It has been two years since I moved to Boonville to begin a farming project on Burt Cohen’s original 50-acre Boont Berry Farm property at the edge of town. My project is now called Anderson Valley Community Farm (after a year as Boont Berry Community Farm and frequently being confused for the landlord’s Boont Berry Farm store downtown) and is proudly producing high quality, vegetables, eggs, and meat for local sale and also growing much of the feed for our animals. As a 33-year old from rural West Sonoma County, I took on a big clean-up and development job on the farm in order to get it back on track. Despite the fairly overwhelming situation on the ground and a savings of only a few thousand dollars to begin with, I saw the potential fertility of the land and was overtaken by a strong desire to find a home in a small town community that would support an honest attempt to improve local food security and build community. Combine that with the personal lifestyle dream of an agrarian worker and it should be clear that I invented a dream job for myself.
My significant past experience in community organizations, non-profits, and expedition teams, and with very little in a traditional owner/operator business situation, ensured that the AVCF farming project would be un-traditional in its business model. I always knew the farm would need lots of volunteer help in the first years and hoped to find long-term partners to create a legitimate cooperative farm business. It turned out to be easy to get part-time live/work volunteers, and hard to find long-term interested partners because there are more expenses than profits to share, the workload is intense, and the only security is trust in my intention to cooperate.
One long-term farming partner did arrive. Renee and I were dating, and I wisely married her at the AV Grange this past February. Renee (formerly Wilson) was raised in Ukiah and had been an employee of the Natural Foods Co-op for 9 years until she also fulfilled a personal dream when she moved to our farm to be a full-time farmer. Her main passion is medicinal herbal plants and products; she is also skilled with vegetables, and increasingly with livestock.
My college focus on agriculture, environmental studies, and economics provided an acute awareness that most farms in America have failed and that there are countless economic and social pressures that we would need to work against. While it sometimes seems that there are lots of local farms, nationally 54% of local farms are “retirement” or “lifestyle” farms. This means they can afford to lose money on their farming. This is a luxury that we would not have, so the business model would need to be very carefully structured. In addition I needed some borrowed money to begin the project and since I was not “lendable” by conventional banking standards, I managed to assemble a small group of interested community members to provide a three-year loan so I could begin.
Anderson Valley Community Farm (AVCF) has been clearly focused from the outset on an alternative, community-oriented business model commonly referred to as CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture). AVCF sells memberships in its local food club and then conducts a members-only farm stand where members collect their pre-paid produce. Members are viewed as investors and AVCF distributes 25% of profits directly back to members. 50% of profits are allocated for re-investment in future development and 25% for bonuses for the volunteer full-time, full-season farm crew. Profit is still a humor filled topic, but we believe the intention in the structure is important.
CSA members can select from vegetable produce as well as eggs, meat, and milk. Production is prioritized for members to honor their up-front investment. Members get the earliest and the best produce, then we go to market to sell the surplus. We also make sure that members receive the lowest possible price to cover production expense; we then sell the surplus at market rates. Elimination of middlemen, like wholesalers or grocers, and marketing/delivery costs, drops the production cost and allows us to offer the lowest possible price to the farm members. When we are able to sell the surplus at market, the profits come back to the members.
There are three main benefits for AVCF’s survival from being CSA-focused and they all have to do with the farm’s long-term survival. First the pre-payment by members provides needed revenue in the winter, which is the “investment phase” of the farm season (seed, compost, etc.). Historically most farms have borrowed to make it through this time and most farms have, likewise, collapsed because of debt burden. Secondly the farm benefits from shared risk with the members. Natural issues like drought and crop failure have bankrupted many farmers in American history. We sacrifice our owner profit potential for the support of a community and they understand they need to take a piece of the loss on the hard years. Third the CSA allows us to make contractual agreements making the members co-owners of livestock in order to distribute strictly regulated food products like meat animals to members without needing to drive to the very few and far apart USDA facilities in Northern California. We are instead able to facilitate our members to support local custom slaughtering and small butcher shops. In this way we can offer meat for a lower price and for more profit and support other local business.
Renee and I share a few key beliefs about the situation we find ourselves trying to farm in. First we believe that our current national, state, and local economic situation is very unstable and that this recession might get much worse. Second we believe that rural areas like Mendocino County are increasingly food insecure. The trend towards increasing industrialization and consolidation of the food system means that our local area might have trouble accessing the food that it depends on because it is not locally produced. As oil costs will rise, transition to localized food production, sustainable agriculture, and localized economics make sense whether or not there is an environmental, economic, or political disaster. If there is a natural or economic disaster, it might be very important that our community started ahead of the curve.
We also share some key inspirations that help us find the will to grind through the sometimes tough 12-hour workdays. Our inspiration is the hope of strengthening local community relationships by using the farm and the food as a gathering place and energy. We are also inspired by the research of Weston Price to produce healthy, nutrient dense food through natural, rock mineral amended, biodynamically prepared soils for the veggies, and grass-fed and finished meat, dairy and eggs. We are major health-through-nutrition believers and we think in this increasingly polluted world quality of food is more important than ever. We love being able to provide education to the interested volunteers who come through. We’re know that we’re going to need a lot more farmers to get back to any kind of real volume in local food production and we are happy to be involved in training new farmers.
You can find Anderson Valley Community Farm at the Boonville Farmer’s Market with vegetables, plant starts and chicken eggs. To enjoy your share of the lamb, pork, goat, beef, chicken, or milk or to get your vegetables at the low member pricing you will need to join our farm as a member. The produce is distributed at our members-only farm stand on Wednesdays and Sundays in Boonville and a weekly delivery is now available to Ukiah. Our farm information is available, along with many others, on the online Mendocino Local Food Guide at www.mendocinolocalfood.org. We strongly encourage all Mendocino residents to grow your own gardens and use your grocery money to support local farmers to make sure that they are still producing when you might need them to be. Email or call us with any questions or interest in our CSA programs: (707) 391-9422 or email@example.com.