Posts Tagged ‘Live Power Community Farm’
Live Power Community Farm lives up to its name. Stephen Decater works the 40-acre farm with the help of two beautiful Belgian draft horses. Manure and the sun provide the rest of the fuel he needs.
To ready a field for planting, he hooks up a gleaming plow and cuts neat furrows through the earth. The blade of the plow barely makes a sound and its cuts a clean, 18-inch furrow into the beautiful black, loamy soil. Black birds follow closely behind, feasting on the earthworms brought to the surface. He loops the reins over his shoulder so he can control the horse while also guiding the 19th century farm tool through the soil. The number of people with these skills probably are in the low hundreds.
Watching Stephen glide the plow over the field, it would be easy to write off his animal-and-solar-powered farm as archaic, silly even. Where are the John Deere tractors? How can a farm like this compete with more efficient, modern farms? Isn’t that going backwards?
Stephen does use a few tractors to bale hay and perform a few other tasks, but most work is performed by animals, i.e. live power. As for the competition part, he doesn’t compete at all.
Long ago Stephen and his wife Gloria decided to opt out of the market economy and run Live Power as a community supported supported farm. Community supported agriculture (CSA) has become a fairly well known term, but as Calfornia’s first CSA, Live Power takes the community part much more seriously than most.
Rather than grow for grocery stores and distributors who tell him what they want and what they will pay, Stephen grows for a small community of supporters, about 200 families that do much more than buy his produce. They support him and his family, the animals on the farm and the cost of running the entire operation.
Borrowing a term from Rudolf Steiner, the founder of biodynamic agriculture, Stephen calls this model “associative economics.” Farmers and families agree to associate with each other in a mutually beneficially relationship. For their annual membership, about $1,000, members not only get biodynamically grown produce, they get to know that what they pay is true cost of the food they eat. Their dollars pay for the farmers’ labor, his animals, seeds, everything. And because Live Power stewards the land and doesn’t use any chemical inputs, there are no externalized costs.
The farm’s web site puts it this way:
“In order to have healthy agriculture, we have to have a healthy economic process. The real cost of food is actually based on the cost of taking care of the needs of the farmer and the land on a long term sustainable basis which is often not indicated by the current market economic ‘bottom line.’ The associative economic practices employed by community based farming transform the economic process, underlying agriculture from being directed by mechanistic ‘bottom line’ self interest economic forces, to an economic process which is directed by the good of the community as a whole – oriented towards meeting the needs of the earth, the farmer, and the ‘eaters’, reflecting human values and long term stewardship.”
Amen to that. Is that communism? No. Capitalism? Certainly not. How about communitarianism?
“This is a completely different paradigm,” he told me over his kitchen table. “My contention is that we won’t have sustainable agriculture until we have a sustainable economic system.”
As for whether Stephen is going backwards, I say by looking back he’s going forward. In the great documentary 180 Degrees South, North Face and Espirit founder Douglas Tompkins says that sometimes when you reach the edge of cliff it makes no sense to go forward anymore. You must stop, make a 180 degree turn around and then go forward again.
Industrial agriculture and mindless consumer capitalism have brought us to the brink. Continuing to go forward with a broken system means walking right off the cliff. Live Power may look like a throwback with its draft horses, solar power and hand tools, but with a badly broken food system and a world of finite oil resources, Life Power offers a view into the future.
If you want to read more about associative economics check this out.
The road north of Cloverdale on Highway 101 is one of my favorite stretches of road in California. For me it’s where the real Northern California begins. The Bay Area fades away and it’s just windy roads, fewer people and forests for miles.
I grew up driving this highway each summer with my dad heading to the Marble Mountains and Trinity Alps to go backpacking. After several great days in Sonoma County I was eager to push north and see some of this beautiful country.
Our destination was Covelo, a Mendocino County town in a place called the Round Valley northeast of Willits. I’d never been there before. All I knew was were going to visit Stephen and Gloria Decater, two community farming pioneers who inspired two generations of ecologically minded farmers.
With the sun fading, we lumbered up Hwy. 101 past Willits and looked for the turn-off to Highway 162. I found it and to my surprise it tracked right along side the Eel River, a beloved steelhead trout river and one of the my favorite rivers in California. We climbed up the vertiginous one-lane road with purple and yellow wildflowers growing on one side. Deirdre begged me to slow to 25 mph because she said the trailer tires where coming too close to the edge of the road and the steep a canyon wall below.
We finally reached the top and the views were stunning. The middle fork of the Eel River cuts a wide swatch through wilderness with no signs of human habitation. Dropping down, I wondered what Covelo would look like. Nothing prepared me for the sight of the valley below as we rounded yet another hairpin curve: a perfectly flat valley ringed by snow-capped mountains. Dropping further to valley floor, it remind me of Montana, high plains surrounded by mountains. Tall, tawny grass and cattle dotted the landscape along with broad, redwood sided barns.
The Round Valley, eight miles across and threaded by Mill Creek, felt like arriving in another place, another time. The town is remote enough that despite its stunning appearance there are few people here, about a 1,000. Sadly, many of them are pot growers who have disrupted what was one of California’s most picturesque small towns. The valley was only “discovered” in 1850, well into California’s Gold Rush.
Although rampant with transient marijuana growers who have flooded the valley with guns and money, it’s still undeniably beautiful. Best of all was what I discovered at Stephen and Gloria’s Live Power Community Farm, a thriving 40-acre farm powered largely by solar and animal energy. It’s also a vision for a different kind of agriculture and food system, one that’s wholly supported by a community of 200 families.
The Decaters opt out of farmers markets, grocery stores and wholesale markets and instead get all their income from their network of supporters. In this way, Stephen told me, he doesn’t have to play to race to the bottom (line) dictated by a profit driven economy. And he can produce food that doesn’t externalize costs and instead, give member-supporters a full accounting of where their food came from and what it truly costs.
More on this in my next post.