Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Pause that Refreshes

No, I'm not writing about Coca-cola. I'm reporting on Sandill's annual retreat, which concluded Thursday.

It's been my community's habit (for at least the last 20 years) to carve out time somewhere in the first quarter to reflect on where we are, discuss where we want to be headed, and to work on any knotty issues or dynamics that have bubbled up and not been resolved in the last year. Think of it as a 12-month tune up.

Over time there tends to be slippage of various sorts. Members can get out of sync with one another, or out of touch with nuances of each others' lives. We use this time to walk through the budget, reviewing the prior year's activities and planning for the next, and to map out major projects for the coming warm weather. We share how well our dreams are being met by life in the community, and what might be done to enhance our prospects.

While the flavor of our retreats can vary as much as the choices at Baskin & Robbins, it's been one of the community's best traditions. We pick the winter because we're a farm and that's our down time. We fit it in somewhere after the receipt of year-end financial statements and before we start ramping up for spring planting.

This year our three days together turned out to be heartfelt and connecting (always good), and not tense at all, which is a rarity. Most years our annual retreat, paradoxically, means advancing into some messy issues.

After long check-ins the first morning—which took all morning—we looked over the 2012 numbers, which was made easier by our having had a great year, finishing $40,000 in the black, half from earning more than we spent, and half from investments. Woohoo! When your trickiest financial issue is how best to invest surplus funds, you know you're in good shape.

In the coming year we'll start experimenting with two potential businesses:

a) Raising grass-fed, organic beef. Nearly half of our land is in grass, which cattle are wonderful at converting into usable protein, and we already have a decent barn that can be used for hay storage and weather protection. Besides, we'd love to have the manure as part of our field fertility program. Joe will take the lead on this.

b) Raising botanicals for tinctures and essential oil production. Sandhill has always been a place committed to growing plants and it's appealing to tinker with ways in which we can turn that strength into income. This year we'll plant quantities of four to six species that we think will do well in our climate and soils, and then see how the harvesting goes before investing in serious equipment. The appeal of this approach is that we can concentrate and preserve value through careful processing, making it possible to market the end products outside the area (and not rely solely on local sales to sustain a business purveying herbal medicinals). Trish will take the lead on this.

We also approved initiatives for the coming season, divvied up managerships leftover after having lost Sara at Christmas (reducing our adult membership from seven to six), and agreed on putting out the message that we're open to new members with the folowing privisos:

o  We will insist on a good energetic fit (not just a good values fit), which translates to decent social skills, such as the ability to: know one's feelings and articulate them; listen well; not freak out in the presence of conflict; assimilate others' viewpoints and shift perspectives; handle critical feedback without shutting down or getting (unduly) defensive.

o  We'll give preference to families with kids close to Emory's age (who'll be five in June).

o  We prefer to not have new members over 50. Stan and I are in our 60s and everyone else is in their 30s. We have a solid demographic now and don't want to accidentally become top heavy.

o  We prefer that our next adult member be a woman or a couple—with four men and two women currently, we don't want our gender balance too far out of whack.

o  We'd like new members to not be allergic to management responsibilities (we prefer distributing that widely among us).

o  We want to proceed organically, and not try to integrate too many new people at a time. After we've identified a bona fide candidate, we'll check back to see how open we are to more prospectives, adjusting our website and public message accordingly. We are not in a rush and the quality of member cohesion is precious to us.

We also identified two meaty topics that need further work in the weeks ahead:

1. How can we better distribute the load of emotional support for interns (we typically have three during the growing season, April through October). Trish, as Garden Manager, is OK coordinating work assignments for interns, but she's not that excited to be the go-to person for hand holding and/or interpersonal tensions—she'd like that part to be more broadly shared. While everyone knew what she meant and understood the reasonableness of her request, it's not necessarily easy for people who are less connected with an intern's work scene to be geosynchronous with their psycho-spiritual orbit. It'll be an interesting challenge.

2. What exactly is our commitment to supporting aging members? While our official line has always been that we take primary responsibility for members through end of life, we've never actually delivered on that promise. With both Stan and I in our seventh decade and counting, our presence begs the question. Though we're both currently in good health (knock on wood), it's time to start putting some flesh on the bare bones of that commitment.

All and all we feel replete after taking receipt of our heartfelt retreat.

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