Servant Leadership in Cooperative Business: Stirring It Up at East Wind Nut Butters

originally published in Communities magazine, issue #175, Summer, 2017

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East Wind Community is a founding member of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) in the hills of the Ozarks. East Wind Nut Butters, founded in 1981, is equally owned and operated by the members of East Wind Community and is currently its dominant source of income. East Wind Nut Butters produces peanut, almond, cashew, and sesame seed butters. East Wind Community is composed of 73 members who live on over 1000 acres of beautifully forested land.

Here I am again, sitting at a desk dazed by a big bright monitor. Scrutinizing spreadsheets. Writing emails. Staring at the weather. How did I allow this to happen? I came to East Wind to get away from all this, didn’t I? That is what I thought I wanted, at least. Of course, everything besides the familiar humming of a computer and the ringing of phones is different.

After graduating from the honors business school at Indiana University in 2012 I didn’t have many plans. While my friends sought higher education and high paying jobs I had little interest in either. Disillusioned with the state of the world and the society I grew up in I came to desire an alternative to what I was observing on a daily basis. Three years and some Google searches later my discovery of IC.org led me to schedule visitor periods at East Wind and Twin Oaks.

In March of 2015 I made the two-day bus journey towards southern Missouri to make my intrepid first visit to a fully income-sharing community. A month before, my year stint as a secretary for a small family business ended when I decided to pursue this incredibly different path. That tiny amount of time spent in the office workforce of America proved to be invaluable in the role I was soon to fill.

Nearly immediately I fell in love with East Wind. The land, the people, the sense of opportunity and promise. After visiting East Wind and Twin Oaks for “official” visitor periods and checking a number of places in between I knew that East Wind was where I wanted to be.

I lived and labored at East Wind for about seven months as a “working guest on the waiting list.” Essentially this meant that because the membership of East Wind was at its legislated full capacity of 73 people I had to wait to become a member. Benefits such as having a room, receiving a $150 dividend each month and full medical coverage did not apply to me. However, I also was not beholden to the rules concerning working for East Wind’s dominant business: East Wind Nut Butters. All members who wish to receive their monthly dividend must work a set number of hours (the “Industrial Quotient” or simply “IQ”) each week. This number is determined by the General Management Team of the business and ranges from zero to eight. I was not required and in fact was discouraged from working IQ hours during my time as a working guest.

For a young man looking to learn about food production and homesteading this could not have been a better arrangement. East Wind’s weekly labor quota is 35 hours. These hours can manifest from gardening, cow milking, building maintenance, cooking, cleaning, working in the business (“IQ” hours), and a plethora of other things that community values as useful labor. Without the burden of having to work in the business (I worked just three factory shifts in the first seven months I lived at East Wind) I was free to pursue passions known and unknown. Gardening, woodworking, cow milking, cart building and maintenance, and food processing consumed both my mind and body. I could not get enough and learned more practical skills than I had in my 24 years prior.

This time was precious. Finding friends. Bonding with an amazing new partner. Coming into my own as an adult. Easing into the idea of East Wind being home. My existence was relatively carefree and I was grateful to have found such a special place. Not being a member meant that no serious responsibilities fell upon my shoulders.

Often, while sitting at this desk in front of this ridiculous screen, I am reminded of my college days. Listening to Ratatat, Beethoven, anything nonlyrical really and reading, studying, analyzing. Except this is an actual challenge. This is the real world. Decisions with consequences. Responsibility and accountability to oneself and others. No grades, just results and outcomes. I am a manager. I am an entrepreneur. These are the roles I play at East Wind. A business with three million dollars in sales a year can’t exist long without a group of people taking on particular niches and holding such positions to maintain stability and continuity.

An active sales manager and a vision of where the business was heading were desperately needed when I first began working in the office for Nut Butters. Everything else was already in place. Delicious and nutritious nut butters made fresh in daily batches. A production team composed of experienced and talented individuals working together to manufacture tried and true, simple and wholesome, one- and two-ingredient products. A meticulously managed warehouse full of almond, cashew, peanut, and sesame seed butter. An established regional brand with an impeccable food safety record.

