Colchester Farm in the 21st Century:
Community Supported Agriculture and the Continuing Evolution of Colchester Farm
In 2003 Charlotte Staelin, owner of Colchester Farm, and Andy Andrews, who worked full-time for the American Farmland Trust, had some casual conversations about how much Charlotte wanted to make Colchester Farm organic and how Andy thought a community supported agriculture project would be great for Kent County. Without much planning, we asked twenty people, all friends or relatives, to give us $100 each. We promised that in return we would grow pesticide-free vegetables all summer, giving them a share of what came up every week all summer long.
That first year was pretty ad hoc. Andy's mother and sister and brother-in-law helped him plant and harvest vegetables. (They sorted and washed the vegetables in the 'little house', which also served as Andy's living quarters and home). Charlotte handled the planning, marketing, evaluation, and talking to anyone who would listen about their project. The second year we had over thirty people eating Colchester's vegetables, over forty the year after that, then sixty-five, then a hundred.
As we added more members and more interns to help produce the vegetables, Charlotte realized they were no longer dealing with just a few of their friends. We needed a more formal arrangement. After consulting with all and sundry, she asked attorney James Constable of the firm Wright, Constable, and Skeen L.L.P. in Baltimore to draw up papers of incorporation. In 2005 we set up Colchester Farm Community Supported Agriculture Inc. (CFCSA) as a non-profit (501c3) organization. At the same time Charlotte also formed Colchester Farm LLC to formalize the rest of Colchester Farm's production, with herself as sole proprietor. By 2006, Colchester Farm CSA had a full Board of Directors and began accepting tax deductable donations for its educational work. Both the LLC and the CSA continue to operate side-by-side on Colchester Farm.
In 2005 the LLC invested in a capital project and built what we now call the 'veggie shed' so that the CSA would have a place to store equipment and sort vegetables for our members to pick up each week. In 2006 Theresa Mycek took over the management of CFCSA from Andy Andrews; in that year we also built a plastic high tunnel, an unheated greenhouse, to extend our growing season.
In 2007 Peter Lane of the Conservation Leadership Institute came to the Farm to conduct a full day long range planning exercise. Charlotte realized that not only did she need the CSA Board to help direct vegetable production but she also needed to start planning for the long term. All the CSA Board Members and a several other interested people spent the day making both a yearly list of practical tasks we wanted to accomplish in 2008 and envisioning what we wanted Colchester Farm to be in the future. Charlotte had always hoped the Farm would become a local resource and be locally governed, allowing her to give it back to the community which has supported its growth.
We came out of that meeting with clearer understanding of the relationship between the LLC and the CSA. Among our most fantastic visions for the future we had the United Nations holding conflict resolution sessions in the 'little house' and the Dalai Lama bringing his spiritual leadership to the blessing of the land. (We also had a lot of fun).
The CSA Board Members made it clear that while they loved the long term fantasizing, they had signed on only for managing the current operations of the CSA. We split into two groups, what Stu Cawley called the Garlic Heads and the Pea Pods. Garlic Heads could take their time looking at the future of the farm as a whole; Pea Pods (mainly the CSA Board) would focus on the sustainability of the CSA.
By 2009 CFCSA was growing vegetables for approximately 150 families and individuals. In 2008 and 2009 we all benefited heartily from the addition of John Arbuckle's chicken and turkey operation, which was a separate entity working alongside the LLC and the CSA. Sadly, when he and Holly moved to Missouri to farm acres they bought there, our poultry operation had no one to sustain it. Hopefully we will be able to reinstitute it soon.
With its non-profit status, CFCSA was also able to secure small grants from both the Maryland Environmental Trust and the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, one for designing educational materials and one for collecting and printing oral histories of Colchester Farm and its surrounding neighbors in Georgetown. Adjacent boatyards were also able to start making tax deductible donations to the CSA. (CSA Annual Reports are available on line for more details).
In 2009 Charlotte resigned from the CSA Board, which has many dedicated and talented members, and stepped back from day-to-day operations, hoping to spend more time concentrating on long term plans for the whole farm. Rob Etgen took on the task of managing the LLC.
In 2011 Colchester Farm has nine buildings, 200+ acres planted with feed grains (wheat, barley, corn and soybeans), ten pesticide-free acres used by the CSA to grow vegetables, and forty more acres transitioning to organic certification. The whole farm is preserved with conservation easements, some with the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy (ESLC) and Maryland Environmental Trust (MET), and some with the Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF). The only building that can take place on the Farm must be located in the few acres near the main house, close to already existing structures. And any additions need to be for agricultural purposes. (In 2010 we were able to convert the old cement-block milking barn into housing for our interns only after explaining its agricultural purpose to the MALPF Board and getting permission.
