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On the Road: Alternative Economic Models in Ann Arbor

July 17, 2014

By Rebecca Briggs
Communications Coordinator, Biodynamic Association

Community Farm of Ann Arbor

Community Farm of Ann Arbor

Biodynamic Association Executive Director Robert Karp recently drove from the BDA’s home city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to the Threefold Community in Chestnut Ridge, New York. Along the way he stopped to visit gardens and give talks on “Land, Labor, Capital and the Future of the Food Movement” at the Great Lakes Branch of the Anthroposophical Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Till Dynamic Fare in Columbus, Ohio.

In a perfect complement to his presentations, Robert was able to visit two very different models of alternative economic set-ups — the Community Farm of Ann Arbor and Zingerman’s Cornman Farms — each of which, in a very different way, embodies some of Rudolf Steiner’s social-economic ideas.

Community Farm of Ann Arbor

Now in its twenty-sixth year, the Community Farm of Ann Arbor (CFA) was one of the early adopters of community supported agriculture (CSA) and is a strong proponent of biodynamic agriculture. They began down the CSA path in the mid-80s by bringing Trauger Groh (who started one of the first two CSA farms in 1985 at Temple-Wilton Community Farm) to speak, after which they started their own CSA. CFA members are not simply consumers, but rather are true supporters of the farm, sharing in “a vision and a commitment to the health of people and the land” and providing both financial and moral support. Indeed, community support was critical to the farm’s ability to secure land through a long-term lease with the Legacy Land Trust, which holds development rights to the land. Over the years they have hosted many apprentices, provided produce for nearly 200 members, and made a wide variety of improvements to the land to bring about the healthy, vibrant farm organism that exists today.

In 2011, the farm helped launch the non-profit Chrysalis Biodynamic Learning Center “to share agricultural understandings through demonstrations, lectures, and practical applications using Biodynamic farming methods” and to demonstrate “to the community at large the advantages of socially and environmentally responsible agriculture and providing a living model of a community-supported enterprise.”

community farm of ann arbor sign

Robert joins in the compost work

Robert joins in the compost work

community farm of ann arbor - work in fields

community farm of ann arbor - gropu shot

community farm of ann arbor - field rows

Biodynamics and a healthy farm

Biodynamics and a healthy farm

Zingerman’s Cornman Farms

Zingerman’s began in 1982 as a delicatessen in Ann Arbor. Over the years it has become a nationally known specialty food store famous for sourcing from local sustainable farms, published a number of books on food and business, and established a unique business model known as the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses (ZCOB). As they describe it:

In essence, and with due modesty, Zingerman’s has become an Ann Arbor institution. In building on that success, the standard model would dictate opening dozens, or even hundreds, of additional Delis all over the country. Instead we decided to pursue a more unusual plan, one which we felt would allow us to build on what we’d successfully started while establishing positive growth opportunities for people within our organization. We chose to create what we call the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses—a collection of Zingerman’s businesses, each with its own food specialty, all located in the Ann Arbor area, each working to help make the shopping and eating in every aspect of Zingerman’s more flavorful and more enjoyable than ever. In each business we’ve sought out a managing partner or partners so that there will be someone to bring the day to day passion and persistence that it takes to be really good at anything into play on a day to day basis. Paul and I are there to provide guidance, support, leadership and whatever else we need to do, which includes everything from writing this essay to lots of tasting, tracking down great food, contributing to the community, providing plenty of training classes, leadership work at all levels all the way through clearing tables and emptying the trash.

Through the ZCOB, independent businesses market under one label, meet once a week for partners’ meetings, share their books openly, and often integrate their products and services (e.g. goat milk produced at a ZCOB farm going to the ZCOB creamery and then on to ZCOB restaurants).

The newest Zingerman’s venture is Cornman Farm, which opened this May. This farm will integrate vegetables, goats, and cows and will follow all organic principles. Restored historic buildings on the farm serve as an event center, which can be rented out for weddings and other on-farm events.

Zingerman's co-founder Ari Weinzweig and Cornman Farms farmer Alex talk with a reporter in the greenhouse

Zingerman’s co-founder Ari Weinzweig and Cornman Farms farmer Alex talk with a reporter in the greenhouse

Goats at Cornman Farms

Goats at Cornman Farms

Huge kitchen space in the event center

Huge kitchen space in the event center


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