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The Balancing Act of Farming in Community

Posted on July 24, 2015 by
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Today started with sun but the sky has clouded as a major February northeaster blows into New England, promising a much-needed snowfall to deliver us from paths coated with treacherous ice. The children of Cobb Hill are anticipating a snow day and the best sledding conditions they have had yet this winter of 2014/15. A foot of new snow on our steep hillsides will delight not just the young, but a few of us old ones as well.

Meanwhile the cows, horses, sheep, and llama are nestled warmly in the barn. Calves are due so we’ll see if any of them make their way into the world during the storm. The chickens probably won’t venture out of their hut on wheels, but they will lay their eggs as usual. The car ballet (moving cars from lot to lot) will begin when the plow guy arrives to clear us out. We’ll be in trouble if the electricity goes down and we can’t chatter back and forth on our listserv advising where to move cars and when. The hustle and bustle of life on “the Hill,” as we call it, will not be stopped by a mere snowstorm.

In 1991, Donella Meadows, coauthor of The Limits to Growth (1972), wrote in her nationally syndicated Global Citizen column, “Though I didn’t grow up on a farm, I’ve been attracted to them all my life. When in 1972 I finally came to buy my own home, it was a farm. My psychological roots grew instantly into its cold, rocky soil. I have tried several times to leave it, reasoning that I could write more if I didn’t spend so much time shoveling manure, that I need to be where the political action is, that I’m not a very good farmer anyway, that New Hampshire is a terrible place to farm. But I’ve always come back. Something deep in me needs to be attached to a farm.”

She would eventually leave that farm in New Hampshire and move across the Connecticut River to the rural Upper Valley of Vermont, buying two adjacent dairy farms. With friends, she set out to found a “farm-based” community that would integrate principals of sustainability into all aspects of design and practice. The cohousing movement provided a useful model to help self-organize rather than re-invent the wheel. One of the original farmhouses became the headquarters of The Sustainability Institute, now the Donella Meadows Institute in Norwich, Vermont, and the process of planning and developing a cohousing community on the side of Cobb Hill went into full motion.

Moving with her to Vermont were her farming partners, Stephen Leslie and Kerry Gawalt. Choosing the rocky hillside to plant the homes left the prime agricultural fields available for farming. Kerry and Stephen and Donella would arrive on the property in the fall of 1999 with seven Jersey heifers, two Norwegian Fjord workhorses, and a draft pony named Bill. More people joined the development, moving closer to the community as the homes were being built. Stephen and Kerry began milking in 2000, and a group of Cobb Hill members began making cheese shortly after.

Farming Enterprises at Cobb Hill

Cobb Hill residents are co-owners of 270 acres of forest and farmland. Early in the development of the community, an enterprise system was started, allowing members to use common resources of land and buildings to bring sustainable agriculture and forestry products not only to the Cobb Hill community but also to the surrounding community and beyond. It is a free lease system with the idea that best practices will result in continued productive farmland and forest, with sustainability at the forefront of everyone’s products. Money from sale of the development rights to the Upper Valley Land Trust and funds from the Vermont Housing and Conservation board were contributed to help make one of the homes qualify as an “affordable” housing unit. It was written into the Land Trust Agreement that an affordable unit should always be available for a farm family.

Gathering momentum, the enterprise system has operated at Cobb Hill for the past 15 years now boasting many enterprises—CSA Market Garden, Jersey Dairy Milk, Cobb Hill Cheese with two Artisan cheeses, The Farmstand, Hay, Maple Syrup, Icelandic Sheep, Chickens, Honey, Shiitake Mushrooms, and Frozen Yogurt (six flavors). Pigs and broiler chicken enterprises are in hibernation and might emerge again in the future. There are dreams of adding a few more enterprises. Local food is booming in Vermont and Cobb Hill is proud to be part of this movement.

Of the 23 families (40 adults, 16 children) living at Cobb Hill, few make their living through the enterprises at Cobb Hill. Most are hobby enterprises that might net participants a small profit in any given year. Most enterprises are co-operated by various members of Cobb Hill, which can change membership from year to year. Some have investment capital that can be put in or taken out; others are standing operations that need labor only. At last count, there were 18 adults involved in the enterprises of Cobb Hill, and one high school student who oversees the Community Chicken enterprise.

Your first impression upon turning into the drive of Cobb Hill is that you have entered a working farm. The large red barn with a Farmstand sign greets you, the silo stands tall against the sky, and the machine shed yawns at you showing off its riot of tools, farm equipment, pails, fencing, and countless miscellaneous gadgets. Once past the barn you have only to look up the hill to see the passive solar homes perched solidly on the shale bedrock hillside. You know you are not on a typical working farm.

