Back to main text of Chapter 6

A FARM WHERE FOOD IS FREE

Indian Line Farm was one of two CSAs to be established in the US in 1986. The other pioneer was the Temple-Wilton Community Farm near Wilton in New Hampshire, which was set up shortly after Trauger Groh arrived in the area from Buschberghof, a farm in Fuhlenhagen village about twenty miles east of Hamburg in Germany on which he had been working for the previous fifteen years. Temple-Wilton and Buschberghof were - and are - biodynamic farms run according to a system developed by Rudolf Steiner. According to Willy Schilthuis in his book Biodynamic Agriculture, this is based on:

an awareness or sense that every living being has a link with the spiritual cosmic world and that it is the duty of every human being to guide the life of these beings in such a way that the links can take place undisturbed. Furthermore, [biodynamic farmers] work on the basis of the view that the Earth is a living organism and that a farm itself is a living organism.52.

In practice, however, the main differences between biodynamic and ordinary organic agriculture are that biodynamic farmers try to plant according to the phases of the moon, make compost using six special preparations containing cow-horn, and spray their crops with two different extracts of such things oak bark and yarrow leaves prepared with specific animal organs.

Buschberghof went biodynamic in the early 1950s, just as the movement was recovering from its suppression under Hitler. Its conversion did not shield it from the problems faced by other small farms, however, even though it had low input costs and was able to sell its produce for an above-average price under the biodynamic Demeter label. All food prices, biodynamic, organic and conventional, fell steadily in relation to wages in Germany in the 1950s and 60s, making it increasingly difficult for the farmer, Carl-August Loss, to pay his workers and support his family. Like everyone else, he tried to cut his costs by mechanisation and should have borrowed from the bank to purchase equipment. In 1968, however, he realised that he would get deeper in debt each year and that if he continued like his colleagues did he would be made bankrupt and lose the farm that had been in his family since the 16th century. Feeling he would rather give his land away than have it taken from him by his creditors, he set up a land trust and transferred it to that. At this point, Trauger Groh appeared on the scene. He too was a farmer but his land had been compulsorily purchased for a military airfield and he had cash to re-invest. The two men recognised that processing the milk and cereals the Buschberghof grew was likely to provide a better basis for supporting their families than buying another farm for Groh to work and so his capital was given to the trust and spent on building a cowshed, a dairy with a flat above, a flour mill and a bakery. It was also used to erect a large pink building in the distinctive anthroposophical style on a low hill outside the village which contains two private flats, a big kitchen and dining room, a library and meeting hall and accommodation for twelve people with handicaps who, in accordance with Steiner's teachings and the farm families' feelings of social obligation, are looked after at the farm and work in the gardens, the dairy or in the house.

Since Groh and Loss had provided the trust with its land, stock and equipment, it would have seemed wrong for them to have had to rent it back to use it. However, they paid the trust an annual fee to cover the depreciation of the machinery and the repair of the buildings. "The new farm started in a financially difficult position with three families to support at a time when the market for biodynamic and organic produce was very limited" Groh's daughter, Christina, says . "The farm was slowly developed with the improvement of its soil, pasture and livestock.... At different times we sold our produce through a farmshop, wholesaler and weekly van-round. However, we found that a lot of time and energy was being spent on marketing."

53

photo of Christina Groh examining her cheeses
Christina Groh examining her cheeses

In 1987, the families working the farm decided to adopt an idea Trauger had just put into practice at Temple-Wilton and after discussions with their van-round customers and people who had been calling to the farm to buy their milk, they set up an 'economic association for the care of plants, animals and man' with a target membership of about 80 families, the number they felt the farm could feed 54.(The farm has 210 acres, of which four are vegetable garden, 106 arable and 69 permanent pasture. The rest is woodland. The farm team estimated that the 179 acres under grass and crops would feed 288 people on the basis of 0.25 hectares (0.62 acres) to feed each person. This figure turned out to be a little conservative). The idea behind the association was that each year the farm would estimate its running costs for the year ahead and the subscribers to the association would pay these, not to obtain their food but to support the farm's work. However, whatever was produced on the farm would would be free to be distributed among the subcsribers.

Families with 195 members subscribed for the first year, 1988. This was not enough to take up the farm's full output and so the farm shop and other sales continued in parallel. Most of these subscribers came from the farm's milk-distribution circles, groups of about ten families who picked up the milk on behalf of each other. The following year, however, 95 families with 321 members signed up and the farm shop and the remaining milk circles were discontinued. As at Temple-Wilton, each family decided how much it could afford to give each month to support the farm and paid that to the association's treasurer. It could then order as much food as it liked.