East Wind Nut Butters was doing everything right in terms of producing high quality staple foods, but its major failing was in being sluggishly responsive to an increasingly competitive health food market. In 1981, when the business was founded, all-natural and organic peanut butter was a true novelty. Look at your grocery store shelf today and you’ll see that today’s market is saturated with more nut butter brands and varieties than ever before. All-natural, organic, claims of “Superfood!,” etc. abound. It’s easy for a small brand that relies on word of mouth and that barely advertises to get lost in all the marketing noise.

One of the first decisions I made after being elected as the General Manager and Sales Manager of Nut Butters was to change our label vendor. Going with a smaller, more local printer reduced costs significantly and also made changing the labels less of a hassle. East Wind has always relied on the quality of their products and word of mouth to maintain business. I liked that the advertising budget was incredibly minimal. I don’t like the idea of “selling” someone on something they don’t need. However, marketing nutritious staple foods to the general public is sufficiently palatable to my ethical standards. Making clear on our labels why East Wind Nut Butters is different than the other brands was a top priority. “Single Ingredient: 100% US grown Valencia peanuts.” This phrase would have meant very little to me two years ago. Until recently I was unaware of the fact that most peanuts are imported from China and India and that there are many different varieties of peanuts. The nice thing about US-grown Valencia peanuts is that when you roast and mill them they make a nice, thick, nutrient-dense peanut butter. With Chinese peanuts there is a need to add things like palm oil, hydrogenated oil, excess salt, and sugar to make the peanut butter something a person might actually find tasty, though still not something a health-conscious person would want to put in their body.

Making slight changes to our labels is a relatively small decision in the grand scheme of things. What about expanding business? A larger facility and new products? Radically changing the business model? These are all considerations that any entrepreneur thinks about. When to scale up. When to drop products and when to introduce new ones. All of these bigger decisions have a context. Context is of the utmost importance for any business. I am one of 73 equal owners in this business. I am not a Silicon Valley cowboy with angel investors and a dream. Keeping a level head close to the Earth is my top asset. Any big project needs to be thoroughly thought out in the full context of East Wind. More than that, it needs to be effectively communicated if it is ever to become a reality.

If you want to make a major organizational change and have this change be effective you need to communicate clearly to those who will be affected. Such an effort cannot be a top-down, out-of-the-blue affair. Constantly eliciting feedback and figuring out the priorities of a community of 73 people takes a lot of time and energy. Communication attempted by an individual to an entire community can be difficult and it is in this realm that I still have much to learn. Patience and planning are prerequisite to any ambitious endeavor in this setting.

East Wind meetings can be boring by their very nature. No one intends them to be, of course. They require a lot of deliberation, and involve long spans of waiting to speak. The standard meeting, in which we rotate through single speakers talking and everyone else listening, is not the most efficient way of discussing a multi-faceted idea. Redundancy and tangential lines of thought quickly dampen any sense of momentum. On occasion, I am reminded of how I felt during Occupy Bloomington circles.

Typically, less than a third of the community is in attendance for community meetings. All meetings must be proposed by a member of the community and 10 percent of all members must sign the proposal to get the meeting scheduled. At some points in the year there will be no meetings “on the stack” and weeks go by without having an “official” community meeting. At other points there is a lengthy list of issues—policies on how common spaces are used, an idea to repurpose a defunct building, policies on pets—and very consistent weekly meetings. Many meetings see less than a third of the community participate. Not everyone cares to spend an afternoon talking about things that may not affect their lives much.

The most contentious issues and votes are the most well-attended. Budget meetings and membership votes pique plenty of people’s interest, but even for these I’ve learned to expect no more than half of the community to be in attendance. The format of the meeting, the weather on the day of the meeting, and the location of the meeting have a significant impact on how many people attend and how productive the meeting is. The meeting format at East Wind that has become commonplace is by no means set in stone and those with the energy and the will find more creative ways of percolating their ideas through the collective East Wind conscience. Exploring this art can be vexing. I have come to believe that the commune setting is the ultimate teacher due to its all-encompassing scope. How can humans live with each other? What type of society are we shaping? How are we to live?

