I am very inspired by the budding Jewish intentional communities movement. As someone who has farmed for more than a decade and thought a lot about past Jewish farming communities in America and how to build ones today, I’d like to share some thoughts on developing communities based around agriculture.
My first suggestion, which has been made by others, is to stay close to the city, even right in a city. Jewish farming communities in the past near metropolitan areas thrived for a generation or more (Petaluma CA; Farmingdale; NJ Lebanon CT area, among other places), while those far out in rural America were quick failures (farflung settlements in Kansas, the Dakotas and elsewhere). Being close to markets, family, friends, and Jewish community made all the difference.
Participating in Jewish life is much easier when you are not far out in the country. Working part-time off farm jobs, shopping and taking children places are also much easier in my experience. One of the best things about the movement as it is taking shape is that noboby is advocating for one specific model or specific place. Still, since many Jewish people attracted to the idea of a Jewish agrarian community feel conflicted about going far from what the city offers, establishing most communities near cities will mean more people actually joining the broad movement. A few years ago in one of my sporadic blog posts, I wrote more about why not going far from the city is key.
Today it is much easier to establish a farm within a metropolitan area. Land trusts and preserved family farms offer land to rent that would be much too expensive to purchase. Also, the urban agriculture movement continues to flourish. The city of Baltimore recently started to take applications to rent vacant lots for urban farms. With this city initiative and vicinity to Pearlstone, my hometown of Baltimore is on the forefront but other cities offer similar opportunities. The vision of an urban co-housing community where residents tend an adjacent urban farm or fields a little out of the city is no longer too much to ask.
For people looking to be in a more traditional farm situation just a little outside metropolitan areas I have three specific suggestions. My wife and I have been searching for a larger farm for some time now and in the course of our search have come across two places where a good number of Jewish people farmed in the past that would make good locations for new communities today. The first is the Connecticut River valley area near Hartford. As detailed in a book published by Jewish Historical Society of Greater Harfford and other publications, successful Jewish farming communities existed in places like Lebanon, Ellington and Colchester. They thrived for a good generation or two running chicken, vegetable and dairy farms. In some places like Colchester, synagogues still exist, waiting to be rejuvenated. This area is also not far from Hartford’s Jewish community or the great Isabella Friedman. On a whole the Connecticut Jewish farmers may have been the most successful of the past century, good fortune that may transfer to people today. The Connecticut farmlink is a good place to start looking.
Using the Farmlink website for New Jersey, we located a farm in Elmer, New Jersey a few years ago. When we visited the farm we learned the farm was once part of one of the first long term Jewish farming communities in America, the Alliance colony. Today there is a beautiful synagogue and a large cemetery for the members of the colony and Jewish farmers who settled in the area later in the twentieth century. Elmer New Jersey is in many ways a perfect spot for a community for people who want to live on their own traditional farm with a house surrounded by ample fields. With the synagogue, abundance of affordable preserved farms, nearby Jewish federation in Vineland, and vicinity to Philadelphia, it has the infrastructure to support a new community of Jewish farmers.
I loved the farm in Elmer, a flat forty acre piece of light soil good for vegetables that once was a working chicken farm owned by a Jewish family. I considered renting the farm from the family of the farmers who had taken the noble action of making it a preserved farm. This was the third former Jewish farm we had learned about by searching Farmlink websites. We came across two others in the Lebanon Connecticut area. Come to think of it, nearly all of the few farms we considered seriously turned out to be former Jewish farms.
Before going to the farm, I visited the Alliance cemetery. I randomly walked to one row of graves and picked a stone to read. The gravestone told me that the man buried there was a member and the historian of the Alliance community. Out of the hundreds of graves, this was the first person I, an amateur historian of Jewish farmers in America, randomly picked to read about.
Blossom Frankel, a real estate agent in the Elmer area and daughter of dairy farmers, showed me the farm and house lovingly renovated by the farmer’s daughter. At one point Blossom asked me if I had turned on the kitchen sink which was running. We were in the next room and neither had touched the sink. I’ve asked a few people about this. One person said it was probably some sort of bad sign. My friend Dan Zisken, founder of Jews of the Earth, told me it meant my family would have continuity with the previous farm family.
In the end, I did not make the move to Elmer, and not because I determined what to make of the sink incident. Even though I have a difficult farming situation now (we cultivate fields on five separate properties around our home), I have a flexible part-time job that is a good match with farming and hard to give up. I’m a visionary but conservative, risk adverse one. My role in all this I suppose might be just to point people to places like Elmer.
The last of the three places I suggest is a wildcard and a contradiction. In 2012, CBC Radio had a show about how the small Jewish community in Saint John’s New Brunswick is recruiting young people to move there. Generally I recommend becoming part of the closest community. If you are in Philadelphia look at Elmer, etc. Going to Canada is hardly staying close to where you are now but what you might just need to feel settled is to leave America and all its acute problems. The area has plenty of good farmland and will be a good location as the planet heats up.
Just a few more suggestions. One is to stay in what they call the agriculture loop. Borrow money from the farm credit cooperative bank, consult with the agriculture extension and generally stay connected with established agriculture organizations. As detailed in Gertrude Dubrovsky’s book about growing up in Farmingdale, New Jersey, Jews helped pioneer farm credit unions, insurance companies and extension educational services. Today we don’t have to create these institutions. This is not to say we don’t need a contemporary version of the Jewish Agriculture Society , that works as a consultant that helps people find farm communities that meet there specific needs.
All the communities will take different forms when it comes to how much to share resources like land and equipment. With the changes in America squeezing the middle class, becoming part of a community that shares a good deal of expenses and perhaps even some profits from cooperative marketing, may be a financially wise decision. At the very least, groups that purchase land together (crowdfund) will obtain a much better farm than alone.
These are wonderful days for Jewish agrarians. The philosophy and material circumstances are all in place for a new era of Jewish farmers in America. The philosophy is developed because of the great work by Adama, Hazon, Pearlstone, the Jewish Farm School and other people and organizations. That the circumstances are also in place call for gratitude.