This system is still in use. "There hasn't been any abuse. No-one, for example, has ordered more than their household can eat to sell or give away" Wolfgang Stränz, a chemist and language teacher, told me as we drove out the farm on one of his monthly journeys to collect produce. "That's because we are organised into groups of eight or nine families living in the same part of Hamburg and take it in turns to assemble the orders and make the collections. Everyone in the group would soon know if someone was taking advantage".

The main building at the Buschberghof

In 1995, the budget for the farm was 500,000 DM, which means that, with 90 families participating, the average subscription was around 5,500DM or 2,500. How much of its food did his family get for its contribution? I asked Stränz. "Well, we buy tea and coffee, beer, salt and pepper, noodles and rice. We eat tomatoes from the Canary Islands before the crop on the farm is ready. And on Sundays, I might go to the baker's for hot white rolls. But that's all. Everything else comes from the farm. The range of food we get is quite broad. There are nine different sorts of bread and seven types of cheese, for example".

The old Loss farmyard is in the centre of the village. Wheat, dinkel ( an ancient form of wheat popular on biodynamic farms) barley, oats and rye are stored in one of the brick-built barns facing the farmhouse, waiting to be processed in the mill in the same building. Not far away is the bakery, its big wood-fired oven still warm from a firing three days ago. In another of the barns, a farmer is repairing equipment, of which there seems to be a lot, mostly fairly new. The pigs, who seem to be enjoying their carrots, are in a shed away from the road. Stränz unloads empty wooden crates he has brought with him from his car boot, each marked with a family's name, leaves the orders for the farmers to make up before the next collection in four day's time and drives about half a mile up to the main building, beside which the haybarn, cowsheds, and dairy have been built.

We take off our shoes and put on special boots before going into the dairy where Christina Groh is separating curds for cheese-making from whey in a big stainless steel vat. Her mother, Gisela, and her sister, Patricia also live on the farm. She presses a switch and the whey is pumped outside into a wheeled tank so that it can be taken back down the hill to feed the pigs. While Stränz unloads holders containing the empty fruit juice bottles that the farm uses for milk from his car and loads up with filled ones, she proudly shows me the racks of cheeses maturing in the cellar below. She also makes butter and yoghurt. "Before we joined the system, biodynamic butter was just too expensive for us to buy" Stränz says. "Now we even cook with it."

Tobias Pedersen, the herdsman, walks past and Christina calls him over. He is English and has only lived on the farm for about six months. He had very little German when he arrived but is now getting fluent. Later I meet his wife Andrea and one of their four young children. "This is much more satisfying work than I could ever find in England." he tells me. "There, I would have to look after a herd of at least 200 animals and spend all my time at it. Here, I look after just thirty, so I can do things properly and do a lot of other jobs on the farm." The cows, which belong to the land trust, are Anglers, a rare red-coloured breed from the area. It is June, so they are grazing in a pasture not far away from the farm's wind turbine. In winter, however, they will be fed on hay inside. "We don't use silage" Christina says. "Milk from animals fed on it has a certain taste and is not nearly as good for cheesemaking."

A lot of the straw from the cereal crops is used for the herd's bedding and piles of manure are composting outside the cattle shed. Seeing they are so well equipped and already using one form of alternative energy, I ask Christina if they have considered composting it in a biogas digester. She discusses with Stränz whether this would be in accordance with Steiner's principles, and eventually they agree that it would but that the straw mixed with the dung might be a problem. I also ask if they have considered cutting their external inputs by replacing one or more of the farm's four tractors with horses. Yes, I am told, but suitable horses are hard to find and someone with the skills to work them even harder.

A garden surrounds the central building, an orchard adjoins it and the vegetable garden is in the field below. Two polytunnels shelter behind a hedge and there are swings and a sand-pit for young children. These are needed as Patricia, Christina and the four farmers who run the farm all have young families. Patricia helps care for the handicapped residents - work for which the government gives a grant - and four or five biodynamic agriculture students are usually working on the farm at a time. In addition, the farm has a paid employee and the handicapped have two other carers. Carl-August Loss had a stoke in the early 1990s and can no longer work. He lives with his wife in a pretty cottage in the village which was bought and restored by the trust. His daughter and her husband are planning to build a house in the village to be near them and they may take an active part in the farm.

