Our Sunday mornings lately have begun with kale, cauliflower, and heaps of carrots. Once a week, our neighbors gather to harvest veggies from our local community supported agriculture (CSA) farm. It is a worker-share arrangement, so each member contributes a couple hours of time each week or pays in a larger sum to receive a share of the farm bounty. There is an element of surprise each week as we discover what we are harvesting and thus bringing home. By design, this unique business promotes resiliency, teamwork, and a deeper relationship with our food.
Little River Community Farm was founded by three members of Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BC&E), a multigenerational community in Midcoast Maine on 42-acres that will contain 36 units when complete next year. The arrangement between the two organizations is a symbiotic relationship, allowing community members to have fresh produce grown just beyond their doorstep and the community helps provide the infrastructure and support to the young business.
When my family made the move from Wisconsin to Maine, we arrived in August with no established garden. The CSA was just beginning to harvest the fall share and we had instant access to high-quality and extremely local veggies.
The CSA is boosting the soil quality of the several acres it uses by planting buckwheat, millet, vetch, and pea cover crops that boost nitrogen, retain topsoils, and boost organic matter, thus increasing the fertility of the land for years to come. BC&E has just three unsold units and having an on-site CSA offers a unique benefit to potential homebuyers.
“To me, a really important part of being a member of BC&E was there being a farm where we would raise food and work together,” says Jeffrey Mabee, a member of BC&E and Little River Community Farm. “The CSA has really answered my prayers about that. Having young farmers using the land in such a responsible way feels right. The farm feels like the heart of any intentional community. It has a much greater significance than merely producing food.”
The farm began operating this fall with 11 paid shares and several free shares for those who traded use of a tractor or tools. The farm will become profitable once it has more than doubled its shares.
CSA and worker-share CSA farms in particular are generally small in scale, as the market for people willing to put their hands in the dirt is relatively small and it is more difficult to have a strong connection with the members as the membership grows. Members can participate, regardless of experience, as every task is explained.
"If you're going to take seriously the 'community' component of it, and if one of your goals is to have strong ties with your members and have your members have strong ties with you, maybe there is a point where the CSA can't really get any bigger," says John Hendrickson, an outreach specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems in an interview with NPR.
The support from BC&E has been essential for Little River Community Farm to have a successful first season, including having people trade use of a tractor or tools for a free share in the CSA. “It’s great to work with the community and have the support,” explains Amy Adamson, member of BC&E and one of the founders of Little River Community Farm. “Starting a farm without support can be a huge investment of time and money to establish the needed farming infrastructure.”
There is a desire by many BC&E members to see the farm become lucrative for its founders. “There are cohousing communities that have grown high-priced vegetables that restaurants are willing to buy, such as mushrooms and mixed lettuces,” says Judith Grace, Jeffrey’s wife, and a member of BC&E and Little River Community Farm. “That’s been the way they’ve been able to turn a profit. Maybe this group will decide to do that.”
To replicate such a project, Adamson says finding a market is really important, as interest and knowledge of CSAs varies widely across the country. Interest in contributing labor will also vary widely, as it does require a time commitment from members.
“I think its tough for people who can’t come to the weekly harvests [to meet their work commitment],” says Jenny Davis, a member of BC&E and Little River Community Farm and Amy’s wife.
Some of the downsides of a worker-share CSA are luxury problems: having to use or preserve four bunches of kale in one week, learning to prepare less known crops such as mustard greens, and helping out in cold or rainy weather. This has caused community members to make jokes about using kohlrabi as a paperweights and learning to weave baskets with green onions.
This scenario can also create an opportunity. I've learned to freeze and pickle a variety of veggies this year and I have a large stockpile for the colder months. We only gain experience with produce that can be cultivated here at home, thus strengthening the local food culture.
“One of the things I enjoy most are the veggies that we wouldn’t bother with or simply haven’t grown for ourselves over the years,” says Judith. “It’s opened up new tastes and dishes. Kohlrabi or fennel, for instance, comes to mind.”
There is interest by some in BC&E to host educational events related to sustainable agriculture, such as a hoop house building and vineyard planning event that is open to the public on November 10. The three founders of Little River Community Farm have also demonstrated a commitment to educating people about sustainable agriculture.
“I love the idea of teaching people how to grow food,” says Amy. “I think a lot of people don’t understand how inexpensive it is to have their own garden. A lot of people could get much healthier food if they grew their own. They just have to invest their time in it.”
Updated January 18, 2017
Image Credit: Jeffrey Mabee of Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.