Dynamic Equilibrium as a Farm Goal

Elizabeth Henderson, farmer of Peacework Organic Farm, ag justice champion and regional organic/CSA pioneer, wrote this piece back in 2002 for Growing for Market. We wanted to share it with beginning farmers who are seeking balance in their lives on the farm.

Running a Resilient Farm Business
by Elizabeth Henderson

   For several years, I followed the engaging saga of the Arnosky’s farm in this magazine (Growing for Market).  They added more flowers, more acres, more greenhouses, more employees.  Then they added vegetables.  And then they announced that they had no more time to write for Growing for Market, an activity they had seemed to enjoy.  While creative and adventurous in their farming techniques, the Arnosky’s turned out to be orthodox true believers in their business strategy.  The sign over the door of US business reads:  “if you aren’t growing, you’re dying.”  The ag. establishment bullies farms with the demand: “get bigger or get out.”  Are these good mantras for sustainable farm businesses?  Wouldn’t “resilience,” and ”dynamic equilibrium” be healthier goals to guide us in developing our farms?   
     Achieving dynamic equilibrium or dynamic stability means finding a way to run your farm so that it does not run you into the ground.  Designing your farm for maximum resilience means that you can withstand the shocks of bad weather, business cycles, and the fragility of human existence.  Most of us who are doing market farming chose this path because growing vegetables or flowers or tending livestock is something we love to do.  We get satisfaction from living close to the earth, working outdoors, planting and seeing things grow, nurturing living creatures, using our bodies as well as our minds.  We can imagine small-scale farming as a wonderful style of life for ourselves and future generations.  The trick is to design our farms so that we do not destroy our love.  That means we have to find the right scale of activities, the number of acres we can handle, the optimum amount of equipment, the fairest markets, and the financial goals that will make our farming socially as well as environmentally sustainable.

