At A Glance
Peacework Organic Farm
Newark, New York
Summary of Operation
• 70 crops
(vegetables, herbs, flowers, melons and small
fruit) raised organically on 15 acres
• Community supported agriculture
(CSA) farm with 270 member families.
Need for a New Farm®
location. In 1998, nearly 20 years
after leaving a university professorship to farm,
Elizabeth Henderson had to begin anew. For years,
Henderson had farmed as a partner at Rose Valley
Farm, a diversified, organic operation. Then the
personal and professional partnership under which
Henderson had been farming at Rose Valley Farm
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 65 to 67
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
Meets Plow: Elizabeth Henderson has written
two books about organic farming.
At age 36, Henderson retired
from the university and started to farm. “I had been
making my living by teaching at a university,” Henderson
recalls. “Instead, I wanted to live in a way that was
in concert with my beliefs about the environment and community.”
Henderson spent about eight years in a homesteading-like arrangement
at Unadilla Farm in Gill, Mass., a period she describes as
an apprenticeship in learning how to grow vegetables. She
and her partner grew a range of garden crops on about four
acres of raised beds, keeping many for their own use but also
marketing to restaurants, food co-ops, farmers markets and
directly to neighbors.
In 1989, Rose Valley and a Rochester-based nonprofit, Politics
of Food, formed the Genesee Valley Organic CSA. They started
with 29 shares, and, over a decade, expanded to 160 shares.
At that time, Henderson’s partnership ended. The CSA
enterprise remained committed to Henderson. This time, she
brought her market — indeed, a whole community —
to her new location.
People often describe CSA in economic terms — members
pay a set amount in advance for a weekly share of the harvest
during the growing season, many of them working on the farm
in various ways. But Henderson places equally high value on
the relationships CSA fosters between farmers and the people
who eat the food they produce. She also puts a premium on
the connections CSA forges among the farmer, the community
and the land. Thus her life running a CSA farm supports her
values, among them: cooperation, justice, appreciation of
beauty, reverence for life and humility about the “place
of human beings in the scheme of nature.”
“For me, farming for a community of people whom I know
well is very satisfying,” she says. “It’s
not like shipping crates off somewhere, where I never see
the customers. I know everyone, and I know most of their children.”
The CSA community pulled together to help Henderson and her
new partner, Greg Palmer, create a working farm that reflects
their vision. During the 1998 growing season, the CSA purchased
vegetables from four other organic farms in the greater Rochester
area, while members helped transform 15 acres of sod into
vegetable beds, built a new greenhouse and cold frame, and
renovated an old barn and packing shed. Members contributed
what they knew best, from architects helping design the greenhouse
to an electrician laying wiring.
Peacework Farm rents 15 acres from Crowfield Farm, a 600-acre
bison and hay operation that has been chemical-free since
1983, allowing Peacework to get organic certification immediately.
They also were able to rent a barn and packing shed, that,
with work, were made appropriate for vegetable production.
Moreover, Crowfield owners Doug and Becky Kraai have a long
history of environmental stewardship. In partnership with
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they had planted trees
and built ponds to enhance wildlife habitat. All in all, Henderson
says, “it seemed a very friendly place to farm.”
Focal Point of Operation —
Community Supported Agriculture
Peacework Farm grows about 70 crops, including a wide variety
of vegetables, herbs, flowers, melons and small fruit, all
according to certified organic practices. About 95 percent
of the harvest goes to the CSA enterprise.
Since Henderson and Palmer were converting hayfields on light,
loamy soil into vegetable cultivation, they decided to make
permanent beds, leaving strips of sod between the beds for
the tractors to drive on. The tractor wheels are five feet
apart and all the beds are five feet wide.
Palmer and Henderson share responsibility for overall planning
and management, but each has his or her own primary responsibilities.
Palmer handles the non-CSA markets, keeps the books and maintains
the equipment. Henderson tills and cultivates, does most of
the greenhouse planting work, and since she lives at the farm,
tends to pick up most of the loose ends. On mornings when
members come to the farm to fulfill their work requirements,
both farmers work with them. These responsibilities will shift
somewhat when Palmer’s wife, Ammie Chickering, joins
the team in 2001.
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of their CSA
enterprise is the active, meaningful involvement of its members.
“I think farmers ask much too little of the people who
buy their food,” Henderson says. “They don’t
ask them to pay enough or to contribute in other ways.”
Not all CSA farms have a work requirement, but it’s
a cornerstone of Genesee Valley’s success. During a
season, members work three four-hour shifts at the farm and
two 2.5-hour shifts in distribution. Because the farm is about
an hour’s drive from Rochester, where most members live,
members work to both harvest crops and coordinate distribution.
