York, and Indian Line Farm and Caretaker Farm in Massachusetts – have gone through a similar process. We hope to create a new model for preserving farms and farmland. There are several interrelated goals: we want to preserve farmland from development while keeping it affordable for people like ourselves who make our living as farmers. The other organic farmers, who have chosen, as we have, to farm on leased preserved land, have also raised the money from contributions from their CSA members and other donors, establishing these farms as community property, divorcing them from the real estate market. The common threads to these stories are you need the cooperation of several entities, good legal advice is crucial, and patience will be rewarded.
One further set of thoughts about organic farming and money. The less cash we need to live on, the freer we become. Part of my balancing act has been my conscious choice to live as lightly on the planet as I can manage and to pay as little in taxes to the war machine as possible. I keep pretty close track of how I spend my money – both because there isn’t a lot of it, but also because I’m always looking for little ways to spend less. I recycle fanatically. I can, freeze, and root cellar food from our farm to keep me out of the supermarket in the winter, and I belong to a food buying club that cuts out at least one layer of middlemen. I do my other shopping at a food coop, where I get a worker-member discount by writing about farming for the newsletter. My fashion-plate mother would have been horrified to see me shopping for clothing in second-hand stores, though my grand-mother-in-law would have been tickled at my observance of her slogan – “never buy anything new.”
Shortly after starting Peacework, Ammie, Greg and I took a 3-day training in Holistic Resource Management and wrote a set of goals for our farming. One of the goals expresses our attitude towards money and work:
- to make a modest living for our two families: we are blue collar farmers; we enjoy physical labor and have no desire to become managers or exploiters of other people’s work.
So keep your eyes and ears open for alternatives to the usual cash economy. Maybe we are not yet ready to throw the moneylenders out of the temple of sustainable agriculture, but the organic farming movement is helping shift our culture’s negative attitude towards physical labor. There is great dignity in our work as well as sweat, joy, pain and satisfaction. When we allow our customers to invest in our farms, we are giving them an opportunity to turn social capital into the infrastructure for a healthier future on our planet.
 Equity Trust has a loan fund for CSA farms. They will also help a farm arrange for its customers to loan the farm money with Equity Trust as the intermediary so that failure to make payments on time does not wreck the relationship.