Indian Line Farm
As farms go, Indian Line Farm is famous. It sits in the valley below Jug End in South Egremont, on land that was deeded to (and later sold by) the Housatunnuck Nation as part of a corridor between the Hudson and Housatonic Rivers called “the Indian Line.” But its more recent past is what gives it renown. Robyn Van En farmed there from 1983 until her untimely death in 1997. She is celebrated on the 10 BerkShare note for her role as leading visionary and evangelist for a radical business model that has been adopted by farmers around the world: “Community Supported Agriculture is a term coined in my dining room in 1986,” says Keen.
Keen explains, “Community Supported Agriculture is a relationship between farmers and consumers. It is sharing the risk and also sharing the bounty that can exist on a farm.” This relationship is cemented by a commitment: consumers become members by pre-purchasing a share of the farm’s produce. Farmers, in return, commit to growing food for that season “to the absolute best of their ability.”
The question, after Robyn Van En’s death, was how could citizens ensure that Indian Line Farm would stay in use, producing quality food for the community? Keen and her partner Al Thorp had only two years of growing experience between them, but UMass extension agent Cathy Roth and Susan Witt of the Schumacher Society spied something special: integrity and determination. Keen smiles, “They saw something in Al and me that we didn’t actually see in ourselves—the possibility of becoming successful farmers.”
They started small: “I was very wary of taking people’s money and then not being able to fulfill my commitment.” Both worked part-time on other farms for the first two years, while getting their feet wet by selling at Great Barrington Farmers’ Market and to local restaurants. In the third year, they offered 40 CSA shares.
Their success was aided by an unconventional ownership arrangement. In 1999 contributions from community members allowed the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires to buy the land under the farm and the Nature Conservancy to buy an easement on part of the property, while Keen and Thorp worked with Salisbury Bank to buy the house, the barns, and all other improvements. The three parties wrote a 99-year inheritable lease—one that would ensure production of organic food and include environmental protections while also giving Keen and Thorp equity in improvements, long-term security, and affordability. “Being able to start the farm without a lot of land debt meant that we could start slowly without becoming overambitious in order to pay off the mortgage. It was the farm that was able to pay for itself.”
Keen and Thorp accept BerkShares for all purchases, even full CSA shares. This represents an evolution, according to Keen: “When BerkShares first came out we accepted only a limited amount at a time. We didn’t feel that there were that many places where we could utilize our BerkShares and we were timid about taking too many and having to take them back to the bank. But now we’ve let go of that. We’ll take Berkshares for the full price of a share and we’re creative enough now that we know where to spend the BerkShares.”
Now, 20 years into their tenure, Keen and Thorp have a 140-member CSA. “The 20-year mark feels like a rite of passage,” says Keen, who just took a year’s sabbatical from growing. The time off helped her to see the land with new eyes, inspiring her to use corners of the farm previously uncultivated to plant perennials such as rhubarb and raspberries. “I just realized there’s no time like the present,” she says. Eaters who want to become shareholders for 2017 should contact Keen by the end of February.