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The Dirty Business of Growing a Cohousing Community Farm

The Dirty Business of Growing a Cohousing Community Farm

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The idea of creating Heartwood Farms came about during a visioning retreat in 2007. You know the type, an all-day, community-wide retreat hosted in the common house with lots of positive energy, good food, and everyone in a good mood? Picture five or six smaller groups gathered around, on the floor, sitting on couches, hanging out around the kitchen island, all trying to come up with the perfect vision of what our community would look and feel like in 10 years!

We live on roughly 250 acres in rural southwestern Colorado. Seventy of those acres are irrigated and we as a community have agreed to steward them in the best way possible. Now we are basically a bunch of city kids wanting to experience the rural lifestyle…environmentally friendly with strawbale houses, kids collecting eggs as one of their chores, that sort of thing. So when the idea of growing our own food came up in numerous subgroups within the retreat, a group of us decided that of course we need to grow our own food. Let’s do it! We produced collages, word boards, and pictures in our heads of beautiful vegetables and fruits grown organically on our land by people we love. We pictured days sitting in the grass while the children played with the baby goats and chased good-natured chickens around the pasture.

Simple, right? We had land and we had water, now all we needed were some seeds. We even had a whole community that eats organic and supports local food sources AND an experienced grower to grow that food living right here in the community. We have a word for this kind of idea at Heartwood; it is called a “no brainer.” Only a “no brainer” at Heartwood is not what you think. A “no brainer” here means an idea that you think could not possibly have any opposition, that everyone will agree with, as in “duh, that’s a no brainer,” but in reality there are a thousand questions and almost as many concerns. This is a difficult dynamic ever-present in community; there is always a group raring to go and another group wanting to consider every possible thing that can go wrong. But what it ultimately comes down to is power and trust.

Our core identity statement (see sidebar) reads: “We cultivate a fertile ground in which members bring forth their gifts, talents, and passions to manifest a marvelous diversity of creations. We embrace, celebrate, and support those diverse manifestations that are consistent with our stated values.”

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? But many questions can come up when a business venture is proposed that operates within a community setting, especially if the members are creating the business primarily to meet the needs or desires of the community. Be forewarned it is not an easy process no matter how well your community functions. There are so many things to consider when resources are shared and relationships are complicated and interdependent.

Community members might want to know:
● Who owns the business?
● What are the liability ramifications for the community?
● Should the community be compensated for the use of community resources? If so, how much? (This is a big one.)
● What kind of oversight is needed for the business entity? (We’re all members here after all.)

Not to mention the complexities associated with hiring interns (see sidebar) to work on the business. Interns were an essential part of the farming operation and our goal of making the world a better place.
● Do they pay HOA dues?
● Where do they live?
● Who is responsible for their behavior or their use of community resources?

Well, we have a pretty amazing community. They were willing to jump right in and say go for it even though there were still so many unknowns.

The first few years were exciting and fun. We built thousands of dollars worth of infrastructure with seed money from individual community members, fund raisers, and veggie sales—not to mentions thousands of volunteer hours from interns and community members. As the farm grew and prospered, changing, growing organically, some members of the community were getting uncomfortable with the still unanswered questions. But a business like a farm is hard to pin down. A farm is not a clod of dirt; it is more like mud that slips through your hands, gets on your boots, and is tracked all through the community. We wanted this to be an integrated farm and it was—deeply integrated with the community. Now a few members were asking for it to be separated out, put in a box, and defined. Some members didn’t trust the farm because the members on the farm board couldn’t answer all these complex questions.

Bad feelings developed on both sides. Some of the energy on the farm turned sour. The member who was the primary grower left for greener pastures or ones less bogged down in the manure of community process. This trying to define and pin down the farm has gone on now for the last two years. We have had meetings and more meetings. We formed a task force that did great work on trust, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings. We recently consensed on a new structure for the governance of the farm, but questions still persist. Our next retreat will be with a skilled outside facilitator who will help us see where the process went wrong. He will help us further untangle issues of power and trust that have been brought to light by this experience.

