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Posted on Tue, Jul 9, 2013 : 12:50 p.m.

Ann Arbor's first CSA farm - Community Farm of Ann Arbor - Kickstarts their Community Supported Agriculture

By Kim Bayer

In a classic chicken and egg conundrum, access to capital to help grow or support a business is one of the biggest challenges for farmers, especially small, diversified CSA farmers, and startup food businesses. Although it's in vogue for area banks to promote their local focus, the reality is that few local farm or food business loans are actually approved. And that is why some area food and farm businesses (like Triple Tree Farm and The Lunchroom) are bypassing banks, getting creative, and connecting directly with local supporters by turning to "crowdfunding."

Another crowdfunding initiative is the "Peas Turn Up the Beet!" Kickstarter campaign to raise awareness and funds for the Community Farm of Ann Arbor (CFAA). Now in its 26th year, CFAA was the area's first CSA farm and the eighth CSA farm in the entire country. For half of its history, Community Farm was the only CSA farm in the area — now there are nearly 40.

The expansion in the number of CSA farms has created competition for new members and also new models for membership (like pre-sold discount punch cards). The newer "subscription" and "shopper's choice" models are based increasingly on convenience rather than on deepening the original philosophical vision of "community support" for agriculture.

But at Community Farm, the original ideal of nurturing a healthy, interconnected system has deepened and grown stronger over time. With much credit due to its farmers for 22 years, Anne Elder and Paul Bantle, Community Farm of Ann Arbor has continued to develop an encompassing definition of environmental, social, ethical and financial sustainability that few if any other diversified farms can approach.

For example, CFAA operates on the original CSA model where members are involved as owners and decision makers in the budgeting and functioning of the farm, they contribute time and expertise, and they come to the farm weekly to pick up their produce (for 26 weeks — the longest of the CSA seasons in our area). The farmers are paid a salary and own their own home nearby. (Fifteen years ago, CFAA members raised $20,000 that they delivered in cash to help their farmers put a down payment on their home.) Farm workers and apprentices (many of whom return year after year) make an hourly "living wage," are covered by workman's compensation, and receive a weekly share of vegetables.

Community Farm incorporates biodynamic principles, and they work toward creating a closed loop energy system using only what their own land affords.

Paul Bantle says, "In a systemic way you might say we are always trying to find simplicity and the correct scale to operate the farm on. We also attempt to draw as much as possible on the farm's own resource base — that is 'totally local' and biodynamic in nature."

So they raise bees for pollination, and animals are incorporated into the farm to build soil fertility and avoid mining of the earth's resources. They have worked to reduce their emissions (and avoid mining other resources) by designing and retrofitting a solar tractor. And even for something as small as seed trays in the spring — they have built reusable wooden boxes rather than using plastic.

Since fewer of the farm's costs are externalized (and their fixed costs are fixed), the overall financial burden must be born by CFAA members who decide the year's budget together at their annual meeting in the spring. Many potential new members are unfamiliar with CFAA's priorities for "beyond organic" sustainability, multidimensional social responsibility and an extended season, so in recent years CFAA has struggled to attract the level of membership needed, even with a sliding scale.

Community Farm's longtime members remain deeply committed to their original goals "to develop a sustainable method of agriculture that yields nourishing food while maintaining and enhancing the health of the soil; to provide a livelihood for the producers; and to create a partnership with the producers and the consumers in which the risks and rewards of farming are shared." Because they have overcome much more formidable obstacles in the past (like securing funds for development rights and a 100 year lease), they are approaching the current budgetary shortfall as a challenge and with a sense of opportunity and creativity.

Their "Peas Turn Up the Beet!" kickstarter campaign is raising funds to bring Michigan singer/songwriter icons Seth Bernard and May Erlewine, along with Breathe Owl Breathe, to perform at a benefit concert at the Ark on Sunday, Oct. 6. With contributions from $5 to $1,200 (and rewards like farm grown and milled flour, the CFAA cookbook, and even a full CSA share), the fundraising campaign is nearly two-thirds of the way to their $9,000 goal and has more than two weeks left to go.

I made a contribution because, however imperfectly, I try to vote with my dollars for the kind of world I'd like to see. And while the money is surely needed, even if it's a small amount, they are just as interested knowing there is a wide range of community support and awareness for their vision of holistic sustainability. I also made a contribution because, in my mind, if everyone could be a member of an enterprise like the Community Farm of Ann Arbor the world would be a much kinder, more sustainable and ethical place. That's worth a vote of confidence in my household.

NOTE: Pro-rated CSA membership (including the sliding scale) is still open at Community Farm of Ann Arbor for the 2013 season.

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.


Sarah Rigg

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 1:18 p.m.

I think Community Farm is pretty rad, but mention of "biodynamics" makes me want to run screaming the other way, ranting about pseudoscience. It's complete crap, made up by Rudolph Steiner and with no scientific studies showing it's legitimate in any way (most biodynamic farms also use other environmentally-friendly and/or organic practices as well, and any benefits to so-called biodynamic practices probably have more to do with those). Practices include stuffing cow horns and deer bladders with herbs and burying them in your fields, so vegans beware that it's not a vegan-friendly practice, necessarily.

Vivienne Armentrout

Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 2:21 a.m.

I reread this a number of times and finally figured out what was hitting me. The Community Farm is apparently a membership organization whose members take on the fiscal responsibility. This is very different from all the other farmers in the area who offer CSAs, which are simple business arrangements. You share the risk with me, I'll deliver food to you as well as I can given conditions. We now have all kinds of CSAs, including for meat products and also mixed food products like honey and eggs as well as vegetables. So rather than being a business in which community members essentially loan money in return for produce, the Community Farm hires the principal farmers and other farm workers, and the members are responsible for seeing that bills get paid. The reasoning is that, not only are there many benefits to members, it is a good cause. I looked at the current membership form and the sliding scale is from $700-$2000 for the season. You are supposed to contribute "whatever you can in this range as you dance between sustainability and support". In comparison, just as one example, Tantre Farms (a very solid well-run farm with good share boxes) is $625 for the season. I was looking around earlier this year considering a CSA and I think this is in the range most farmers are offering. So clearly, Community Farm is more about supporting a particular type of community and experience than about supporting local agriculture and obtaining good food. It is about supporting a vision and an ethos. It is also, in essence, a charitable enterprise in which those so motivated may participate.


Wed, Jul 10, 2013 : 1:06 a.m.

I'm glad if CFAA is doing well. But I'm *not* sure, Kim, what possible benefit there can be to denigrating every *other* CSA's model, and find this article unnecessarily combative. Can't we simply celebrate the increasing use and support of local agriculture? Why does everything have to be yet another "authenticity" competition?


Tue, Jul 9, 2013 : 9:01 p.m.

Can you correct the article, it's PEAS TURN UP THE BEET!