I’ve been at Sandhill 33 years; our membership has averaged 5-8 members during that time. Several years ago, we noted that our average age was about 50 and rising – that did not appear sustainable. We made an effort to recruit younger members (which we had done in the past w/o much success); this time, it worked!
The current average age of our adult members is about 40; however, that is only part of the story. Equally important is how to transfer managerial responsibilities and a feeling of ownership from older to younger members? It is happening! Laird and I are the only ones over 40 here; Laird has been passing off/over most of his responsibilities over the last decade or so: he has been away from the farm for about half of the time (due to his role in the FIC and his work as a process consultant/teacher), and so others have taken on the work he used to do. He still does our tax filing, but Joe did it with Laird this year and is in training.
The issue of how to transition responsibility/management to newer members has a lot of challenges. My personal experience: I have been managing field crops (wheat, oats, sorghum, beans, popcorn, field corn, green manure crops), honey bees, sorghum processing (this is our signature crop), other food processing for sale (condiments), organic certification, equipment maintenance (including chain saws, plumbing, vehicles, tractors, flour mills, wood stoves), and marketing. I figgered that when I did pass on these managerial areas it would be to several people and that the hardest one to pass on would be farming (field crops). A saying I came up with: it takes a long time to grow a farmer… we’ve had some very good folks becoming farmers: Grady, Dianne, Jules, Jonathon. And now there is Mica – she appears has a knack for it: a combination of intuition, attention to detail, a basic sense of mechanics, and excellent problem solving skills. She is well on the way to taking on management of field crops, honey bees, and a lot of the maintenance. As an example: the combine is the most complicated piece of farm equipment that we operate (to harvest all of our grain & cover crops ). I always made sure that I was on the farm whenever we needed to use the combine – until this last summer. The wheat harvest was early – so Mica did it all. We talked on the phone a few times, but in the end, she “got it”. She did all the adjustments and harvesting – yahoo!! And – on her end: I’m sure she feels a tremendous sense of empowerment in knowing she can do it. As she puts it, I learn the most when you are gone.
Joe helps Mica with a lot of the farm work. They share doing most of the maintenance work. Similarly, Mica is managing most of the bee work: I still love to go out and visit the bees whenever I am at home during the season (& give my input), but in the end, she now does most of the managing.
the garden is an important component of sandhill: we depend on the gardens for most of our own food, our interns come mostly to learn about growing and preserving food (canning, freezing, drying, as well as growing extra produce to sell and/or process into products for sale). The gardens are also a symbol/signature for the farm: we try to be a model of sustainable agriculture: encompassing growing our own food and to sell to make a living. At this time, most of our sales come from processed foods: sorghum, honey, mustard; however, our produce sales have been climbing steadily in the last few years.
bottom line: this last year, the garden management was shared by Trish, Sara, & Jon – all relatively new members. Garden management has transitioned to the next generation.
Finances & accounting is now managed by Mica & Trish – another smooth transition.
Maple syrup: we do not sell maple syrup; it is for our own consumption and we also boil down the sap for our neighbors – dancing rabbit & redearth farms. This year, Joe took it on and fully managed it.
Firewood: we burn a lot of firewood. We heat three different residences with it and use a lot to cook sorghum & maple. Mica came to Sandhill from Twin Oaks in VA; there, she was a member of the forestry crew – main function was to provide firewood for the community. Mica is now managing forestry (firewood) at sandhill. In a sense, forestry feels like a more encompassing term than firewood: the former connotes managing the woods ecosystem for health and contributing to the farm whereas the latter is more the desired product of the former. In my experience here, what we actually do out in the woods is the same; however, I also value having the paradigm of healthy management, sustainability, yadda yadda yadda.
Aha. Sounds like paradise, eh? I am describing success after success & smooth sailing.
And honestly, for the most part, it is/has been.
Now, for a current wrinkle: I am the old man at the commune (I’m 67). In all this transition, I am also transitioning out of a lot of the manual labor; however, this last winter, all of the other members had various body issues: back, shoulder, arm, etc. In the end, who felt totally comfortable running the chainsaw this winter? You guessed it! the old man. I feel totally blessed that I am able to contribute in a very physical way & that my body is totally up to it! hallelujah!
Another personal note:
In all this transition, what do I do now? For decades, I spent my time/energy on the farm; and now? The less work I do on the farm, the more I do off the farm: namely, organic inspections. I am spending a lot of road time on inspections and when I am at home, I am often in my room/office doing inspection reports, making plans for the next inspection trip, etc. Currently, it suits me well: I get to be with farmers a lot of the time and still keep my pulse on our own farm/operation. The down side: it’s a lot of paperwork (actually, computer time).