For those of us who have been part of the farm since the beginning it has been an exhausting two years—much more exhausting than all the physical labor that we put in during the first two years making the farm great. I am not sure where the farm will go from here. The constraints from the community and from the county have us bogged down. It feels heavy, like walking through the heavy clay soil we have to work with. Some see it as a new beginning, a chance to create something new with full community buy-in. I am worried that trying to do something like this in the confines of community is too exhausting and time-consuming to deal with. But I have hope. I have to.

What have I learned from this process?
● It is very difficult to run a business within a community setting.
● It is important for people to know how to follow as well as lead.
● Nothing polarizes a community faster than talking behind each other’s backs.
● There is nothing cut and dried about farming.
● Sometimes a squeaky wheel is just a squeaky wheel.
● Being in community is about letting go but not giving up.

Really when it comes down to it, it has to do with trust. Trust in each other. Trust in the process. Trust that everything will turn out all right.

If I had it all to do over again, would I do it?

Yes. It is in alignment with my values and those of the community. (See sidebar.)

What would I do different?

I would follow our interpersonal agreements and insist that others do the same. (See sidebar.)

It seems easy when you look at it this way. Just follow your vision and values and every one of your interpersonal agreements. Anyone who lives in community knows these are ideals and hard to live up to all the time. It is the 20-somethings, those goofy interns, who continually remind us to keep striving for those ideals. It takes work and sometimes it’s messy but in the end it is worth it.

If you want to start a business inside a community structure put your hat on, pull up your boot straps, and hang on. You are in for a wild ride.

Sandy Thomson is one of the founding members of Heartwood Cohousing in Bayfield, Colorado: www.heartwoodcohousing.com. She and her husband Mac have raised three children in their community. Sandy created and ran a homeschool co-op when her kids were little; now that they are in high school she has turned her attention to creating Heartwood Farms, a nonprofit foundation to support local agriculture and the education of our future farmers (www,heartwoodfarms.org).

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Interns: The Spice of Life

Interns are the spice of life in a cohousing community. You take the soup of families with kids of all ages, older single people, retired couples, dogs, cats, and you add the secret ingredient: that 18-25 age group that is notoriously missing from cohousing. They are upbeat, idealistic, friendly, hard working, and fun. They aren’t afraid to get dirty and they dive right in. The kids and dogs love them because they are willing to look silly and come down to their level. The older set love them because they can hire them to do some of the backbreaking labor around their homes. The 40-50-year-olds love them because they wake up that often dormant feeling of hope and idealism that is so important at that time of life when we are questioning if it can be done and is it worth fighting for or not?

Our interns have added so much to the experience of living in cohousing that when members are asked, “What is the best part about the farm?,” it is not the food, or the land stewardship, but the presence of interns that is often the answer. They answer it with a slight smile on their face as if they are remembering that time in their own lives—the time in their lives when anything was possible.

Intern energy! I wish I could bottle that and sell it. I bet I could get a lot more for it than the dollar a pound we get for potatoes.

Intern energy is like a litter of golden retrievers with powerful brains that are working all the time.

Some things that can be heard when eavesdropping on the interns at common meals:

“Hey let’s try to do without money the rest of the season.”

“I finally got the recipe for shampoo right—look, my hair actually looks clean. Now I don’t have to buy into all those chemical corporations.”

“Maybe we can just all live in trees and live off the land, wouldn’t that be great?”

“Yeah and we can play music and make art and be happy.”

“I want to learn how to be totally self-sufficient. I want to learn how to grow my own food, build my own house, and make anything that I might need.”

You just don’t get that kind of energy from the meat and potatoes of cohousing!

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Community Vision and Values

These are Heartwood Cohousing’s community vision and values:

Vision

To create and live in a community which fosters harmony with each other, the larger community, and Nature.

Values

Honesty and Trust: We act with openness and honesty because of the trust we have in each other. We have the courage and trust to speak up when we see contradictions or inconsistencies between our behavior and our stated values and goals.

Cooperation: Through tolerance, generosity, sharing, and compassion, we live cooperatively with one another. When appropriate, we place the interests of the community ahead of our own self-interests.

Interconnectedness: We recognize our interdependence with all life. To all that came before us, we offer our respect and remembrance. To all with whom we share this world, we seek mutual understanding and respect. And to all who will come after us, we strive to leave for you a better world.

