[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]
Several years ago Chicago-area attorney Joyce Mims offered land she owned, Hidden Haven Farm, an hour and a half from the city, to two different agriculture initiatives based in Chicago. The two projects grew out of different contexts, both with a commitment to social justice. One was God’s Gang, initiated by Carolyn Thomas, along with family and friends, to distribute and grow food for her community in the CHA’s Robert Taylor Homes. The other was On The Fly Farm, a project of anarchist organizer, fair-trade coffee roaster and tax-resister David Meyers. Eventually they would be joined by Foxglove Farm, an initiative of Sara Jean McHugh and Eric Brose from Chicago, and the Lampkins, a family from nearby Northern Indiana who raise horses. Recently, the farmhouse on the land has been named the Chicory Center, and opened as a retreat facility to urban activists. It is an excellent setting for events such as the AREA co-sponsored Hoedown for Justice, a music fest in September 2009 that raised money for the Chicago Women’s Health Center and the Just Farming Small Farmers Confederation.
In the mid 1990s, Mims purchased the land for her horses. Its potential grew in her imagination as she envisioned leaving her corporate job to become a farmer. At first it was just on the weekends. Then for a few seasons she left her job to be full time on the land. After another few years of weekend farming, she decided it was no longer viable for her financially. The back and forth between her job, dealing with the Evanston restaurant that purchased her produce, and farm work, was too much. Mims posted an announcement to thelandconnection.org, hoping to attract a farmer who would treat the land right. She was willing to offer the land to them for free. For years, nobody responded.
In 2005, David Meyers had been ousted by a landlord from the land he had been farming in another Michigan town. Meanwhile, God’s Gang’s central Illinois farmer had passed away, leaving them without land. At the same time Meyers noticed Mims’s posting and excitedly called her, a secretary at her office had been telling her about God’s Gang and their need for land. Meyers and Thomas, who had spoken a year before about farming together, happened to contact Mims independently the same week. “In the same week at the same time,” Thomas says, “talking about the same land, I called David about it, and he was calling me to tell me about it!”
The two sets of people started cultivating plots and developing skills side by side. Hailing from different communities, subcultures, and world-views, they literally find common ground at Hidden Haven. Two groups became three when some of David’s farm volunteers from the local punk and anarchist scene started their own community supported agriculture (CSA) project: Foxglove Farms was born in 2008.
So how does working on this land work? Do you all work together?
David Meyers: I’ve had experiences working with people with diverse motivations, and I have my own politics, so I was firmly committed to the idea that we start out working as independent entities, rather than throw a bunch of diverse ideas into a bucket and try to sort it out. God’s Gang was not trying to make a living from farming. Because of my war tax resisting, I was trying to make a real income from farming, and those different aims do not mesh well. So I suggested that we form a “confederation.” That word does not necessarily travel well outside of anarchism because of associations with the Old South. But nobody had any objections. That is how the Just Farming Small Farmers Confederation came to be.
I know other farmers in other places where people have this kind of arrangement—someone has land and they let other farmers use it. And generally, you’ve got to keep the owners in check. Generally people with land and power—they are used to knowing how to do things. But Joyce was really easy to talk to. Now Joyce’s vision (and remember there are many visions for this place—mine, Carolyn’s, Sara Jean’s, Eric’s, etc.), is really happening. Her eyes are lit up every time she hears about the cooperation that happens on this land. When I told her about working with Marcus from God’s Gang to learn how to use the tractor and how much he enjoyed it, she was overjoyed. Because it’s not about us making names for ourselves as farmers, it’s about everybody fulfilling their potential. Here it happens to be on a farm.
Now something that has bigger implications beyond this farm. It’s hard to think clearly about land reform in the U.S. that is specific to this context and not borrowing from examples in other contexts, such as Latin America. But with the economy the way it is, it’s going to happen sooner or later. So we might as well think about some way it can happen that is healthy, as opposed to some way that would be exploitative. So what I have discussed with Joyce is that we need more people like her and her husband Jack who are willing to have low-income people, radicals, artists, etc.—come and use their land. This should happen on a larger scale. We have it working on a small scale, but through connections that people have to wealthy Chicagoans with land out here—maybe it could be much larger. Between God’s Gang, Foxglove, and myself, we know thousands of different people in the city who would love to work on this land out here.
Can you talk about what it’s like to work on land where there are different people doing their own thing? Does it affect what you do?
Carolyn Thomas: When we first ordered the garlic, and Joyce came out, there must have been seven of us out one day. Planting took us all day. And the next day, I think Joyce and David, in like two hours, had planted as much garlic as all of us had done the day before.
It just hit me: if you are going to do this, just do it at a pace. Just accept it for what it is. We do what we can, on the days we can, and that’s going to be it. So I don’t have all those expectations anymore. I still want us to progress, I want it to be right, but I’m on a totally different timetable, especially since my last surgery. It’s a leisurely place. Because if we get upset and impatient, the stress of that is enough to kill you! You know what I’m saying? We understand the values that we learn each day that we’re up there.
When we started at Hidden Haven, we went up there and just picked—I’ll take this end, you take this end. It didn’t matter to me, because we don’t know what we’re doing anyway! We’re just planting and watching it grow. We let the Lord take it on. If you leave it like that, it really becomes a labor of love.
David has marvelous food, just the most beautiful food. We set our standard by what David comes out with. That first year he had me out there in February, and there was snow. And we were planting snow peas, in the snow. And I’m like, David, I do not understand this. And they were the greatest peas, just the greatest peas!
What about the cooperation and feeding off of each other? What interactions have you had with David and God’s Gang?
Sara Jean McHugh (from Foxglove Farm): David has helped us so much. He plowed for us, and I think this summer we feel like we are actually giving back a little bit to him. Last year, when we first were getting started, doing our deliveries, we didn’t have much because we had just started learning what was growing, and it’s sandy soil so it’s pretty specific stuff—certain plants just won’t grow there. So if he had extra produce, he would give it to us so we had enough for our deliveries. That was really nice of him.
As far as God’s Gang goes, the first time we actually sat down and talked to them was a few months ago when we had a meeting. We let them know that we can help with stuff if they ever need it. They have a lot of work going on. They have chickens and geese out there, so we helped take care of the chickens and geese when we go out. They grow a lot of garlic, we don’t grow any garlic, so we talked about maybe buying their garlic as a way of cooperating and supporting them.
For us, we all sat down and thought, what can we do to help each other? I think the main possibility between God’s Gang and us is, what crops are you going to have an excess of that we don’t grow, and that we could potentially buy from you?
These interviews are from a forthcoming book Farm Together Now, by Amy Franceschini and Daniel Tucker with photo essays by Anne Hamersky documenting the work of 20 activist farmers across the country. The book will be released by Chronicle Books in Fall 2010.
Thanks to Ashley Weger for transcription.