The heart of the business model of Gail Taylor’s Three Part Harmony Farm is a 100-member CSA. Click here to read about how Gail found her farm and her role in expanding urban farming in Washington, D.C. Pretty quickly, Gail realized that trying to provide a larger CSA “was just too hard to do alone.” So she and fellow Clagett alum Zachari Curtis of Good Sense Farm and Apiary cofounded the co-op Community Farming Alliance. Soon they were joined by Holly Poole-Kavana of Little Red Bird Botanicals, who had also worked at Clagett. This past year they added Blain Snipstal and Aleya Fraser of Black Dirt Farm on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Gale Livinstone of Rainbow Hill Farm in West Virginia is also a contributor.
“There are lots of reasons why I like being in a co-op with other farmers,” says Gail. “It’s hard enough for one person to grow 40 different kinds of vegetables, and herbs, and flowers. And run the seedling business out of the greenhouse in my backyard.” The co-op offers its CSA members vegetables, mushrooms, eggs, honey, flowers, and culinary and medicinal herbs.
Is the CSA model past its prime?
Gail is deeply committed to her CSA members, and she offers a lot of innovative ways to make the CSA valuable and flexible for them. “I need to have at least some people financially commit to this place so that I know I can pay the bills and the staff through November. That helps me sleep at night. The members are basically giving me a zero-percent loan, and there is nothing more valuable than that. And I owe them, right? There are times when we have bad weather where I don’t do any restaurant deliveries because it’s all going to the CSA.”
The farm does a 33-week season but only sells a 23-week share, so people can skip whichever 10 weeks they choose, and they don’t have to tell Gail in advance. Members can double up as well, and take two shares in a week if they want. She also offers a half share, which she doesn’t really like to do, but it works better for many of her members. The CSA is DIY style: Gail lays out an assortment of items, and members make up their own share. “I just put everything out on the table, often with a scale. There might be a weighing category, like tomatoes and peppers and eggplant and squash, and people can take six pounds of whatever assortment they want.” She’ll hold things back so that the people who show up at the end of the pickup window don’t feel their share is any less than the people who came early.
Gail believes that the CSA movement has plateaued. When she first started in farming at Clagett, the farm would have a wait list of 800 people, and folks would wait in line to get their application time-stamped because it was first-come, first-served. Now there are a lot more opportunities and choices of where people can get their vegetables in a way that mimics a CSA but without the direct support to the farmer. That’s one of the challenges for farmers.
“If you believe in what we’re doing here, you also have to believe that your purchasing power is buying something for your children and your children’s children, and not just what you are eating for dinner tonight. If you believe in that, that’s great. And if you want somebody to only bring the five vegetables that you like to your door, then we are kind of in trouble.”
“I feel like I’ve figured out small parts of how to work the system to make it work for this small farm, but there are still limitations to being a vegetable farmer. Like I’m definitely not going to quit my part-time job any time soon. [Gail manages a yoga studio.] Just like the majority of farmers, my spouse also has a job.”
When I first approached Gail about interviewing her for this project, she felt strongly that I also interview some of her crew. “I might be the most recognizable person here, but really this is a group effort.”
Each year, she hires a three-member, part-time seasonal crew. She also has many volunteer workers. “This is a pretty team-oriented place to work. My goal is that people come here on a regular basis and get to the point where they can show up, get their own gloves and tools, look at the task list, pick the task that they want to do, and go to work. Sometimes we all want to hand weed in the bed together and talk about something. We spend hours and hours and hours getting to know each other and talking, just like any farm. Sometimes you come and you just want to be at the farm with the birds. My intention is that everybody on the staff can focus on a job that is gaining skills for them.”
Most, but not all, of the volunteers are women, as were all the crew members for 2016. Gail finds that the volunteers who come to work at the farm are often at an in-between place. “People might come if they’re in a career shift and have some extra time. You might be in a break-up with your boyfriend and you just need some soil therapy. I feel our role as staff is to maintain the space and keep the good energy going, so that possibility is available to people when they come here to volunteer.
“I think it’s such a healing space, on so many different levels. I really think it’s important for those of us who are here to be here together in the space and to focus on each other and what we are doing. This is a hate-free zone. We do not allow any bad language or activity or interactions with each other or with the vegetables or with any of the animal life, like the insects. Everything here is about loving each other and being together in a healing space. No racism, sexism, homophobia. I’m trying to maintain that as a really important thing here.
“We’ve had a few people who couldn’t handle it. Not many, but some people didn’t feel totally comfortable with the fact that not everyone who works here uses a he/she pronoun. We’re not all gender binary. So it’s like a little bit of education maybe and doesn’t have anything to do with growing food, but it does have to do with building community, and that’s really important to me.
“Being a successful farm in the city means, to me, that we are touching people’s lives and healing their bodies and souls.”
Next week we’ll meet Laura Otolski, one of Gail’s crew members, and learn what motivates her to do farm work.