Definitions:  Dynamic – “marked by continuous productive activity or change.” Equilibrium – “a state of adjustment between opposing or divergent influences or elements.”  Stability – “the strength to stand or endure.”  Resilience – “ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.”  Webster.
     In the way that the writings of Sir Albert Howard, Robert Rodale, Masanobu Fukuoka and Rudolf Steiner, have helped us understand the meaning of farming in nature’s image, Jane Jacob’s new book, The Nature of Economies (Vintage, 2001), is a guide to seeing how the human economies of our farms follow the patterns of natural systems.  Jacobs explains that there are “three master processes that govern successful economic life as surely as they govern the rest of nature: development and co-development through differentiations and their combinations; expansion through diverse, multiple uses of energy; and self-maintenance through self-refueling.”  Add to this her discussion of “stabilization through self-correction,” and we have a conceptual model for achieving dynamic equilibrium on our farms and local food systems. 
     How do we bring these abstractions down to earth?  In my experience, taking a training in Holistic Management is a good way to begin.  Holistic Management teaches you to put into words for yourself and your farm a 3-part set of goals: environmental, economic and social/spiritual.  No need to chisel these in stone.  These are living, evolving goals for us to revisit as we live and learn.  These goals serve as a guide to decision-making.  Whenever you consider a major, or even a minor, change in farm management, you can weigh this change against your goals so that you don’t find yourself shooting off enthusiastically in a direction that ultimately makes you unhappy and conflicts with what you most want to accomplish. 
     My partners, Ammie Chickering and Greg Palmer, and I created these goals for Peacework Organic Farm:
*  to produce safe, nutritious, hand-crafted, fresh food for area families.
*  to  reduce to the minimum the miles our food travels to reach the tables where it is eaten.
*  to minimize or eliminate the soil erosion that usually comes with crop production.
*  to maximize biodiversity above and below ground.
*  to recycle nutrients, and reduce our dependence on non-renewable resources like diesel fuel and other off-farm inputs.
*  to create an attractive and orderly farmstead that is a complement to the beauty of Crowfield Farm.
*  to create a work atmosphere that is calm, cheerful, and welcoming; that allows us to enjoy the rhythm of the seasons, and to be attentive to the natural beauty around us.
*  to create an environment that is safe, fun and educational for children, including our own. 
*  to involve the community in our farm, and our farm in the community: to improve local food security, social justice, and cooperation among farmers and between farmers and consumers.
*  to continue to learn and to share with others the knowledge and skills we acquire.
*  to make a modest living for our two families: we are blue collar farmers; we enjoy physical labor and have no desire to become managers or exploiters of other people’s work.
     We have also decided to avoid borrowing money.  If we want to purchase a new piece of equipment, we have to pay for it in cash.  At the end of each season, when we finish our bookkeeping, our first priority is a bonus for the interns who have spent the entire season with us.  We pay ourselves, set aside start-up money for the next season, and then see how much we have left to spend on improvements.  We have a priority list of things we want, and we get as far down the list as we can with the cash on hand.  In the contract the members of our CSA sign with us, there is a line for “contributions to the farm capital fund.”  In the four years since we founded Peacework, members have entrusted us with thousands of dollars with no strings attached.  Each fall, they pay a $50 deposit to hold their place for the next year.  That is our seed money. 
     Another part of our balancing act is our conscious choice to live as lightly on the planet as we can manage.  The less cash we need to live on, the freer we become.  I keep pretty close track of how I spend my money – both because there isn’t a lot of it, but also because I am aways looking for little ways to spend less.  I recycle fanatically.  I can, freeze, and root cellar food from our farm to keep me out of the supermarket in the winter, and I belong to a food buying club that cuts out at least one layer of middlemen.  My fashion-plate mother would have been horrified to see me shopping for clothing in second-hand stores, though my grand-mother-in-law would have been tickled at my observance of her slogan – “never buy anything new.” 
     My farm partners and I have expanded our production to generate enough for the three of us to live on – and that is as far as we intend to go.  Our farm pay covers health insurance (a major medical type of plan with a big deductible), and we have started a small pension fund.  We share our farm budget with the members of our CSA because we want them to know what we earn.  Some members are embarrassed; others feel challenged to simplify their own lives too.
     Let me give you an illustration of how we make decisions.  For years, we have been doing all of our transplanting by hand.  After suffering from sore knees for an entire season, Ammie proposed that we purchase a transplanter.  Is buying a transplanter a decision that fits with our farm goals?  Let’s see:  1. We have the cash to buy one.  2. All of our knees are getting older.  3. If the equipment runs well, use of this machine will shorten our work hours.  4. However, the transplanter transforms a quiet job into a noisy one requiring more passes over the field with a fuel-guzzling tractor.  On balance, after observing the equipment of several farming friends, we have decided that the time and body savings outweigh the negative environmental costs.   
     Knowing how much money is enough for our needs helps us direct our energies to our other important goals.  At least once a week, a well-meaning person suggests to me some additional enterprise we could undertake at our farm to earn more money.  We could expand our vegetable production using the many available acres near us, add winter shares, keep bees and sell the honey, grow medicinal herbs, collect wild herbs, raise chickens, hogs, goats, make tinctures, soap, dress up and give tours, etc. and so on.  I nod and smile graciously, and think to myself, and how long would it take me to learn to do that, how much would I have to invest, how many hours would it add to my work year, and do I really need to be any busier?   
     At Peacework, we do not have a lot of financial capital, but we are rich in social capital and that contributes to the quality of our lives.  Rather than finding ways to work more and earn more, we put our energies into developing our farm as a sustainable enterprise.  We are creating a new kind of hybrid, part business and part community organization.  We devote time and energy to getting to know the people who join our CSA.  We work along side them at the farm, we socialize with them, and communicate through all the media at our disposal.   We have a core group that meets once a month all year round, a regular newsletter, an active website, an email group, a May Day celebration and an Annual Dinner.  Every year, we ask our members to fill out a questionnaire on what vegetables and what quantities they want, and an end of the season survey on what they liked and disliked about the CSA experience.  This year, we even did mid-season focus groups to ferret out how to make the CSA fit into their lives as comfortably as possible. 
     Joining our CSA requires a significant commitment of time, a minimum of 17 hours of farm and distribution work per season for all 270 households.  The twenty four members who participate in the core group spend even more time.  Each core member has a job, such as distribution coordinator, bookkeeper, outreach, newsletter editor, etc.  Our members respond to the demands we put upon them by giving even more than we ask – friendship, services and financial donations to the farm’s capital fund.  Belonging to our farm means more than a weekly source of high quality vegetables.  For the farm,  the dense network of interrelationships with our members is a major source of the resilience which has enabled us to withstand a move, starting over at a new site, and three successive seasons of alternating drought and flooding. 
     After writing most of this piece, I picked up the April, 2002 issue to Acres U.S.A. and discovered the cover article by Joel Salatin, “Balance: Stability for Your Life and Farm.”  Salatin and I are singing in the same key: “We eco-farmers set the standard for balance.  We decry the no-impact worldview of Wall Street.  We must make consistency and balance normative in both words and action.  Our world needs us to provide examples of balance, to show that production need not compromise the local ecology, to show that a profitable business need not adulterate the demographics of the community.  We need to pioneer new ways of growing that regenerate communities and our families rather than destroy the bedrock institutions of a culture.  If we don’t, who will?” 
     On our farm, we are trying to live out the kind of balance Salatin talks about.  I think I can fairly claim that we are onto some alternative approaches to conventional business and farming challenges.  Some resources I have found useful are E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, M. Gerber’s The E-Myth, and Resource Manual for a Living Revolution.  There is a rich history of cooperatives in this country and England.  We need to delve into that history for ideas for decentrist design and community organization.  I would like to close with an image to keep in mind.  A business that is constantly expanding, feeding like a voracious predator on the failures of its neighbors, brings to mind a cancerous virus.  A resilient farm that is in dynamic equilibrium is more like a brilliant, colorful whirling top.