As the summers go by, both the LLC and CSA use parts of the land and buildings for a variety of complimentary purposes. Financially, the two organizations are separate entities. CSA operations are supported by revenue generated through CSA memberships, farmers' market sales, and tax deductible donations. Its annual budget is proposed by Theresa every winter and approved by the CSA Board. The CSA still relies on the LLC for housing facilities for its staff, use of farm buildings to work in and store equipment, and use of a small tractor. It rents ten acres of land from the LLC on which to grow vegetables.
Rob, in his role as Manager of the LLC, handles all the other farm functions: coordinating with the Farm Service Agency to insure our continued participation in federal farm programs, meeting with our conventional farming partners, paying LLC bills and keeping its finances in order. (The Chance family continues conventional farming over 200 acres on shared 50/50 input/output basis as they have for over 50 years).
CFCSA operates with a staff of one full-time year-round manager and four seasonal interns, two short term (three months) and two long term (eight and a half to nine months). A year-round full-time assistant manager is a future goal. The biggest item in the CSA budget is always personnel. Every year we try to balance our responsibility for paying our interns an honorable wage while striving to keep annual share prices for CSA members as low as possible. No one makes a profit from the CSA. Theresa is full time with benefits, having an assistant manager full time is always a goal. With the LLC's conversion of the cement-block building to intern housing in 2010, CSA workers also get free housing and as many vegetables as they can eat.
Hundreds of people visit Colchester Farm every year. It has always been Charlotte's vision that Colchester will evolve into a community resource, built and governed by people in the community. In that pursuit, under Rob and Suzanne Etgen's management the LLC has developed and managed a number of longer term programs. They have organized and run a two week long 'Farming, Food and Fun' program for about 20 children every summer; they have instituted cooking lessons in the 'little house' based on the CSA vegetables; Suzanne has spent hours working on the CSA's annual fundraising party; Rob conducts full moon meditation walks at sunset/moon rise from April to October; Rob has also taken the leadership working with Luke Howard of Planet Organic Inc. on the transition of our 40 acres to be certified organic in 2012. Charlotte has helped around the edges of all these tasks, and takes a 25% share of LLC profits for her own use. All other funds stay in the farm account to support LLC capital investments and long term activities. Rob is also working closely with the School of Architecture at Temple University; last year their students designed and built an outdoor, recycled lumber, lattice work structure by the intern house; in the future they hope to get a grant to rehabilitate the old hay barn near the LLC's metal farm shed (identifiable by the way it slants dramatically to the east).
All of these activities at the Farm are hard to coordinate. Every year Theresa and Rob promise to do a better job of always knowing what the other's schedules are and always working together on their overlapping programs. Most recently the Education Committee of the CSA Board has agreed to take over the planning and management of the summer kid's activities. Last year the LLC paid for a part time intern to help out with the children's weeks at the farm.
Colchester Farm's Future
Back in 2007 when we divided our volunteer's talents into the Garlic Heads and the Pea Pods it was woefully unclear who could take on which tasks in developing Colchester's future. The Pea Pod's part, which is the daily operation of the CSA, is fabulously managed by Theresa and the CSA Board. The longer term Garlic Head's vision has been managed mainly by Suzanne and Rob, who are dedicated to the stewardship of Colchester's land and to its spiritual life, making it a place for all to come and be revived. (They also maintain full time jobs off the farm, contributing to Colchester on a volunteer basis).
Although Charlotte stopped living at the Farm in 2008, and has enjoyed a respite from the CSA's intensive early years, it is time to make some sustainable long range plans for Colchester Farm as a whole. Anyone who has worked on a non-profit vision, or founded a small business, knows that burnout is always a danger. On the other hand, there is nothing more satisfying than watching a project come to fruition, however uncoordinated it may look as it gets there.
In 2011 Theresa and Rob and Charlotte have been meeting to fine tune that future. We have dreams of a Colchester Farm Institute, with an independent Board like the CSA, which will take Colchester through its next steps. We know some things for sure: the LLC will have to purchase a new tractor for the farm soon; the CSA is building another high tunnel to grow vegetables almost all year long; some sustainable project will be based on the new 40 acres of certified organic land.
Educational programs? Some sustainable landscaping around the intern house? More spiritual retreats? More small farm incubator projects like John's? A grass fed beef operation? What about fruit trees? Or grapes? A fully integrated growing process like Joel Salatin at Polyface Farm in Virginia? More opportunities for people to walk our boundaries and enjoy this sacred place? A center for development of local foods networks? All of the above? More?
Charlotte remains eternally grateful to those who have given so much of their time and their heart to making Colchester what it is today. Her children live elsewhere and cannot take it on after she moves on to the green, green farm in the sky. If you are interested in helping form the future at Colchester, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Charlotte Staelin
(last update February 2011)
Colchester Farm | P.O. Box 191 | Georgetown MD 21930 | (at 31285 Georgetown Cemetery Rd)
Updated March 1, 2013