As we drive back to Hamburg, dropping off some of the milk at a kindergarten on the way, Stränz says that association members feel very much a part of everything going on in Fuhlenhagen because they meet the farmers and see what is happening when they go out to pick up orders and each group selects one of its number to attend the monthly management meetings there. They also attend the farm walks which are held monthly each spring and summer and some members work on the farm regularly during the week or for several weeks during the summer. Members can picnic on the property at any time.

However, the association is worried that although the farmers can live reasonably well on what they are paid since they get their food free and their accommodation is provided, not enough financial provision is being made for when they retire. "They will need to be able to buy houses and have decent pensions" he says. "Perhaps our subscriptions should be higher." Since my visit, not only has provision for pensions has been added to the farm budget, but a 5% allowance has been added to it to build up a fund for new investments. When we reach his house, he puts the milk and the crates on some covered shelves outside his side door and, a few minutes later, drinking tea inside, we hear the bottles clinking as members of his group arrive to pick their orders up.

I found the Buschberghof an inspiring example of what a CSA can be but the real question is - can it be copied elsewhere? Part of the CSA's success is due to the trust which has effectively subsidised food prices by not loading the farm's budget with rent for its land and buildings or interest on the money tied up in its livestock and capital equipment. How many British and Irish landowners would be prepared to turn over their land and capital to a similar trust and set up a CSA in the same way? It is true that in America, Trauger Groh was able to find three families prepared to allow the Temple-Wilton farmers to use their land in exchange for whatever food they wanted for themselves but the families did not give up the titles to their properties and entered into the arrangement chiefly to stop their unused fields reverting to scrub. In places where such landowners cannot be found, groups keen to set up a CSA will have three alternatives. One is that their members will simply pay more for their food in order to cover rent and interest payments. The second is that the groups will set up a land trust along the lines set out in a later panel. The third is that they will find a way to use one of more of the techniques for creating local money and mobilising local savings mentioned in chapters Three and Four to provide cheap or interest-free finance for their community farms.

But a much more important element in the farm's success than the subsidy is the set of beliefs that drive the Buschberghof farmers and their supporter-subscribers along. Without similar beliefs in the importance of the highest standards of care for the land, crops, animals, nature and people, attempts to replicate the Buschberghof are bound, at least in part, to fail.

2002 update by Caroline Whyte

Since 1996, the Buschberghof farm has had to deal with a number of problems, which were outlined for me in an e-mail from Wolfgang Stränz in November 2002. The first problem is what he describes as "fluctuation of the farmers". Tobias the herdsman left for Ireland, his successor, a Swiss man, had to give up because of psychological problems, and the current herdsman, from the Netherlands, will leave in spring.

Meanwhile, Stränz writes, "Christina [Groh] gave up the job in the dairy and left the farm after ten years feeling burned out by too heavy work. She was replaced by a cheese maker from Southern Germany who already left the farm as well. Now the dairy job is done by three women, but unfortunately none of them feels completely responsible for what they do, so the quality of the products have suffered a bit."

He comments that "my impression is that it is very hard to find people with sufficient professional and social skills to fit into a group of farmers/gardeners being already there." These people must not only work together but also understand each other extremely well, "because that farm is to be considered as an organism. The conscience of the herdsman must not end at the end of the milk pipe into the dairy, because the way he treats his cows has the same impact on the cheese as, let's say, the processing temperature making the cheese, and on the dung being taken out onto the fields."

A second problem is with finding new members for the community. This has financial implications. Stränz explains that "when people leave the community (mostly for personal and family reasons) they need to be replaced by others taking their financial burden. But every year it is hard to find new members." He speculates that there are least two reasons for this:

"Those members who had founded the community have grown older. Many of them gave up their membership because they could not stand their childrens' quarrelling about the food from the farm. Those remaining had lost their contacts to the most interesting target group - families with small children - because they grew older, and getting contacts in the kindergarten or their childrens' schools is impossible now because the children eventually already had left their homes."

The second reason is that, although the founders generation of the community had built up a very effective system, new members perceive that they are simply being told what to do and think rather than developing new ideas for themselves. Stränz explains that "they unfortunately do not have to develop these ideas, they have to acquire them. And these ideas are passed on like old fairy tales, being told by the grandfathers of the community. To reanimate these ideas is a major task when new members arrive and it has to be done in a convincing manner."

The Buschberghof's website is at http://www.buschberghof.de/Seiten/wgbinhalt.html. It's in German but will soon have French and English sections too.

Back to main text of Chapter 6
Other Chapter 6 updates


Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

Search Contents Foreword Preface Introduction
Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7
Epilogue 2002/3 Updates Links Site Map