Farmers Helping Farmers:  "Community is Our First Product"

Many organizations in New Hampshire want to help farmers, but sometimes despite the desire to help, farmers feel that they alone understand the challenges they face. A year ago, after attending a nonprofit presentation on wholesaling, farmers Craig Jensen (Sun Moon Farm), Gene Jonas (Hungry Bear Farm) and Jack Rixey (Tracie’s Community Farm) felt frustrated. They felt like they weren’t being heard and that they still had problems they couldn’t solve alone.

Last winter, over a table at Aesop’s at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, the three farmers agreed on what their problems were. There were two problems, both about money. They wanted marketing help so that they could sell more CSA shares and they wanted to make their CSAs available to more low-income families.

They set a date for another meeting and began calling other farmers. Over the late winter and spring, the meetings were active with guests — both growers and outside organizations. Despite the interest, Sun Moon Farm’s Craig Jensen says “we never landed on the right partner who wanted to take on the projects or needs that we were identifying.”

By the beginning of the busy season these coffee house grievances had been transformed into “Farmers Helping Farmers,” an organization with regular members, a mission statement and structured meetings that included a farm tour,

a work session and a potluck.

Farmers helping Farmers also include Dirty Girl CSA (Peterborough and Weare), Tracie’s Community Farm (Fitzwilliam), Hungry Bear Farm (Mason), Hillside Springs Farm (Westmoreland) and Sun Moon Farm (Rindge). Each member as diverse in their experiences as the land they farm, but all are CSA growers selling to the Monadnock Region.

The mission they drafted is this: “We are a group of Monadnock Region small farmers who choose to recognize each other as allies and friends rather than as competitors because farming is hard enough. We want farming to be a viable and valued vocation and we want the high-quality food that we grow to be accessible to more families. We welcome support from other individuals and organizations but we reserve this space as being led by farmers.”

This kind of generosity and openness is incredible when you consider that all of these farmers compete for customers from the same small communities. They could be hyper-focused on the number of CSA members as their resource limitation, but instead, they seem to view the community as they view their land, a complex organism that is not functioning as cohesively or productively as it could.

On farm visit day, in early October I arrive at Hungry Bear Farm in Mason, New Hampshire, with Sun Moon farm’s Craig Jensen and his two farm interns. The farm property is difficult to find wedged in a triangle of dirt roads.

“I think I see someone farming,” says one intern.

It sounds like a joke, almost, but it is true. Gene Jonas the owner, farmer and one man labor crew of Hungry Bear appears like a children’s book silhouette hunched over his fields.

His farm is a 4-acre parcel that runs into the woods. The land is cleared into engineer-perfect plots. The largest piece of equipment Jonas owns is a rototiller, and so many of his methods and tools are familiar to me as a home gardener. But the scale is mind-boggling, the amount of work for one person is difficult to comprehend.

My naiveté is apparent when I ask him how he will prepare one of his beds for planting. He picks up the shovel, in a dramatic show and begins turning over the earth.

Jonas feeds 65 CSA families and countless others through his donations to the Hillsborough County Gleaners.

Frank Hunter from Hillside Springs Farm joins us. While we walk, the farmers talk about focused dilemmas such as whether pyrethrum is effective against gray aphids. But they also talk about the big picture and how progress is going on mutual goals such as providing more CSA shares to low-income families. Hillside Spring plowed the bureaucratic maze first and now Tracie’s Community Farm and Sun Moon farm all have EBT machines. The machines didn’t come in time for the 2018 season, but now are in place and the farmers see this as positive progress.

The EBT machines themselves are a leap of faith since the CSA model relies on getting financed at the beginning of the growing season. Recipients of SNAP benefits are also eligible for the Granite State Market Match which doubles the worth of their benefits. CSA members who pay with SNAP will have to pay for their share weekly instead of upfront. If the share price is $25, $12.50 would go into the farmer’s account.

Jensen says the other $12.50 coming from Granite State Market Match takes about 90 days to come in.

“I can weather that gap, but for the CSA model the concept is I should have all my cash in the spring since I spend all my money by June,” he notes.

Despite the challenges, these farmers are moving forward to try to feed more of their communities, more middle and low-income families that have been traditionally left out of the CSA model.

As we pause to taste some ground cherries, Jonas talks about how this is his first year growing them. He elicits our reviews. Some are positive. The ground cherries taste like under-ripe pineapple and feel like cherry tomatoes in the mouth. All of the farmers try new plants and new techniques every year, weighing the inputs and successes. It is no surprise that they are eager to try new approaches within their economic landscape.

As we move onto the next plot recently gleaned of its final tomatoes, the farmers talk about the Temple-Wilton CSA Model. Frank Hunter has some experience with this and explains how Temple-Wilton invites its CSA members into the barn during the winter to view the farm budget for the following year. Members don’t leave the barn until they have agreed on how they are going to carry the budget.

Jensen is interested in the greater equity that this opportunity could bring. He feels like he has the tools to facilitate a similar meeting with his CSA members both local and those living in a housing community outside of Boston.

Although he laments, this “is a whole other piece of farming that is not about growing food.”

Jensen has already admitted that food is a small part of what he sells, or what the other farmers in the group sell.  As CSA growers, it is clear that what Jensen says is true, “Community is our first product.”

This makes it clearer why wholesale farming is so unattractive to these farmers, despite it being a possible financial solution. Acre for acre, Sun Moon Farm could easily out-earn their CSA gross if they just planted garlic but if their intention is to truly feed their communities, this depends on diversity — diversity of customer base and diversity of food. The greater the spread, the more possible the foodshed.

Not only that, the land itself dictates its best use. Jonas’ farm is too small; Hunter’s is too hilly for the mechanization of mono-cropping. The CSA model is most sustainable for the land but also for the sustained interest and intellect of the farmer. It is protection against loss — financial loss, land loss and brain loss. The diversity of the CSA is good for the health of the farmer, the land and the community, born from the limitations of the rocky fields and the potential of their communities.

So there they are wedged between the rocks and the hard place, cultivating a tender spot, trying to figure out how to keep doing that, together.

 

Paige Lindell writes from Rindge, New Hampshire.