All for one: Diggers' Mirth Collective
A group of friends shares in the labor and rewards of farming

By Laura Sayre
December 9, 2004, Burlington, VT

Diggers' Mirth Collective takes its name from a radical agrarian movement that flourished briefly in England in the late 1640s and early 1650s, when a laborer named Gerrard Winstanley published a series of tracts challenging private property rights and arguing that "the earth. . . [was created] as a common storehouse for all." The Diggers put their beliefs into practice by manuring fields and sowing crops on wastelands in Surrey until they were driven away by local landowners.

At the Intervale, Diggers' Mirth Collective was founded in 1992 by Dylan Zeitlyn and three other partners. A total of 11 young farmers have been part of the collective over the years. Today, Diggers' Mirth consists of Zeitlyn, S'ra De Santis, Elango Dev, and Hillary Martin. The group has been farming together for three seasons and say they're pleased with their current balance of skills and personalities. The four friends and partners all work the same number of hours, earn the same amount of money, and arrive at all production and marketing decisions jointly.

Collective management is facilitated by long hours of field work, the Diggers say. "Planning for next year is pretty much a constant topic of conversation," says Dev. "That, and, 'When is it going to stop raining?'" interjects De Santis. "We're always trying to figure out the best balance of crops," she continues. Staying profitable means seeking a balance, for instance, between reliable staples—the farm's carrots and arugula are legendary—and new crops that no one else is bringing to the farmers' market.

Diggers' Mirth manages a total of just under 10 acres of Intervale land, putting half in cover crops each year to build organic matter and restore fertility and dedicating the balance to production. In addition to farmers' markets, they sell to restaurants, through the Deep Root Organic Cooperative, and to a handful of wholesale accounts, including Burlington's City Market, Healthy Living, and the Shelburne Supermarket. "We're really lucky in Vermont that the people understand the idea of local versus California," says De Santis. Ultimately, it's customer demand that keeps local grocery stores committed to buying from local farmers.

Like the Intervale as a whole, Diggers' Mirth attracts visitors from across the country who are interested in learning about the collective ownership and management model for small-scale farming. Zeitlyn's advice for would-be collective farmers? First, as with any farm enterprise, "figure out what your land is suited for growing, and then make sure you have your markets lined up."

Second, know that the strength of a collective comes from every member being willing and able to assume the responsibiliites of ownership. On most farms, Zeitlyn observes, frustrations and inefficiencies arise out of the gap between the owner or manager, "who knows what to do, can work the fastest, and cares the most," and the employees, who when push comes to shove are getting paid by the hour. On a collective farm like Diggers' Mirth, by contrast, "everyone working there has the same level of commitment and care and ability to work long and hard. Sure, there are debates and disputes, but that's because we're all thinking and we all have ideas" about how to keep improving the farm.

And that's what makes collective ownership not just philosophically appealing, but economically competitive as well.