Such considerations are rarely given much time or energy in the majority of the corporate world. Really simple ideas like growth and monetary profit dominate. By ignoring the living Earth and the interests of others it becomes possible to make decisions that are close-to-optimal through that limited lens. It’s easy when you look at numbers on a spreadsheet and all you have to do is maximize profit. Clearcut rainforest and cheap palm oil, abused workers and cheap imports—if you don’t see these things and don’t think about these things then it is easy to go about your day in a society that rewards you for your “success.” The ability to deny is a strong evolutionary trait. It exists within all of us. It can allow us to make sense of this world. It can allow us to make sense of this world in the worst ways. Feeding into these habits is a culture founded upon endless growth and destruction; a culture of convenience and consumption; a technoutopia of iPhone cults and pick-your-own realities created by a web of social media platforms.

Forgive my digression. Where I came from, what I was born into reminds me of what I wish to avoid passing down to succeeding generations. My motivation is in building something; building upon an inheritance that many lay claim to. We stand on the shoulders of giants. My contribution to this legacy, whether footnote or volume, remains to be seen. The manner in which I manage East Wind Nut Butters defines me, both externally and internally, whether I like it or not. Respect for a job well done is accepted awkwardly. Scorn for a mistake, typically self-inflicted, is not taken lightly. The trap of thinking that my work in the business is, in isolation, my most important role in community is an easy one to fall into.

The delusions of grandeur that consume my ego at times are not always useful. A solid block of manual labor working in the garden or a grounded conversation with a fellow communard soon alleviates the problem. For this relief I am grateful. Ambition that is constantly checked is potently transformative. This has been my experience at East Wind. Leaders here are servants, and servants are leaders. I am one of many and in this I find comfort. We live to serve. It sounds religious or like a corporate tagline, but the sentiment is sound. Serving each other. Serving your landbase and watershed. Serving the living systems that allow for your existence.

What is it to lead in community? It is subtle. It is pronounced. It is the patience and foresight to wait for the right time and let energies flow organically. Generally, people want to help and people want to make things happen. For the biggest projects it is a matter of anticipating the roadblocks and the bottlenecks and eliminating or reducing them to maintain high participation and morale. My two years at East Wind have been sufficient to accumulate a small amount of wisdom on the matter. Two more will bring a greater grasp. Everything in due time.

As I sit here at this desk listening to Washed Out and finishing up an email by click clacking on the keyboard I take a break to stare out the window and ponder possible futures. I have never experienced such optimism and passion for life. Total engagement. This weird and wonderful place, this income-sharing commune has provided the environment, the proper context, for my potential to become kinetic. Where am I? Where is East Wind? Where shall we head?

Sumner is a 26-year-old white male attempting to live a moral life in an age of decline. He desires to create and build. Gardening, cow milking, maintaining East Wind’s fleet of hand carts, and dishwashing are some of his favorite labors. In his downtime he plays various card and board games or spends time with his lovely boyfriend. On nice sunny afternoons you will find him and his friends along East Wind’s mile of Lick Creek. Recently, he has become enthralled with birding and taking pictures of our avian friends. By the time this article is published you should be able to see some of his bird pictures, amongst many others, on the eastwind.org website.

 

 

Servant Leadership in Cooperative Business: Stirring It Up at East Wind Nut Butters

New Pantry

from the East Wind Blog, July 10, 2017

Stocking a kitchen that serves the needs of over seventy people requires a lot of space for food storage. Steps away from Rock Bottom (our community’s main kitchen and dining hall) we have two stand alone buildings for food storage: a walk-in refrigerator (‘the walk-in’) and dry storage. East Wind now enjoys a newly constructed dry storage building thanks to the helping hands of many community members.

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Beckie making a cut at the site of the new building

Beckie, a member for over twenty years, planned and led the construction of the building from demolition of the old structure to completion of the new. The biggest challenge for her was preparing for and executing the pouring of a large concrete slab that was required to support the new building, which is more than twice the size of the previous dry storage structure.

EWP2Pouring of the slab, to the left you can see the ‘walk-in’ (walk-in refrigerator) and to the right is Rock Bottom (kitchen and dining hall)

The pour went well and the concrete provides a large thermal mass that helps to passively regulate the temperature along with the high ceilings and wall vents. Beckie, having decades of experience in construction and building maintenance, and the skillful hands of JR and Wild Horse were able to finish raising the walls and roof in short order.