Commitment: Though we know that the path may be rough at times, we are committed to our Vision for the long haul.

Participation: Knowing that our community is fueled by the energy we give it, we all actively participate in community life and work at Heartwood. Each of us chooses how to give his or her energy.

Support: Our community supports friendship and an extended family environment, thereby creating a sense of belonging. We support the growth of each other individually and the relationships amongst us. Each of us is willing to work on our own personal growth so that we can improve those relationships.

Respect: We respect the freedom of each person to live as he/she chooses, so long as that doesn’t interfere with the freedom of others in the community to do the same. We respect personal privacy. We respect diversity in ideology, spirituality, interests, talents, beliefs, opinions, race, age, income, and so on. And we welcome expressions of that diversity.

Equality and Fairness: We value every member, including children, equally and treat them with fairness.

Stewardship: We live gently on the Earth. We are thankful for Nature’s resources, being conscious to take good care of them and use them efficiently.

Safety: Our community is a safe place—emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Balance: We maintain balance in our community life: between group and individual; between building for tomorrow and enjoyment of today; between heart, mind, and soul; etc.

Responsibility: Each of us, as well as all of us as a community, takes responsibility for our actions.

Education: We seek the exchange of knowledge, skills, and resources with each other and the larger community.

Flexibility: Creating community is an ongoing process. We remain flexible to change.

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Interpersonal Agreements

These are Heartwood’s interpersonal agreements:

To Communicate with Integrity: I agree to tell my truth, with compassion for myself and others, and to trust that others are doing the same.

To Listen with My Heart: I agree to listen respectfully to the communications of others and attune to their deepest meaning.

To Own My Feelings: I agree to take responsibility for my feelings and how I react to the words and actions of others. And I agree to express those feelings in a spirit of openness and compassion.

To Honor Each Person’s Process: I agree to acknowledge that everyone, including myself, is making the best possible choice or decision we are capable of at that moment.

To Express Appreciation: I agree to appreciate others and myself.

To Cooperate with Others: I agree to maintain a sense of cooperation and caring in my interactions with others.

To Honor Our Differences: I understand that goals are often the same even though methods for achieving them may differ.

To Be Aware of Conflict: I agree to look for the unresolved issues within me that create a disproportionate adverse reaction to another’s behavior.

To Resolve Conflicts Constructively: I agree to take problems and complaints to the person(s) with whom I can resolve them, at the earliest opportunity. I agree not to criticize or complain to someone who cannot do something about my complaint, and I will redirect others to do the same. I will not say behind someone’s back what I am not willing to say to their face.

To Maintain Harmony: I agree to take the time to establish rapport with others and then to reconnect with anyone with whom I feel out of harmony as soon as it is appropriate.

To Freely Participate: I agree to freely choose and re-choose to participate in the Heartwood Cohousing Community. It is my choice.

To Lighten Up!: I agree to allow fun and joy in my relationships, my work, and my life.

(Note: These Interpersonal Agreements are based in large part on those of Geneva Community.)

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Core Identity

What makes the Heartwood community distinctive?

● We are a close-knit, multigenerational, rural cohousing neighborhood.

● We are committed to deeply knowing, supporting, respecting, and caring for each other and ourselves as distinctive individuals; as a result, deep interpersonal relationships are possible here.

● We share with each other the value of sustainable interactions with the planet, though our individual efforts and choices may vary. We steward our land to maintain or improve its viability and vitality over the long haul.

● We are interconnected with all of humanity. We welcome new ideas and interactions with the larger community and are open to associations and the sharing of resources with those who share our values.

● We cultivate a fertile ground in which members bring forth their gifts, talents, and passions to manifest a marvelous diversity of creations.

● We embrace, celebrate, and support those diverse manifestations that are consistent with our stated values.

All of these distinctive qualities are part of our enduring core identity, which does not change. What does change are the various manifestations themselves. These dynamic expressions that come and go over time add a rich flavor to our community culture.

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We happily link to the following organizations, all of whom share our strong commitment to promoting community and a more cooperative world:
Cohousing The Federation of Egalitarian Communities - Communes Coop Community Cooperative Sustainable Intentional North American Students of Cooperation Global Ecovillage Network