“It’s really important to learn how to design
volunteer work so that people can give what they really want
to give,” Henderson explains.
Organization and advance planning are key. From a season-long
work schedule, to detailed instructions about what to wear
and bring, to directions for harvesting vegetables, Henderson
makes sure shareholders are prepared to be successful contributors
to the farm.
“Members consider the farm work a benefit,” Henderson
says. “Their end-of-season evaluations are unanimously
positive about only two things: the quality of the food and
the farm work.”
The CSA farm’s core group handles another set of crucial
tasks: accounting, distribution, scheduling, outreach, newsletter
production and new member recruitment.
Economics and Profitability
Henderson and Palmer have structured Peacework Farm so its
revenue covers all farm expenses including labor without incurring
debt. Henderson is pleased that they never borrow money, either.
The farmers designed the size of the CSA operation to generate
enough income for Henderson, Palmer and Chickering to live
in a manner Henderson describes as leaving a “small
ecological footprint.” Not only do they easily cover
farm expenses, but they have health insurance and are starting
a pension fund.
“We negotiate our budget each year with the CSA core
group, which is very committed to paying us a living wage,”
she says. Three years ago, Henderson put $35,000 into the
farm and has since received $42,000 back. “That is a
decent return on my investment,” she says.
The CSA enterprise has 164 full shares and 67 partial shares,
but because two or three families sometimes split a share,
about 270 families are members. Developing the CSA farm budget
is a process of balancing the numbers with philosophy. On
one hand, the CSA membership is committed to providing the
farmers with a just wage. On the other hand, the core group
and the farmers want to make sure the CSA farm is accessible
to people of all income levels. To make this possible, they
offer a sliding scale for membership fees.
Peacework’s rotations feature summer and winter cover
crops, depending, of course, on the timing and crop Henderson
intends to plant the following year. The rotations and cover
crops are designed to prevent erosion, maintain and build
soil quality and control pest pressures. If they plan an early-spring
planting, they plant a cover crop of oats. With crops planted
later, they underseed with rye or a rye/vetch mix.
After harvesting a spring crop, Henderson and Palmer typically
plant a buckwheat cover crop, incorporate that and then sow
an oat cover crop for the winter. Henderson favors rye and
vetch before brassicas. “I find it’s all the fertilizer
those crops need. We mow the cover crop in June, spade the
bed, and let it set for three weeks and then spade again.
It makes a beautiful seed bed.”
Since they have an ample supply of large round bales of hay,
Henderson and Palmer also use them as mulch — simply
unrolling them over a bed — to get beds read for early
use in the spring. This approach is particularly effective
with garlic and onion sets.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Henderson has been an energetic — some might say aggressive
— advocate for organic farming and CSA for almost two
decades, and a second profile could be entirely devoted to
her efforts to promote local, sustainable food systems. Through
her books — she co-authored The Real Dirt and Sharing
the Harvest — conference appearances, and grassroots
organizing and advocacy, she has influenced scores of farmers,
other agricultural professionals and policy makers at the
local, state and national level.
Henderson’s CSA farm is open to all, regardless of income.
In the 2000 growing season, shares ranged from $11 a week
to $17 per week, depending on a member’s ability to
pay. “The people who are paying $17 know they are balancing
out the people who are paying $11,” Henderson says.
The CSA sponsors a scholarship fund that helps further reduce
share prices to assist lower income people. The fund is supported
in part from sales of “A Foodbook for a Sustainable
Harvest,” a guide to the foods CSA members receive,
including storage information and recipes. A Rochester church
also has made generous contributions to the fund.
Finally, Henderson’s CSA work has demonstrated to the
larger farming community that a small-scale, organic farm
— with cooperation and support from its neighbors —
“I want my farm to serve as a demonstration to my farming
neighbors, many of them very conservative people, that ecological
farming is a practical possibility,” Henderson wrote
in Sharing the Harvest. “The conventional farmers I
know consider my organic CSA to be a sort of special case,
but at the same time, they recognize it as a creative approach
to marketing and admire my ability to get the cooperation
of consumers. That is a great advance over how it was viewed
10 years ago.”
Henderson observes that a surprising number of farmers find
themselves facing sudden changes to their farming situations.
“The training I’ve had in holistic resource management
and having a three-part goal — personal and spiritual,
environmental, and economic — was very helpful,”
she says. “Because I had already done so much work on
my goals, when I had to move, it guided me in the choices
I had to make.”
Henderson and Palmer hope to find a young person to join them
and become the junior partner so Henderson can cut back her
time farming to do more writing. “I’m 57, and
this is pretty aerobic,” she says. “I want to
cut back, but I want to be sure the farm continues."
--Photograph by Nancy Kasper