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JR to the left and Wild Horse on the right installing tin roof

With the actual construction of the building finished there remained the electric, laying out the interior, and all the little finishing touches. Beckie’s son Wes, born and raised at East Wind, along with his grandfather Ed ran all the electric lines. Boone and Tony put in place shelving and a large rack of drawers. Winter painted the exterior walls to match Rock Bottom’s forty year old aesthetic (custom color tin was ordered for the roof for this same purpose). The small details are still being worked on to beautify the space and make most efficient use of it.

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Wood burned signs to be placed on each spice drawer

The new dry storage offers ample space for two freezers and yards and yards of shelf space. Everyone is free to take what they need, but don’t forget to close the door behind you! In addition to this facility, two new shower houses are currently under construction, this is certainly a building year for East Wind.

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Now that’s one gigantic pantry! A big thank you to Beckie and everyone who put time in on this project!

Post and photos by Sumner

New Pantry

Fifty Years of Communes in America

Twin Oaks fiftieth anniversary was last week.  I didn’t go.

My friend, Aurora, who was there told me that Rudy, one of the Twin Oaks founders, spoke and said that when Twin Oaks was founded (in 1967), they thought a revolution was possible in their lifetime and one of the purposes of Twin Oaks was to show how people could live after the revolution.

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Rudy speaking

Another founder, Kat Kinkade, wrote (in her book, A Walden Two Experiment): “When we first came here we knew nothing of farming or any other way of making a living, other than working for wages in the city.  Some of us had never even done that.  What we did know is what kind of world we wanted to live in.

“…the central idea of the Community has not changed.  We are still after the big dream–a better world, here and now, for as many people as we can manage to support.  More, a new kind of human to live in that world: happy, productive, open-minded people who understand that in the long run, human good is a cooperative and not a competitive sort of thing.”

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Dinner at Twin Oaks

And, slowly, the influence of Twin Oaks began to create that kind of world, at least on a communal level.

In 1974, two more communes started.

In a piece in Communities magazine’s most recent issue (Summer, 2017), Laird Schaub wrote about the founding of Sandhill community:  “In February 1973 I was in a public library and happened across the current issue of Psychology Today.  It included an excerpt from a new book by Kat Kinkade, A Walden Two Experiment.  It described the first five years of Twin Oaks Community, and it changed my life.  …

“Because Twin Oaks was the inspiration and because I’d already done a fair amount of work to reject materialism, we set up Sandhill as an income sharing community, where all earnings would be pooled.”

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Around the same time, at Twin Oaks, they were having problems with getting more people than they thought they could support.  Kat Kinkade tells the rest of the story in her book, Is It Utopia Yet?

“Twin Oaks closed its doors.  It had as many people as it could comfortably hold.  …

“I would gladly have lived in a tent, eaten in shifts, and built sewage treatment on borrowed money, in order to see Twin Oaks answer the challenge of that supply of potential members.  I saw that lineup at our front door, people people eager to join, possibly hundreds of them but certainly dozens, and my response was a whole-hearted welcome–more than that, an excitement, a sense of grabbing history by the tail, a promise of a future community on a scale approaching Walden Two.

“… The rest of that story is the history of East Wind.  I left Twin Oaks, taking two members and some visitors with me, and we set out to form another community which would be like Twin Oaks in every way except one: we would never close our doors!”

East Wind, like Twin Oaks and Sandhill, continues to this day.  But Kat left East Wind after five years, spent four years working in Boston, and then returned to Twin Oaks.

 

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REIM, one of the original structures at East Wind

In 1993, Twin Oaks was faced with another long waiting list.  Kat Kinkade wrote (again from Is It Utopia Yet?):  “In some ways it feels like 1972 all over again.  The big difference is that this time I’m not alone in feeling the urgency of the problem. …

“The only politically practical solution I could see was to start another community, the same conclusion that had, years ago, resulted in the founding of East Wind. …

“It took eight months to accomplish this.  Two other communitarians, Gordon and Ira, joined me in an informal committee to get the new group off the ground.

