By John E. Carroll
Contrary to the perceived decline in New England agriculture in the latter years of the 20th century, at least five new social movements in agriculture are emerging in the region. A trademark of these movements is their very explicit values orientation, which contrasts with previous values. The prevailing values of conventional post-World War II agriculture in the region and the nation considered agriculture as a business, placing New England in a weak position competitively. If agriculture is a business and nothing more, then most agriculture would migrate out of the region to more favorable business locations. With the exception of a few specialties and forms that need to be very close to market, that is precisely what has happened.
In the last few decades, however, new, more explicitly values-driven (in a way, “values added”) forms of agriculture have been growing, forms very well matched to the local pattern, scale and cultural heritage of New England. These forms overlap with one another philosophically and, in structure and scale, physically. In many ways they are coalescing into a single “values-driven” movement. Five newer forms exist, and each is a movement in itself: organic agriculture, community supported agriculture (CSA), farmers’ markets and other direct marketing tools, starter farmer or beginner farmer programs, and women in agriculture networks (WAgNS).
Organic and Local
The organic agriculture movement in New England involves both certified and non-certified production. The latter comes from producers who have not applied for certification, and from those who are not 100 percent organic. A great boost in both certification and in the promotion of the organic philosophy has come from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), a state-wide organization in Maine that sponsors the nationally famous and heavily attended Common Ground Country Fair each September and that publishes a widely read periodical [The MOF&G]. MOFGA commands a national reputation for the work that it carries out within the state. The remainder of New England is served by the Northeast Organic Farmers Association (NOFA), with state-wide chapters in each state. NOFA also sponsors a well-attended regional organic fair in central Massachusetts each year and publishes a well regarded periodical, The Natural Farmer. Thanks to the MOFGA and NOFA philosophies and their widespread acceptance, “organic” in New England means local. (MOFGA officials often respond to the question, “Which is more important, to purchase organic food or to purchase locally grown food which is not organic?” with the reply, “Local comes first, but then use your power as a customer to encourage the farmer to go as far as possible in the organic direction.”) Of course, a substantial line of California-grown organic foods is in area food stores, but the prevailing philosophy continues to be, “Buy local!”
New England has always had a comparatively strong value system that supports local products; now the organic and natural food store movement, as well as farmers’ markets, are promoting “local” ever more strongly. The famous Bread and Circus chain of large natural food stores in the Boston area pioneered what many others are now doing: placing very large and attractive photo posters of local farmers and farm families and their philosophies on the walls and suspending posters from the ceilings of their stores, so that customers can see the visages and feel the words of the farmers who actually grow the food they are purchasing. (Invitations to visit particular farms are sometimes available as well.) So, local and organic are merging, especially in New England, which represents a clear and explicit statement of values.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
This form of agriculture, with roots in Europe and Japan, got its North American start in two New England states, New Hampshire and Massachusetts, thanks to Trauger Groh, a German immigrant who founded Temple-Wilton Community Farm in New Hampshire, and the late Robyn Van En, who established Indian Line Farm in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. This movement, which started in New England in the early 1980s, has spread to all regions of the United States and Canada and now numbers more than 1000 known farms. (The actual number would be impossible to know, since these farms need not be registered anywhere.)
Community Supported Agriculture farms are structured and operate in a variety of ways, but basically involve shareholders who hire a farmer, pay money up front before the growing season, and receive a quantity, or share, of farm product (usually mixed fruit and vegetables but sometimes eggs, meat, maple syrup and any conceivable product of farm or woodland) each week during the growing season and often beyond. Shareholders generally come to the farm once a week to pick up the product, may assist the farmer in the work (either voluntarily or sometimes for a reduced cost per share), and sometimes participate in a core group to assist the farmer/landowner in CSA governance and management. Models vary (even including a few publicly operated CSAs, as in Burlington, Vermont), but all involve sharing the risks between the farmer (who usually owns the land) and the shareholders. All accept the shortages and the surpluses and cope together, thus providing a strong connection between the consumer (who in this case, as shareholder, becomes a de facto farmer) and the source of the food.
Two detailed and definitive books support this movement: Farms of Tomorrow Revisited, by Trauger Groh and Steven McFadden, and Sharing the Harvest, by Elizabeth Henderson and Robyn Van En, both published by Chelsea Green in Vermont. A national newsletter and numerous articles, papers and conferences also describe the CSA experience and help train newcomers.
The CSA system fulfills the values of buying locally grown, usually organic, food and of having an intimate knowledge of and connection to one’s food source.
In recent years farmers’ markets and farmers market associations have been re-born in many New England locales, including neighborhoods, towns, and small and large cities. Farmers’ markets fulfill consumers’ desires for fresh fruits and vegetables and sometimes for more exotic and expensive foods. Sometimes farmers’ markets are the only source of fresh food for working class and lower income people. The ability of vendors to take food stamps helps lower income people gain access to these fresh, healthful foods. Markets are rapidly becoming multi-ethnic, as immigrants from Latin America, Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia seek truly fresh foods for exotic (to North Americans) recipes. The highest revenue-producing system of farmers’ markets on the U.S. East Coast now exists right next to New England, the New York City Greenmarket system, with its famous Union Square Farmers’ Market in Manhattan, and it is not unusual to glance at a farmers’ market advertisement on the subways of Boston, for Copley Square and other Boston locations now have well trafficked markets.
The systems described here all have strong entrance criteria for vendors, making them farmers’ markets in the purest sense (not to be confused with the large wholesale food markets of Haymarket in Boston or Hunts Point in New York). Entrance criteria specify that vendors are to be the farmers themselves and that a very high percent of their sales must be from their own land (usually over 80%, allowing modest supplementation for practical reasons). Non-edible items are strictly limited and must be handmade and of largely local materials.
