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Farm-to-Community: Design Elements of a Successful Farm Mutual-Aid Program

Updated: Nov 12, 2022

Chris Newman | August 5, 2022


image via the-outrage


Accessibility continues to be the Achilles’ heel of regenerative agriculture, the farm-to-table movement, sustainable agriculture, and whatever other labels we want to wrap around doing food and farming the “right” way. Our products are inordinately expensive and our industry has largely responded to this with silence and resignation to segregating consumers between “those who care and those who don’t.”

Fortunately there’s a growing contingent within the movement that’s dedicated to bringing good food to everyone, and they’re coming up with lots of solutions. One immediate measure that my farm has taken is the creation of a mutual aid program in 2021 that raises money from all over the country to purchase food made available for free to people dealing with food insecurity and apartheid in the communities my farm serves.

It’s a fairly successful program, raising over $125,000 in the last 15 months and giving away literal tons of eggs, poultry, pork, and beef raised with regenerative methods to various networks of food aid organizations in the Washington, D.C., Richmond, VA, Charlottesville, VA, Baltimore, MD, and Norfolk, VA areas. Our success, unfortunately, appears to be an outlier, and other farms attempting to replicate our model have run into difficulty doing so.


The other day I turned to my community on Instagram, many of whom are donors to our mutual aid program, to ask what moves them to contribute so consistently and generously. Dozens of donors responded, and their reasons for supporting our program can be sorted into five major categories:

Strategic Posture

According to the people who responded, mutual aid often feels reactive instead of proactive. It’s usually people raising money for emergencies and relief, people donating extras and one-offs, etc. It’s rare, they say, to find an organization that’s continuously aggregating resources in order to make them available to a community to promote prosperity rather than cure catastrophe.

This combines with the fact that our mutual aid program as a means to an end. Our ultimate goal is to create a large, regional food supply chain that circulates enough product and cash (and surpluses thereof) to serve as a systemic poverty disruptor: offering more affordable food for sale by pursuing scale, using our profits to underwrite affordability (rather than e.g. stock buybacks), plugging into federal programs like SNAP/WIC, becoming a major living-wage employer focused on disadvantaged communities, and vesting ownership of the supply chain’s assets in the communities served by that supply chain.

Our mutual aid program, therefore, is not only a way to serve an immediate need for vulnerable people who require and deserve access to nutritious food today, but is also a bridge to a future food supply chain founded upon a kind of upside-down capitalism. Knowing that their donations serve both a short-term and long-term purpose makes people very excited to contribute.

Operational Efficiency

Our mutual aid plugs directly into our existing for-profit distribution operation which, because of its for-profit nature, is extremely efficient*. If you donate $50 to a non-profit, the destination for that money can feel like a fairly opaque contribution to the organization’s top line; you donate it to our mutual aid, then it’s clear that you just bought e.g. six pounds of ground beef for a community fridge, with all the overhead priced into the product just like if you’d bought it for yourself through our retail market.

That beef will go into our van and ship off on our distribution route right alongside our retail and restaurant orders. There’s no special infrastructure, overhead, or salaries associated with distributing the food, marketing the mutual aid program, grantwriting, fundraising, or administering the program; from an operating and accounting perspective, a mutual aid donation is just another sale.


Paraphrasing one respondent: “I donate to you because I get to see food getting delivered to community fridges in your IG stories instead of pamphlets in my mailbox asking for more money.”

Network Effects

Our donors like the fact that their contributions support three mutually-reinforcing networks in service of equitable food supply chains:

  1. The network of food aid orgs we work with. RVA Community Fridges, Downtown Greens, Baltimore Community Fridges, and Sanctuary DC are well-run grassroots community organizations that have zero steps between themselves and the people who get the food we grow.

  2. The network of other farms we buy products from when our mutual aid fundraising outperforms what we’re able to grow ourselves.

  3. The network of projects associated with our farm — Skywoman, Blackbird, Pilikeku Media, and a to-be-announced NGO centered on land and capital access for our regional food system — receive all the labor hours from me that I’d otherwise have to spend making the sales that our mutual aid currently covers. Those projects would flat-out not exist if it weren’t for the time-savings on sales and marketing provided by our mutual aid program.

Furthermore, we’re explicit about how our mutual aid and market sales exist in symbiosis:

  • The regular sales operation provides the distribution network the mutual aid program needs to operate efficiently and regularly (which, as discussed above, is a big driver of mutual aid contributions), while…

  • The mutual aid operation acts as a backstop to fill up our van on delivery routes, meaning that we can run delivery routes every week (which encourages wholesale orders in particular), and do so profitably even during a sales week that’s slow because, for instance, I spent several hours preparing this very essay for Skywoman instead of making sales calls :-)

*Foreshadowing the later discussion of transparency, we’ve also done at least two series of Instagram stories explaining exactly how much it costs to distribute our products and how we use a combination of delivery fees and product pricing to cover those costs. For any donor that’s interested and sufficiently engaged with our social media, they know where their money is going quite literally down to the penny.