“… Gordon’s untiring research eventually netted us a rundown but potentially beautiful farm about seven miles from Twin Oaks.  Thanks to Ira’s efforts, Twin Oaks consented to let the potential members have two gatherings…

“Acorn Community was founded April 1, 1993…”

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Acorn land

 

I’ve quoted a lot from Kat Kinkade, and she might have exaggerated her importance in the founding of all these communities, but it seems clear that Twin Oaks directly influenced East Wind and Acorn, and indirectly Sandhill.

When I was at Acorn, I found out things did not go smoothly from the founding.  Apparently, at one point they were down to six members and later went down to two members.  (Acorn currently has almost thirty members and is thriving.) When I asked someone who had been a long time member at both Twin Oaks and Acorn how Acorn had survived, I was told: “Two things: Ira and Twin Oaks.”  Ira Wallace is amazing and determined, but Twin Oaks, having been instrumental in founding Acorn, was not going to let it die.

There are now three newer communes near Twin Oaks and Acorn and, although each of them has been struggling at times, I feel confident that they will make it, because they all have the support of both Twin Oaks and Acorn.

Not all communities make it.  Two of the newer communities that were featured this past year in Commune Life haven’t succeeded.  Quercus is gone and Sycamore Farm is no longer in southern Virginia.  The founders of both of these communities have told me that they’d be interested in writing the story of what happened, when they get time.  (A line that I’ve heard from many busy communards.)

Then there was the Dandelion community in Kingston, Ontario, which was influenced by Twin Oaks, and founded in the 1970s and disbanded around 1990.  I would love to have the story of what happened there.  Nevertheless, Commune Life has been able to have pieces on two current Canadian income sharing communities, The Common Unity Project and le Manoir.

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Photo from Dandelion Community

And there are a bunch of new income sharing communities in the US.

There’s Oran Mór, which is near East Wind in southern Missouri, and the Stillwater Sanctuary/Possibility Alliance, near Sandhill Farm in northern Missouri.  And there is Compersia, in Washington, DC, which just celebrated its one year anniversary in March.  It is the first community spun out of Point A, which is a project that was founded by some Acorn and Twin Oaks members.

And all this traces back to the founding of Twin Oaks, fifty years ago.  Yes, there is a longer, wider world communal history, which the folks at las Indias sent us some of.  And, yes, there were income sharing communities in the US long before Twin Oaks.  (Though, sadly, Oneida and Amana have been gone for many years.)

But Twin Oaks is now fifty, has a hundred members, and is going strong.  For the people who question whether another world is truly possible, I say, “Yes. Look at Twin Oaks.”

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Twin Oaks fiftieth anniversary photo

 

 

Fifty Years of Communes in America

Allowance versus Box of Money

There are not very many places that do secular income sharing.  But those that do come in two broad flavors.  For those of us who spend a lot of time talking about income sharing, these two different approaches are sometimes given the shorthand “Box of Money” and “Allowance”.

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All full income sharing systems are in agreement about communalizing the vast majority of expenses:  Medical expenses, food, housing, clothing, education, transportation, costs connected with children, pets, various emergencies – these are all covered.  Everything that falls solidly onto the “needs” side of the sometimes vague needs vs wants divide is covered. It is the small things and the things at the needs/wants margin where we struggle.

Should i be paying for your beer (especially when i don’t drink)?  Should i be paying for your vacation to the beach?  At Twin Oaks we have “solved” this problem by giving our members an allowance which is typically around $100 per month.  You want to smoke cigarettes, you can have up to a $100 habit.  You have to be at the premier of the latest Marvel superhero movie, that is your discretionary call.  By giving people allowances, the commune avoids having to agree on a whole bunch of small, and oft divisive issues.

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The more radical solution is the infamous “box of money”.  In a number of European communes, including some of the larger ones, there is a physical box of money and when you need some, you go take it.  Sometimes you need to write down what you took it for, in other places there is less concern about this.  But if you are using this approach, you are agreeing to have whatever conversations and consensus is necessary for everyone to trust each other enough to let them spend the money they need to spend to live the life they want to lead.

