Visiting Community Farm is hard after a snow storm. Off Scio Church Road and around the curve on Fletcher Road, I quickly realized I had just driven past the steep entrance to the farm so I stopped and backed up (it is a country road after all) and promptly got the car stuck trying to get out of the way of oncoming traffic. Fortunately for me, Annie was right there in her big snow boots carrying her shovels. I was the third person she had helped get un-stuck by 9:30 that morning.
Paul Bantle and Annie Elder celebrated 20 years of running Community Farm this summer. It's Ann Arbor's oldest CSA (or Community Supported Agriculture) farm and also one of the oldest CSAs in the country. They still have 89 years left on their lease of the 11 acre property. The development rights have gone to the Washtenaw County Land Trust, so it will stay a farm even though you can now see about a dozen McMansions off in the distance. Community Farm is owned by its members, Annie informed me, and is run on the many of the principles of co-operation and inclusion developed at the Wildflour Bakery where she worked years ago.
Annie calls the soaring space inside the barn their cathedral, where the beams from what must have been monumental trees span the entire width. She pointed out to me the wooden pegs holding those enormous beams in place - the entire barn was built without a single nail.
Annie gave me a tour as she moved through the morning's chores of feeding and watering the farm's animals. I got to meet the chickens - all the hens are named Jessica and the one rooster is named Sir Thomas Poppycock or Lord Thimbleberry - something silly and self-important sounding. There are about 20 or 25 chickens, different breeds (like Aruacana which lay the blue/green eggs) and many quite elderly, for a chicken. I learned that the most productive years of a chicken's life, in terms of eggs, are the first two. After that, egg production goes down and usually so does the chicken - into the stewpot or the roasting pan. But a chicken's natural lifespan is about 12 years, according to Annie. They keep the chickens into old age, and the goats and the cows, because they don't eat them or slaughter them. The animals are on the farm for the kids who visit rather than for the milk or eggs. Older animals tend to be more placid and less intimidating, more tolerant of the very young. Kind of like older humans.
Annie and Paul don't use email. They're rarely at home to answer their phone, so if you want to get in touch with them the best way to do it is in person. And partly it's the best way because if you know Annie, you get a big hug when she sees you. And that's how she treats her animals too. The hug is turned into some serious back scratching if you're a cow and about a hundred pets if you're a goat. She says they adore being loved up like that - one of their cows would rather have attention than food.
Annie told me the story of how she and Paul had come to live near, but not on, the farm. In trying to decide whether to stay here in Ann Arbor they were faced with needing to buy a house near the farm. Although they soon found one available nearby, they didn't have much money for the downpayment and because they always paid for everything in cash, they didn't have a credit rating with the bank. The members of Community Farm held meetings to work out how to keep Annie and Paul with the farm and decided that each family would contribute what it could to help with the downpayment. At one meeting, everyone brought their cash and put it into an envelope. In the envelope was $19,000, in bills of every denomination. Annie and Paul took that $19,000 in cash to the bank and asked them to give them the loan and they did.
The cat who rules the farm is an enormous tomcat named Bob. He has to be more than 20 pounds of pure muscle and thick black and white fur. I thought our cat was a big guy, but he's a little runt compared to Bob. Annie says Bob is the gentlest cat she's ever seen. So gentle he's allowed into the chicken coop and the hens don't even make a peep about it. Bob let me hold him for about 10 minutes before he leaped down and snowplowed through the drifts up to the warm barn.
While I was there, Annie allowed that kindness was the most important quality in interactions between people. And it was clear that animals are people too.