Cedar Mountain Farm is the enterprise started by Stephen and Kerry when they first moved to Cobb Hill with Donella. They produce sustainably grown vegetables, fruit, hay, flowers, milk, beef, and Jersey heifers. They use the Community Supported Agriculture system to market their vegetables, along with direct sales of their products through the Cobb Hill Farmstand (open every day for the passerby or local Cobb Hill or Hartland residents), private sales, mail order, and local farmers’ markets. Wholesale accounts are set up with Cobb Hill Cheese and Cobb Hill Frozen Yogurt, Dairy Farmers of America Coop, area restaurants and farms, and 12 gallons a week of direct raw milk sales go to residents of Cobb Hill and the surrounding community. The Jersey heifers are sold through Jersey Marketing Services to supply the national milk market.

The farm business demonstrates the viability of using horses for traction power on the farm and to educate the public about the value of local-sustainable agriculture. The farmers have 17 acres in hay, 35 in pasture, and the balance in garden and greenhouses…altogether about 60 acres of Cobb Hill land. They feed an average herd of 50 young stock, steers, bred heifers, and milking cows, plus four working horses. (Cobb Hill Enterprise report, 2013.) Stephen is also an author, having published The New Horse-Powered Farm through Chelsea Green Publishers (2013); another book specifically on market gardening with horses is due to the publisher in a few days. He’s not your typical farmer either.

Value-added products have enhanced the opportunities for this small-scale farm to gain recognition. Award-winning Cobb Hill Cheese and Cobb Hill Frozen Yogurt are products of the raw milk, rich in butterfat, of the Jersey cows. Owned and managed separately by other Cobb Hill residents, the cows are fed specifically to elicit the kind of milk needed to make the artisan cheese. A symbiosis is in play—without the quality Jersey milk, the award-winning alpine cheese would not be possible. Without the cheese, and the frozen market, the farmers would have to sell their milk on the larger volatile milk market.

Dairy farms in America have been on the decline for the past century. Vermont continues to support a small cadre of small-scale farms, but in the agribusiness world that has taken over, doing agriculture is a rare thing these days. Less than two percent of the US population now makes any of their income from farming and less than one percent makes all their household income from farming. Stephen and Kerry are committed farmers, loving what they do, doing it the best they can with what they have, yet struggle to support themselves and their daughter.

Struggles, Tensions, and Conflicts

So from all that you have read so far, you might conclude that the experiment at Cobb Hill is not only successful, but is a model for how one can do community and farming cooperatively. To some degree that is true, but taking off the rose-colored glasses, there have been struggles, tensions, and conflicts that have plagued this farm/community system over the years and continue to do so.

In the larger economic world of agriculture, as mentioned above, there is little support for the small-scale farmer. When Cobb Hill set out to do farming and community together, they devised what seemed like a wise and cutting-edge system to support a small farming enterprise. Fifteen years later, we are learning and growing from the conflicts and tensions that have surfaced time and again over the course of the community. The community support has come in the form of lease-free land, use of existing farm buildings, maintenance of those buildings over the years, and help with major tasks of hay and some field work.

As a newcomer to this community, I experience a lack of physical participation of the community in the farm for various complicated and complex reasons. Some have to do with people’s busy schedules and commitment potential for tasks, some have to do with insurance and what the farmers can invite people to do, some have to do with personalities and how communication happens. Ultimately this lack of participation remains a source of stress in the community that needs tending to on a regular basis.

From my interviews with residents it seems that most were attracted to Cobb Hill because of the farming aspect of the community. What a great place to raise kids and have fresh homegrown food! Most people at Cobb Hill know little about farming, however, and less about dairy farming, and have little knowledge of the market forces that drive agribusiness in this country. It is difficult to escape the larger economic systems that control agriculture in our country and world.

Though Kerry and Stephen can feel grateful and blessed to have lease-free land to farm (without the investment expenses that keep many young farmers from fulfilling their dreams), they also have to contend with market prices for grains, hay, supplement, as well as the unstable prices for milk. They are too small to qualify for the subsidies that larger corporate dairy farmers might enjoy, but in truth most of the subsidies these days are going to mega farms growing soy and corn. So they must make their way through the small Vermont-focused agriculture grants that come through the state, and scale back any investments in infrastructure or stock to just those that they can afford from year to year.