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In the US, the existing “box of money” communes are smaller.  Compersia in DC, Sandhill in Missouri.  Allowance based communes include Twin Oaks, East Wind and Acorn, the largest three members of the FEC.  Although Acorn, with its anarchist orientation, straddles the boundary by empowering any member to spend up to $50 on anything for the community that they think is a good deal.  In the three years i lived there i did not hear anyone complain at a meeting that someone had misused this privilege.

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Some of the trade offs between the “allowance” and “box of money” systems are obvious, but many we are still exploring. We know that using an “allowance” system makes room for differences of opinion to exist without being resolved or even seriously addressed. Is that a good thing because it saves time and preserves privacy or a bad thing because it doesn’t drive us towards mutual understanding and critical reflection? We know that using “box of money” system allows for a greater diversity of spending patterns and priorities among members. Is that a good thing because it more easily makes room for people from diverse backgrounds and in diverse situations or a bad thing because it doesn’t drive us always back into the communal economy, looking for ways to meet our needs with each other rather than with money? As more examples are created here in the States and as we build better bridges of communication across the Atlantic our understanding of the dynamics of egalitarian, cooperative economies can only flourish.

Allowance versus Box of Money

Spring Garden Update

from the East Wind Community blog, May 8, 2017

Spring in Ozark County has arrived with the thunderous roar of hail and heavy rain. The rainfall has caused a record shattering high water crest for Norfork Lake and has heavily damaged a number of bridges including Tecumseh Bridge which is only a few miles from East Wind. Some plants and trees have sustained hail damage, but the bigger issue has been the long periods of overcast and rain that don’t allow for sufficient sunlight and warmth for good growth as well as making it more difficult to work in the beds and prepare for transplanting all the summer crops out of the greenhouse. May is usually the busiest time of the year in the garden and hundreds and hundreds of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants will need to be transplanted in the coming week.

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Veteran Garden Managers Richard and Petey are leading up the 2017 season. First visiting East Wind within one month of each other these greenthumbs have been members for just under a decade. Richard has held an affinity for identifying trees and observing plants since he was a child. Petey has a passion for holistic gardening and a fondness for the living world. Sharing a desire for nutrient dense homegrown food this duo, with the support and help of many other East Winders both past and present, established the Lower Garden and effectively doubled the size of East Wind’s gardens. In combination with the seventy foot hoophouse  built in the fall of 2015 East Wind’s vegetable production has increased greatly in the last five years. Homegrown tomatoes are now available year round (including canned, of course). Homegrown potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, okra, sweet peppers, and strawberries are all available at least six months out of the year.

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This season’s garden plan is similar to last season’s in terms of amounts grown. The hoophouse has early slicer tomatoes, three varieties of heat resistant broccoli hybrids, Romanesco broccoli, early cauliflower, and a number of cabbage varieties in the ground and beginning to bear fruit. Cucumbers and sweet peppers are also coming along. Lettuces, arugula, and salad turnips have been produced continuously via succession planting through the Winter into Spring. The hoophouse’s crops were completely protected from the 3/4 inch hail East Wind experienced recently.

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Out in the Main Garden and Lower Garden peas, carrots, beets, turnips, lettuce, potatoes, garlic, onions, bush beans, cucumbers, zucchinis, and parsnips are all in the ground. The first strawberry of the year was picked in mid April and the expanded patch promises to be very productive this season once we get some warmer and dryer weather. Richard is pleased to find that chestnut trees he began planting in 2010 have started to produce. The onion patch is located in the Lower Garden this year and transplants of onions planted in late Fall out of the hoophouse are off to a strong start compared to onions started late Winter in the greenhouse. Unfortunately, during the heaviest storm water saturated the ground of the greenhouse and this was just enough for one table of tomatoes to fall over. Only one or two plants were destroyed immediately and many are damaged, but the survivors should recover just fine. The increasingly erratic climate in this warming world is one more thing that needs to be expected and planned for.

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All in all it looks like another great garden season for East Wind. Petey is excited to have more storage areas like our new dry storage building (blog post coming soon, stay tuned!) and a small climate controlled insulated storage room. More produce, more storage, more wholesome food throughout the year. The enjoyment of gardening goes hand in hand with the enjoyment of eating fresh picked homegrown vegetables. A big thank you to everyone who helps out in the garden!

