When I moved to northeast Missouri with three friends and started Sandhill Farm in 1974, we were a group of 20-somethings with no experience in farming or rural living. When we announced to neighbors that we were committed to growing food organically, they were amused. As far as they were concerned we may as well have been from Mars.
Forty years later, the neighbors aren't laughing. Sandhill Farm is still there and still farming organically. If anything, the topsoil depth and natural fertility of our small farm has gradually increased over the years of our stewardship. While we hold about 75 acres of cleared land all together, we've steadfastly refused to till more than 15-20 acres—the patches that are flat enough. The rest is too steep and has been planted to grass, which keeps the dirt where it is instead of washing downstream in rainstorms, gradually increasing the size of the Mississippi Delta.
Traditionally, farmers in our part of America's breadbasket would go through a three-year rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, and red clover. This cuts down on the need for artificial fertilizers, manages weeds better, and makes it harder for insects to establish dangerous populations to assault specific crops. But that cycle didn't produce enough income to handle the debt load incurred by purchasing land and large equipment. In consequence, crop rotations today have collapsed to two years: corn followed by soybeans, and then back to corn. Over time, following that program leads to a drop in fertility and the need for ever-increasing inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides) to maintain yields. It's a vicious cycle, which invariably leads to a marked decreased in resilience.
By farming organically and relying on traditional crop rotations, our bill for soil amendments has been much lower than our neighbors, and isn't spiraling up as fast (while the price for anhydrous ammonia goes up like gasoline, when you put manure on your fields you're just paying shit). Also, we rely on open-pollinated seed, which we save from year to year. Our neighbors depend on high-yielding hybrids that are not only expensive but must be purchased new every year.
By farming only on a modest scale, we don't need expensive equipment. Our first tractor—an Allis Chalmers WC, built in 1939—was purchased at auction for one bid above scrap: $210. And it still runs today. We also have our own combine. It's a pull-type Allis Chalmers All-crop, built in 1952. We bartered 7.5 hours of labor for it when the owner decided it was taking up too much valuable space in his machine shed.
While our crop yields were significantly lower than our neighbors, the disparity in net income was softened by our being able to command premium prices for organic food. (In 1974 you'd never see an organic or natural food section in a grocery store; today it's hard to find a modern grocery without one.)
Not stopping there we took advantage of our access to labor (both in terms of able-bodied adult members and the interns we'd attract during the growing season) to figure out ways to sell value-added products instead of raw goods. Thus, instead of marketing soybeans, we'd turn our soybeans into tempeh and sold that. While we grew horseradish root, we only sold prepared horseradish. With that strategy we needed fewer acres to produce the same income. By buying less land we've enjoyed a lower debt load. In fact, Sandhill has no debt. And none of our neighbors think we're from Mars.
• • •I told you the story of Sandhill's adventures in resiliency because I think it parallels the work being done by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Over the course of 30 years FIC has had two main missions. The narrow one has been to be the most up-to-date and comprehensive clearinghouse of information about intentional communities, focusing mainly on the US and Canada. Its second, broader mission has been to promote cooperative culture in a world drunk on competition.
Just as Sandhill was ahead of its time in blowing the horn for organic farming and resilient agriculture, FIC has been ahead of the curve in identifying and promoting the lessons of intentional communities as models of social sustainability. For both entities, what came across as exotic and other worldly in their early years has proven to be prescient and apt as the rest of the world has caught up with the near-desperate need to get off the acquisitive hamster wheel of materialism.
Where Are We (and What Are We Doing in This Handcart)?
The emerging threat today is climate change and the global disruption of "normal" life. The melting of polar ice caps threatens coastal inundation. Places that used to have predictable rainfall now experience years of drought followed by massive flooding. Fruit trees are blooming in February instead of May, and there is unprecedented worry about adequate access to safe water.
Terrorist attacks have come in waves of numbing frequency—from a berserker truck driver on a rampage in the German Christmas market, to a solo fanatic driving down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London; from the renowned hijackers of 9/11 who took down the World Trade Centers, to suicide bombers who are sheathed in explosives for the express purpose of detonating themselves in crowds—extremists are exhorting followers to perpetrate brutal acts of violence, without regard to human life, including their own. It is the triumph of nihilism.
On the political front, in the US there is almost a complete breakdown of civil discourse. There is no longer conversation and thoughtful dialog; there is only polemics and near-constant vilification of "other." Though there is only one Earth, if you listen to the nightly news you'd never know there was any awareness of our being on it together, with only a single future that we must share. All you hear today is breast beating for partisan agendas, and no willingness to recognize that others may hold pieces of the truth, just as well as we.
• • •Over the decades that FIC has been on the scene (since 1987), there has been a progression of "in" terms: from organic to sustainable to local to today's sweetheart: resilient. While the wrapping is new, the core message is not. We still need to figure out how to get along with each other. For all the reasons touched on in the preceding paragraphs that need has never been more urgent than it is today.
Intentional communities are important—but not because it is the lifestyle wave of the future. In Israel there was a time when as much as four percent of the population lived on kibbutzim; it would shock me if the percentage of the US population living in some form of self-identified intentional community ever got within sniffing distance of one percent. Today, for example, there about 100,000 in the US who are living in community. That number would have to expand by more than 30 times to reach one percent.
The importance of intentional communities is the pioneering work that they're undertaking in the crucible of group living. They are doing the heavy lifting to figure out what it takes to live cooperatively; how to share resources equitably; how to solve problems such that everyone's interests have been taken into account without settling for the winners and loser dynamics of majority rule. There has to be a better way, and intentional communities are in the forefront of the experiments that will light the path.
It boils down to figuring out a different way to be in the world; to harnessing the synergy of groups in order to create a better life for all, instead of competing as individual households and nations for limited resources. This is not about homogenization and one size fits all; it's about creating and maintaining quality while at the same time respecting and honoring differences and learning to live graciously while putting resource consumption on a diet.
If this resonates with you, read on.
FIC in Action Today
As someone who worked in the eye of the hurricane for 28 years (I stepped down from a leadership role with FIC at the end of 2015) I can tell you that the Fellowship never lacked for creative ideas about how to use funds. There have always been initiatives to better get the word out; experiments to conduct, evaluate, and chronicle; and collaborations to attempt. We don't just talk about hope. We test it.
For information about FIC's latest effort click here. They are trying to raise $8000 in order to fund four initiatives aimed at exploring the intersection of community and climate change: two books, a national speaking tour, and the latest issue of Communities magazine (released earlier this month). While they have raised more than half of their target (over $4800) there is only one week left until the perks being offering as incentives will be withdrawn.
Now is the time to act! I'm asking readers and subscribers to consider donating (remember, it's tax deductible), and to ask your friends and acquaintances to do the same.
As a special incentive, for every $100 you donate to this campaign (for which you'll also get the satisfaction of having your oar in the water, pulling for a good cause) I will make a matching offer of 30 minutes of my time that can be used for any of the following:
—consulting about intentional communities
—advising about cooperative group dynamics
—editing proposals or reports
This offer is good only through the end of the month (it expires at midnight March 31) and is in addition to any perks you claim from the FIC site. So long as you make your pledge or donation before April 1, you'll have one year to redeem the offer of my services.
Together, we are making a difference.