Family farms are disappearing throughout America at an alarming rate. This trend, which has been going on for more than 75 years, has resulted in a dramatic decline in accessable green space and an increasing reliance on large mono-culture corporate farms for our food. The genesis of this trend lies in demographic, economic, social and governmental changes that make the small family farm, once the foundation of our nation, a failed economic model. Equally important, we are losing our farmers, and with them their knowledge of the land they have farmed, often for many generations. Once lost, resurrecting this knowledge could be nearly impossible.
While I have always been an avid gardener, whether on a balcony in NYC or Hong Kong or a half acre plot outside Pittsburgh, I never ‘farmed’. After deciding to leave corporate life I analyzed the pros and cons of becoming a farmer. There were many pros but a few BIG cons. Most notable was the fact that farming generally requires a stay-at-home lifestyle. We have always traveled extensively and the thought of curtailing this needed to be addressed. The obvious solution was to have full-time help, but this meant a lot more money and I still had no idea what I was going to farm, where I would do it, or frankly how to ‘farm’ (gardening and farming while related, are quite different.) I still needed to find a farm that was not too far from a major metropolitan area, preferably organic, and affordable. I quickly realized anywhere within the 60 mile radius of NYC (a requirement at that time to sell at city farmers markets) was beyond my means as I was not able to spend the several million dollars required for even a small farm.
My search lasted over 2 years and concluded in the summer of 2003. Our farm, located about 35 miles west of Pittsburgh, was an organic herb farm, which seemed to meet our initial needs. If I could buy the farm and an adjacent 5 acre home, we would be able to have a house for us and one for another family to help with the farm duties. Shortly after moving to the farm (my wife remained in NYC for the next 3 years) I found a young family that wanted to live in the 3 bedroom farmhouse in exchange for helping on the farm. A couple years after that, longtime friends bought a 2 acre parcel and built a home on the farm as well. Since then we have added another 5 acre parcel with a manufactured home and another 1.5 acres with a small house where another farm member lives. Today we have 90 acres with 11 individuals living in 5 homes. Each individual has a different skill set; photographer, wine maker, wild plant expert, herbalist, musician, mechanic, etc. and everyone brings a different perspective to our farm. We can travel at will since there is always someone around to take care of things while we are gone, plenty of workers when needed and lots of new ideas for new and interesting projects.
Demographic, economic, social and governmental changes I felt were making the small family farm, once the foundation of our nation, a dying model. Equally important, I recognized that if we lost a generation of small farmers, it may be impossible to resurrect for literally hundreds of years. Demographically families were not large enough to provide the low cost labor and few children were interested in remaining ‘down on the farm’. Economically, mechanization, often required due to the demographics, required larger investments in tractors, planters, harvesters, etc. Amortization of this equipment required a larger and reliable income stream. Social changes including big box stores, fast food restaurants and the move to more mass produced processed foods diminished demand for local agricultural products. Our government has continually focused on large-scale agriculture and added layer upon layer of regulations which while well intended, amount to a significant overhead to small scale agriculture.
Recognizing that I couldn’t change I decided to try to create a sustainable farm based on a different model than those I had seen. I came up with something that shared attributes with traditional CSAs as well as golf or airport communities. The idea was to have a farm that produced enough to basically feed the residents and provided enough surplus income to make the operation break even. I saw this as a possible alternative to selling family farms that aged farmers didn't have the resources to continue farming as well as an opportunity for non-farmers to become intimately connected to their food. It seemed to me there were 2 distinct groups that each had what the other needed. Elderly farmers have land, equipment and know-how and city dwellers (for the lack of a better term) have money, and interest in the outdoors, a desire for exercise. Creating communities based on a central farm seemed like an idea whose time had come, but I needed a proof of concept before I could roll this idea out to a larger audience.
Our small scale success has led me to believe we could modify the Enon Valley Garlic model to address my long-held concern for the demise of the small family farm in America. Our experience over the last 8 years has matured my vision and refined my understanding of both farming and communal living. To be widely popular, I believe the reliance on residents to perform the work should be abandoned in favor of paid, professional workers (with volunteers welcome). Also the number of residential units should be at least 200 to provide the fixed income needed to support the farm and recreational activities of each “Home on the Farm”.
I would like to introduce visitors to a new project I am embracing called “home on the Farm”. Inspired by Enon Valley Garlic, “Home on the Farm” is a plan to transition elderly farmers or failing farms to sustainable farm communities. Each community would be similar to a golfing community but the shared focus would be an operating farm. Residents would own their own residence but share in the responsibility and bounty of the common farm property. Maintenance fees would provide the income needed to professionally staff the farm, and residents would be in control of the products and methods of production. If successful, I want to role this model out nationwide in 2014.
Following is a brief description of a project I call “Home on the Farm” that I want to finalize this year. Simply put, I would like to build a non-profit group that would help elderly farmers transition their traditional farms to small farm communities. The rationale for this is outlined below. (I am working on making this the basis of my mission statement.) Each community would be set up as a joint venture between a property developer and an existing farmer that was retired or considering leaving farming. The developer would be attracted because the land and equipment would be invested by his partner the farmer, and the farmer would benefit by being able to stay on his farm and retain at least the initial value of his contribution to the project. Prospective community members would be attracted to a community that allowed them access to a resident managed farm that produced food that they controlled from start to finish. The entire operation will be professionally managed, with resident maintenance fees providing the funds for continuing operations.
As I have investigated this idea, it has become evident that the legal structure of each “home on the Farm” will vary based on state laws as well as the type of ownership chosen by each community. Similarly the contract between the farmer and developers will be more complex than normal as I don’t envision an outright sale of the property but rather a sharing of interests. While I am sure I can develop a single project that would be suitable for a single farm in a single state with a single developer, I am more interested in developing a framework that would allow farmers throughout the country to join with us to help them facilitate the conversion of their farms to farming communities. To do this I need attorneys and accountants well versed in these issues throughout the country. My goal is to make a road-show where we would invite farmers to a presentation where we would outline the plan. Interested partners would then begin discussions with our team to evaluate the feasibility and if appropriate, begin project planning.
I will stop writing now, as I don’t want to bore you with more trivial details. Hopefully what I have written gives you an idea of my project. I hope you will see the merit in what I have in mind and be able to steer me to individuals or organizations that would be interested in working on this with me.
Each individual has a different skill set: photographer, wine maker, wild edible expert, composter, musician, herbalist, artist, mechanic, businessperson, and dreamers all.
Enon Valley Garlic Company
We started Enon Valley Garlic 2003. Refugees from Mid-Town Manhattan, Rosemary and I decided that the "Green Acres" model first portrayed by Oliver and Lisa Douglas was worth a try. 9/11 made a lasting impression on us and led to a reconsideration of our priorities. Enon Valley Garlic is the result of that reconsideration. Today we have 90 acres with 11 individuals from 5 families living and working here.