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Post and pictures by Sumner

Spring Garden Update

A Cornucopia of Communes

Pictures of most of the communities featured in Commune Life over the last year.  (All communes are in US states unless otherwise noted.)

Acorn, Mineral, VA:

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Baltimore Free Farm, Baltimore, MD:

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Cambia, Louisa, VA:

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Compersia, Washington, DC:

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East Wind, Tecumseh, MO:

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las Indias, Madrid, Spain:

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Living Energy Farm, Louisa, VA:

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Oran MórSquires, MO:

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Quercus (disbanded), Richmond, VA:

Porch music jam on our snazy palette-finished porch

Rainforest Lab, Forks, WA:

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Sandhill Farm, Rutledge, MO:

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Sycamore Farm, Arcadia, VA:

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The Common Unity Project (TCUP),  Gitxsan Territory, Hazelton, BC (Canada):

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Twin Oaks, Louisa, VA:

ZK

 

 

 

A Cornucopia of Communes

East Wind Dairy

 

This article is an amalgamation of interviews with current dairy managers Liuda and Ish as well as the author’s own experience milking cows three times a week for the past year at East Wind.

In the past ten years the ever changing cultural landscape of East Wind has been shifting in many ways towards a focus on self-sufficiency. The obvious starting point in the path to self-sufficiency is food production. Large gardens, an orchard, beef herd, pigs, chickens, and deer hunting are all important ways the community gets nutrient dense calories. One of the most successful food production ventures has been the current dairy cow program which started five years ago with the construction of the dairy barn.

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The dairy barn in summer, 2016.

The dairy barn, small by any commercial standard, has a stanchion that can hold three cows at a time. Marmalade and Josephine were the only two dairy cows on the farm upon completion of the barn. Currently, there are five milking cows and two heifers (both currently pregnant). A great number of people have shaped and influenced how the dairy program developed and made it what it is today.

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Liuda puts the milking machine onto Jackie Brown as Shannell brushes her.

Ish (‘Ishmael’) and Liuda have been involved in the dairy program for years and have been the elected dairy managers for the past year. Liuda graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2012 with a bachelor’s of science in Animal Sciences. As she was weighing her options between going to grad school and looking for a job a friend invited her to visit East Wind. Liuda took her friend up on the offer and did a visitor period. She was impressed with how things had changed since she lived at East Wind in the early 2000s. Seeing an opportunity to pursue her passion for working with animals she decided to stay. Ish came to East Wind around the same time as Liuda and desired to get away from the city of St Louis to learn about producing food. He initially spent most of his time working in the gardens before taking a more focused interest on the dairy program. Both Liuda and Ish continue to learn an immense amount about cow health and pasture management through their first hand experience, reading, and consulting vets, farmers, and the local university extension office.

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Ish strips Marmalade to get her ready for the milking machine.

Ish and Liuda’s biggest goals are to establish a line of hardier milkers (Red Poll and Jersey mixes) and move away from grain to a near 100% grass fed diet for all the cows. Of course, there are the day to day challenges of managing both the cows and the people on each milking shift. Liuda recalls how early on the turnover in milking shifts could make things difficult with so many new people needing to be trained. Currently the milking crew is well established and milking shifts are sought after by many in community, especially newcomers. There are two milking shifts a day and each has two workers usually called ‘milkers.’ Shifts can take from about an hour up to about two and a half hours at the longest, depending on how many cows are in the milking rotation. The raw, unpasteurized milk from each shift is brought up the hill and refrigerated. Milk is commonly used for cheese and yogurt production as well as being available to refill the milk dispenser in the kitchen (of course, the rich cream is available for coffee drinkers and cooks).

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The milk from each cow is weighed and recorded every shift.

The diet of a dairy cow is the key component in determining the quality of the milk she will produce. Cow’s milk is going to directly reflect whatever is fed to the cow. The East Wind dairy has moved away from store bought dairy ration and now produces its own fermented ration from oats (and any used beer grains if available), sunflowers, molasses, water, and yeast. The fermented grain is a cost effective solution for non-GMO food that is more digestible, has a higher protein content, and food based fats and minerals (as opposed to the common practice in industrial operations of synthetically adding animal fats to dairy ration). Since undertaking this transition it has been observed that the cows put on weight better and their milk is richer due to an increase in the butterfat content. The milk also tastes a bit sweeter due to the new fermented diet. Organic peanuts and peanut skin ‘waste’ resulting from peanut butter production in East Wind’s factory are also used as feed supplements.