Even though the Cobb Hill cheese and yogurt enterprises pay above-commodity prices for their milk, when you add vet bills, machinery, vehicles, gas, pasture upkeep costs, and other items to the list, you shortly begin to see that a 24-head milking herd and several acres of vegetables do not net you much in the end. A seven-day-a-week regimen of milking twice a day means the farmers must hire farmworkers in order to not exhaust themselves completely. By the time they are finished paying all the bills, there is little money left for Stephen and Kerry’s salary.

Income variations among those who live at Cobb Hill can make farming among a cohousing community socially challenging. While Kerry rises at 5:00 each morning to milk, I personally work only half-time, and online, so I can pretty much do my work whenever I want during the day and week. I hear her crunch through the snow outside my window each morning as I turn over and thank my lucky stars I am not needing to milk in the dark at -21 degrees F, as was the case for Kerry this morning. I make a very modest salary but it is still more than what Kerry and Stephen make working 16-hour days on the farm. How does a community manage and deal with income inequality? How do we talk about this without being whiney or eliciting guilt or shame? It is a conversation we are due to have.

Managing 270 acres, 125 of which are forest and a maple sugar bush, plus trails, and the infrastructure of maintaining 20 households plus a common house with three apartments, takes the time and energy of the larger Cobb Hill community. Tensions in the community can arise because there is much work other than farming to be done in a land-based cohousing community, and Stephen and Kerry have little time for anything beyond keeping the farm going and raising their young daughter.

How does a community that prides itself in the working farm balance its desire for broader community engagement, while accepting that farm life may not make community involvement possible? How do we accept that Kerry and Stephen are adding a great contribution to the community even without showing up? This stress is one we spend a good deal of time talking about and grappling with. Kerry and Stephen are beginning to see that though they are stretched for time, showing up makes a huge difference. Life at Cobb Hill and in any intentional community is a balancing act.

Many could argue that the community could be more engaged in the farm, allowing for shared workloads, thus relieving Kerry and Stephen of some of their duties. Many would love to do this, actually. But it’s nice in theory, harder in practice. As is often the case, it is more complicated to have volunteers than just do the work yourself. Certainly large actions such as putting up hay bales or weeding the corn patch can benefit from volunteers. But when raising animals, you want only those trained well or those in training to be the ones who deal directly with your most valuable resource. These cows are not just taken care of, they are nurtured here at Cobb Hill. Kerry is proud of her Jersey cows and she runs a tight ship in the barn. She holds to high standards and will not compromise on many things. You want a farmer in your community farm to have this work ethic and commitment. Running a farm by consensus or volunteerism is a recipe for disaster…and not just for the humans. Yet people like myself can continue to romanticize how wonderful it is to be living in a community with a farm, while I plan my two-week upcoming vacation to Hawaii.

An Evolving Vision

Almost 14 years since her death, Dana Meadows’ spirit resides here at Cobb Hill, as do her ashes. Her dying at the beginning of this experiment left a community of people, overtaken by their grief, struggling with the task of figuring this all out without her extraordinary vision and collaborative spirit. Her words continue to guide us as we begin to take stock of the system we have created here for farmers and community to be in collaboration with each other.

We still hold out a sustainable vision for our world…hopefully using the definition that she spoke of in a speech in Spain in the fall of 1993: “I call the transformed world toward which we can move ‘sustainable,’ by which I mean a great deal more than a world that merely sustains itself unchanged. I mean a world that evolves, as life on earth has evolved for three billion years, toward ever greater diversity, elegance, beauty, self-awareness, interrelationship, and spiritual realization.”

Life at Cobb Hill continues. The car ballet went off without a hitch. We didn’t lose power. We begin in 2015 to take stock of what has been created here. It is time to re-examine our assumptions, expose what isn’t working, create some new dynamics, always looking for ways to intervene in the system. Dana would be proud to know that we are evolving this farm/community she loved.

Coleen O’Connell recently moved to the Cobb Hill community from Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage in Maine, where she served on the leadership team in developing the project. Coleen is the Director/Faculty of the Ecological Teaching and Learning M.S. Program for educators at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her professional and personal passion has been to explore ecological literacy and sustainability in the context of our personal lifestyle choices. She has traveled internationally with students living in and studying the ecovillage movement. She can be reached at oconnell [at] lesley.edu and welcomes your comments or questions.


One Reply to “The Balancing Act of Farming in Community”

cassidy

Farming is obviously integral to the culture of Cob Hill, but is it necessary to also be the fiscal support? Are there any model farming communities that have separated the agriculture from the business in order to prevent this strain?

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