Community supported agriculture at Live Power
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.