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Ish moving the electrified lines used to create defined paddocks for the cows.

The ultimate goal concerning the cows’ diets is to move away even from the fermented grain whenever possible and have the cows be primarily grass fed. Ish is the most involved in rotating the cows. He wants to lower the stocking rate (the number of animals per acre) and allow paddocks to grow taller. With taller grasses the cows will trample more grass, but this process builds humus and allows cool season grasses to extend their season because the soil doesn’t heat up as quickly as bare ground. Pasture maintenance is a huge responsibility that is shared by both the dairy and ranch programs. In the past five years a plethora of plant varieties have been introduced. Several different types of clover, three different orchard grasses, and most importantly an ‘endophyte friendly’ fescue that was specifically bred to promote cow health have established well. There are seven warm season grasses and five cool season grasses in total. Shade is also of vital importance for the health of the cows and therefore milk production. A big effort has been made to plant hundreds of trees to establish tree lines and ample shade in all the pastures. Through this experience a deeper understanding and appreciation of the whole system has developed: from the microscopic flora and fauna of the soil to the element of human interaction. Ish is mindful of being efficient with labor inputs and seeks to foster the beneficial organisms which aid cow health.

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Liuda herding the cows from their paddock into the dairy barn yard.  The small white cylinders on the ground are plastic protectors for the trees that were planted fall of 2016.

All the current milking cows are Jersey mixes. Jersey lines were bred for high milk production, but these lines can encounter serious health problems such as ketosis and milk fever. Ish and Liuda are running a breeding program, started by previous managers, to mix the hardier Red Poll cow breed with Jersey. Bullet, East Wind’s registered Red Poll bull, has been bred into both Marmalade and Jackie Brown. Marmalade is thought to be a Jersey-Swiss mix and Jackie Brown is her daughter, being conceived by a pure Jersey line artificial insemination (AI). Their daughters, Mary Jane and Loretta, both received Jersey AIs and are expected to calve this coming Spring. The idea is to create a line that has decent milk production from low maintenance cows. Also playing into this system is that East Wind has a beef herd. By timing the calving of both the beef and the dairy cows at the same time a milker calf can go onto a nurse cow. This avoids the need for bottle feeding which has shown to be not in the best interest of the cow’s health (even when bottle fed with their mother’s milk).

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Jackie Brown (left) and her mother, Marmalade (right), munching down during the Winter.
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Heifers Mary Jane (left), daughter of Marmalade, and Loretta (right), daughter of Jackie Brown, in the dairy barnyard.

All the people involved in the dairy program appreciate that the size of the program allows for compassionate and individualized care. For example, an animal that might be labeled as a cull cow by a veterinarian is given the extra attention they need. Liuda feels good about making decisions that are in the best interest of the cow’s health without the need to consider profit (as any commercial dairy operation is constrained by). Both Ish and Liuda can recall staying up all night in the dairy barn to help newborn calves recover from an ice storm. The cows in both the dairy and beef herds are socialized and friendly. Working with small numbers of cows and knowing their names allows each milker to establish bonds with ‘the girls.’ It is a great feeling to personally know the cows that your milk, cream, yogurt, and cheese comes from.

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Liuda, Ish, and their daughter Narayana

Having met at East Wind about five years ago, Ish and Liuda have recently started their own family here. They live with their daughter Narayana and their dog Harvey at their house, Gitchigumi. The author of this post, being a milker of three shifts a week for over a year, is excited to watch the dairy program continue to evolve and continue to learn about one of humankind’s greatest friends, the cow. The dairy program is what it is today because of the involvement of many East Winders, both past and present. Thank you to everyone who is and has contributed to the success of the East Wind Dairy!

Post written by Sumner

Pictures by Sumner, Ish, Liuda, Jude, and Virgil

East Wind Dairy