Farmer Heroes | August 27, 2008

Elizabeth Keen

Elizabeth Keen

Great Barrington, MA

Elizabeth Keen (pictured) runs Indian Line Farm with her husband, Al Thorp. Indian Line Farm, located in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is one of two pioneering Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms established in the Untied States in the mid-1980’s. As a new entry, female farmer, and mother of two, Elizabeth is a pioneer in her own right, leading Indian Line Farm and the next generation of family farmers in the 21st century.
Photos courtesy of Jason Houston

Raised in Colorado and Texas, Elizabeth Keen claims to have had “a fairly average upbringing.” It wasn’t until her post-college experience abroad in Guatemala, where she worked with refugee subsistence farmers as part of a Witness for Peace delegation, that Elizabeth first decided she wanted to learn more about what it means to grow your own food. Little did she know the stars were already aligning for a not-so-average career in family farming and the future of Indian Line Farm.

Upon her return to the states, Elizabeth took off on an impressive one-thousand-mile bike tour of New England. Her first stop was Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where she established connections that would soon bring her back to the area for her first post in agriculture, as an apprentice on a nearby CSA farm. There, Elizabeth met her future husband and business partner, Al Thorp. She also fell in love with small town New England.

“Never before had I known people who knit and preserved jam… The sense of saving really resonated with me.”

In 1997, the same year Elizabeth and Al wrapped up their apprenticeships, Robyn Van En, a pioneer in the CSA movement, passed away from an asthma attack at the age of 49. Robyn left behind Indian Line Farm, a 17-acre plot of land in Great Barrington, and one of the country’s first established CSAs. Robyn’s relatives and members of the greater community banded together in hopes of finding a new generation of farmers to steward the historic land and build upon Robyn’s legacy.

Elizabeth and Al were just the idealistic couple the search committee had in mind. Fresh off the farm, the duo was looking to take the next step in a community they had grown to love. With the help of the Nature Conservancy, the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, the E.F. Schumacher Society, and community fundraising efforts, a long-term leasing model and conservation plan were pulled together, enabling Elizabeth and Al to acquire Indian Line Farm, while ensuring the conservation of adjacent wetlands and an important piece of agricultural history.

Getting Indian Line Farm up and running again was a real struggle for the young couple. With just one year of farming under their belts and having inherited the farm in true disrepair, the couple committed their first years to learning the tricks of the trade and fixing up the property for public view. Thanks to the special circumstances that enabled the couple to purchase the land at an affordable price, Elizabeth and Al could fully commit themselves to Indian Line Farm without the need for off-farm work.

By 1999, Indian Line was functional and ready for business as a 30 share CSA. The CSA operation has grown steadily over the years, although: “It’s just been in the past three [years],” Elizabeth explained, “that the farm has felt like a viable way to support the family.”

Today, Indian Line Farm has carved out an important place in Great Barrington, with 140 CSA shares and a waiting list of more than 50 families. While the majority of the shares are full season, Elizabeth and Al also cater to the unique summer population in the region by offering a share from June to Labor Day.

When asked about the growing buzz surrounding CSAs and direct markets, Elizabeth had a few ideas to offer:

“I think it’s the cumulative mix of a weak economy with lots of press and big names like [Michael] Pollan and [Barbara] Kingsolver generating interest about sustainability and the benefits of buying locally… People want to do the right thing for their families. They want to trust where their food is coming from.”

Contributing to the trust of their goods, Indian Line Farm is Certified Naturally Grown– an alternative certification program geared toward small-scale, direct-market farmers, and based on the USDA National Organic Program standards. By putting sustainability at the forefront, Elizabeth and Al are delivering just the experience and values their customers are looking for in a CSA share.

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