Transparency

By far the most common response was along the lines of “I trust you,” but the folks who put in longer responses were very clear about that trust stemming from an high degree of transparency. You can go on our social media feed most weekends and see stories and posts showing us physically delivering food to e.g. community fridges, and we also have fairly tight partnerships with our mutual aid endpoints (e.g. one of our key partners, RVA Community Fridges, was featured in our Skywoman Stories series about a month ago).

According to the respondents, that transparency also extends to the organization beyond the mutual aid program itself. We’ve somewhat famously published our pricing models and budgets; have been very candid about our failures (and have devoted a lot of energy to helping others avoid similar failures); and have opened up broadly about our personal lives and how working in this particular business can wreak havoc on families, marriages, friendships, and physical/mental health.

When people donate money, therefore, they trust that we’re doing what we say we’re going to do, and they can verify it by engaging with us via our social media presence and seeing what we’re doing.

Organizational Durability

This is the one that surprised me the most: a LOT of people contribute to our mutual aid because, after surviving the insanity of the Spring of 2021, people felt they could rest assured that our organization is an enduring institution. If ever there was a time when we were going to either fail outright or just take people’s money and f*ck off into the sunset, it would have been April 2021, but that didn’t happen. This was a very big deal to a lot of people, and I’d had no idea.

Beyond being able to take a punch, however, our transparency about our business plans, budgets, pricing, obsession with financial metrics and accounting, etc. has given people a lot of confidence in the fundamental soundness of our business and our ability to follow through on our admittedly lofty ambitions. A Few of other Findings

  • People like the fact that our operation is small enough to be deeply connected to its community and for their contributions to have a measurable impact, but large and ambitious and networked enough to one day effect systemic change. They see their agency in a much broader story.

  • It was important that our mutual aid program didn’t feel like a simple checking of a box, a reaction of guilt, a fad, or an empty virtue signal. We launched the program in June 2021 with a detailed description of why we were doing it, what the short and long term goals were, what results the money translated into, who our partners were, and how it tied into everything else we were doing.

  • The size of our social media following really isn’t a factor: I’ve been reached out to by farms and food hubs with far larger followings than I have who’ve struggled to get even a fraction of our traction on mutual aid. The depth of the relationship with your community is way more important than the breadth, and that depth is measured by trust. If you trust your audience enough to be vulnerable about your successes and your failures, they’ll return the favor.


Conclusions and Patterns

The broadest conclusion we can draw from the above is that mutual aid contributions want to be directed toward systemic change, not charity. As a result, people have to trust that you have the genuine motivation to affect that change and, in the meantime, will use their money effectively and efficiently to obtain the means the ultimately do so. Here are a few things you can work on to create a workable mutual aid system:

  1. Develop and promote your “client” network. This can be anything from food banks to community fridges to shelters to soup kitchens; but the important thing is that the distance between them and the people they serve be as short as possible. Learn who they are and be able to tell their stories to your mutual aid contributors. If these organizations don’t exists, then a compelling source of mutual aid funding is to start doing the work to create them.

  2. Get reliable access to product. People don’t want to contribute to a one-off; they want to be part of an enduring, regular farm-to-community supply chain. Coordinate with other farms in your area to make sure you’re able to distribute however much food you’re able to raise money for. Promote those farms, their workers, their owners, their growing methods, their landscape, their stories, their relationship to the land and community.

  3. Get comfortable with social media, storytelling, and self-promotion; there’s a time and place for modesty, and it’s neither now nor here. You might start your program by regularly donating your extras to your client network; make sure you’re actively promoting that work with video and images. Make it clear exactly what happens to the money you raise. Sustainable farmers are conditioned to show off images and stories about landscapes, animals, plants, products, etc., but mutual aid is a people project. People will open themselves up to you in equal or lesser measure to which you open up yourself and the humanity around you to them.

Ultimately there’s strength in numbers. Your project will be more durable and effective as you involve more people, and this holds true for sovereign food systems well beyond mutual aid.


Chris Newman is the founder of Sylvanaqua Farms, Skywoman, Pilikeku Media, and the soon-to-launch Blackbird Poultry Cooperative. Support this work by sharing this article, signing up for Chris’ Patreon, and/or making a donation to our farm’s mutual aid pool.

Post-Script: Facts in brief about our mutual aid program:

  • Started in June 2021 in an effort to provide consistent food aid to local organizations serving communities living under food apartheid

  • Typically raises $7K-9K per month from a nationwide network of around 250 donors

  • Most donations are in the $15–25 range. Single donations have ranged from $1 all the way up to $5,000

  • Food is delivered to various types of food aid organizations — community fridges and fridge networks, shelters, direct action groups, and local tribal organizations in the Chesapeake Bay region

  • We tune our production such that mutual aid comprises about 1/3 of our revenue


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