These markets have become meeting places for shoppers and for those who actually grow their food. They are viable expressions of consumers’ value of local, fresh food and of knowing and even talking with those who provide it. Many of the vendors proudly display their certification certificates. Most of the rest use smaller amounts of chemicals than some large, commercial growers who supply supermarkets. Much socialization occurs at the markets, bringing together vegetarians, vegans, back-to-the-landers, immigrants of many cultures, conservationists, environmentalists, gardeners and, in New York City, organizers of the very successful “Save the Community Gardens” movement. Farmers’ markets are also a significant source of direct income for farmers, permitting more of them to continue farming and permitting more land to remain in farming. Direct marketing is also increasing at the farm door itself, sometimes significantly spurred by relationships formed at the farmers’ markets (and even further encouraged by those large, appealing picture posters of local farmers in the food stores).
Beginner Farmer/Starter Farmer Programs
A common image held by many Americans is of farmers leaving farming (once voluntarily, more recently forced by circumstances) and moving into other employment. The image of daughters and sons of farmers not wanting to farm is also commonly held. Less well known is the large and increasing number of young men and women (particularly women) who want to farm but do not have the opportunity. Many have not grown up on the farm. They have neither land to inherit nor the capital required to start a conventional operation. The systems described in this article are lower cost alternatives to start. Organic systems with little or no chemical or fertilizer cost (provided they can obtain the necessary soil nutrients), CSA with the shareholder paying the cost up front, direct marketing opportunities, and, most importantly, a desire for a simple life and an ability to differentiate between needs and wants in life, all help provide new opportunities for beginner farmers. Programs now connect would-be farmers with such opportunities, and give them guidance and a support system. Many of these start-up operations and programs, from economic necessity and especially from values, reflect and support the values of the movements described in this article.
As one example, Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire organizes networks for small and beginning farmers; buys grain and supplies as a group to receive bulk buying discounts; organizes speakers, training workshops and farm tours (on topics ranging from medicinal herbs to farm taxes, from bee-keeping to livestock management); organizes opportunities for buying and selling each other’s products and developing local markets; develops relationships with local, county and state agricultural agencies to help those agencies meet the needs of beginner farmers; and helps find funding and other assistance for beginning farmers. Similar efforts are evolving in other states.
Women in Agriculture Networks (WAgNs)
At present many more women than men seem to want to enter agriculture. The role of women in the certified organic and CSA farm movements is obvious and is encouraging more women to enter farming more broadly.
In New England, Vermont was the first state to establish a WAgN, with initial emphasis on training in business management and accounting. A Maine WAgN now exists, with perhaps a broader mandate than Vermont, and with undoubtedly strong linkage to and overlap with MOFGA and the CSAs. Such a WAgN may start in New Hampshire as well. The potential for WAgNs to bring many more participants into the movements described above is enormous, and this movement is not restricted to women, since the WAgNs claim to serve previously underserved people of both sexes (meaning in New England very small scale and perhaps lower income farmers and farmers with disabilities). Service to land-based rural immigrants is also a future possibility in this movement.
Vermont WAgN offers education seminars entitled “Getting Serious,” “Growing Places,” and “Start Up,” and offers a Financial Award Program. The Vermont network also provides one-on-one technical assistance, specific working solutions workshops, a quarterly newsletter, internships and mentoring opportunities, and entrepreneurial strategies for farm-based enterprises. The newer Maine WAgN offers similar services, emphasizing increasing the number of women and other traditionally underserved individuals in agriculture, and hopes to provide links to and education on sustainable agriculture. The Maine network also wants to identify the responsibilities of the University of Maine to small and part-time farmers in the state and to assess how the University works with small or part-time farmers or with women or other underserved individuals who are farming.
The New Local Agriculture
All of these movements add explicit values to the New England agricultural scene. As the old agriculture of implicit business values (and many family values that cannot survive the economic pressure applied to them) dies out, the sense of place, of connection to the land, and of stronger ecological values takes over. These new movements in agriculture are undoubtedly contributing to the increase in numbers of farms and quantity and quality of crops harvested in New England. The number of farms in Massachusetts increased 6.9 percent between 1992 and 1997; New Hampshire reported numbers increased from 2,445 to 2,937, with farm area increasing from 385,832 to 415,031 acres. Valuation of agriculture products from New England farms increased 17.9 percent from 1992 to 1997, according to the 1997 USDA Census of Agriculture. Perhaps other new, values-driven forms of agriculture will appear soon in New England and will boost these figures even more.
Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), P.O. Box 2176, Augusta, ME 04338; (207) 622-3118; [email protected]
The Natural Farmer, 411 Sheldon Road, Barre, MA 01005; (978) 355-2853; [email protected]
Beginner Farmers of New Hampshire, NH RC&D Area Council, 719 North Main St., Rm. 220, Laconia, NH 03246-2772; (603) 527-2093 or (603) 223 – 0083; [email protected]
Vermont Women’s Agricultural Network, 590 Main St., University of Vermont, Burlington, VT 05405-0059; (802) 656-3276
Maine Women’s Agricultural Network, 133 Western Ave., Auburn, ME 04210; [email protected]
Chelsea Green Publishing Co., P.O. Box 428, White River Junction, VT 05001; (800) 639-4099; www.chelseagreen.com
About the author: John E. Carroll is Professor of Environmental Conservation at the University of New Hampshire and is involved with agricultural sustainability, ecological ethics and values, and spirituality and ecology. He is the author and editor of a number of books and articles on ecology and religion, on sustainability, and on ethics and values questions.