by Andrew Alford, as first published on his Cycling for Co-operatives blog
On January 9th, the National Young Farmers Coalition and the Democracy at Work Institute hosted an engaging webinar titled, "How young farmers are using cooperatives to build successful farms". With 5 distinguished co-ops taking the speaking podium, the webinar gave a broad range of ideas, projects and achievements.
After some brief introductory remarks from Joe Reinhart (Democracy at Work Institute), Margaret Bau, a USDA Rural Development Cooperative Development Specialist in Wisconsin, started off the session with a succinct overview of co-operative enterprises. Mentioning the legal structure, types of co-ops and values of the co-op structure. Her talk set a great contextual foundation for the rest of the webinar's content.
"A group of producers ... come together to do something, that individually, they cannot do themselves" -Margaret Bau, USDA Rural Development Cooperative Specialist
Starting off the co-operatives was Diane Chapeta, from Fifth Season Cooperative Growers, a Wisconsin multi-stakeholder co-operative with six member classes: producers, producer groups, processors, distributors, buyers, and workers. At Fifth Season, every membership class has a financial and democratic stake in the co-op. Their mission is threefold: open access to regional food markets; support small to medium-scale producers and processors; and, focus on regional sustainability. They perform many important roles in their regional Wisconsin food system, including, providing marketing services to all of their producer's - especially small-scale farmers.
Narendra Varma was the second cooperative to speak. He is one of the of founders of Our Table, a multi-stakeholder co-op. A 60 acre leased site, close-by to Portland, OR, their vision is a local food hub providing high-quality agricultural products to their local region. Their model is in direct counterargument to the current, mainstream agricultural system, inviting all the stakeholders in the food system to become a part of the co-op. In the eyes of Narendra, he hopes that the co-op will become a "cooperative of farmers" that will be able to access land without having the very expensive hurdle of acquiring farmland near metropolitan areas.
The webinar shifted to the distribution side of local food. Rebekah Hanlon told the story of Boston's Valley Green Feast Worker Co-op. Since 2010, Rebekah, and the three other worker-members, have offered an online food ordering system to the Boston-area. A highly-regarded accomplishment of their co-op is the full-on pursuit of Co-op Principle Number 7: co-operation amongst co-ops. This is manifested through their relationships with 8 other co-ops, including Boston Collective Delivery, a bike delivery worker co-operative that delivers their foodbox's to their clients. Valley Green Feast strives to offer their customers access to local food from credible producers. At Valley Green Feast, Rebekah says they have developed a so-called "closed-loop worker-coop supply chain', where they source from worker co-op farmers, take on the role of a worker co-op distributors, and hire a worker co-op delivery system.
"Every part of the food system is being held accountable." - Rebekah Hanlon, Valley Green Feast
Little City Growers Cooperative, in Provedence, RI started off as two farmers trying to improve the local food system. Today, the informal co-op is 6 farms altogether. Tess Brown-Lavoie says the main role of the co-op is to "collectively market and brand their produce". They supply to ten restaurants and run a farmers market in a low-income neighbourhood. One of the most important aspects of the co-op, Tess says, is that they perform as a "resource and knowledge sharing co-op", where they have a wide range of farmers at many different ages providing a venue for knowledge and technology transfer. There continuing challenge with the co-op is balancing the needs of the founding members and the incoming new farmers.
Joe Reinhart ended the webinar with a brief mention of a project in Cincinnati,OH, Our Harvest Cooperative, a union worker-owned cooperative. Joe mentioned a plethora of developments happening at Our Harvest. They have two separate farm locations and have plans to offer a foodbox program, wholesale opportunities, an on-site farmers market and developing avenues for food processing. Their project was made possible by the Cincinnati Chapter of the United Food & Commercial Workers.
Democracy at Work Institute and the National Young Farmers Coalition hosted an excellent webinar highlighting the best and brightest of the young farm and food co-op scene across the US. The cooperatives, in the webinar, mentioned concrete, real examples of successes and future aspirations. These stories provide a great resource for farmers and co-operators alike, to develop systems that provide meaningful, empowering work while providing nutritious, ecologically-grown produce to local, thriving communities. Well done.
Fifth Season Cooperative Growers http://fifthseason.coop/
Our Table Cooperative Farm http://www.ourtable.us/
Valley Green Feast http://www.valleygreenfeast.com/
Little City Growers Cooperative http://littlecitygrowers.org/
Our Harvest Cooperative Farm http://ourharvest.coop/
Their latest webinar - An Introduction to Worker Cooperatives for Farmers and Start-ups - can be found online @: http://institute.usworker.coop/introduction-worker-cooperatives-farmers-and-start-ups
Presenters from the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, The Greenhorns, The National Young Farmers Coalition and cooperative farm practitioners discussed:
- Examples of how the worker cooperative model is being used to share land and other resources to enable farmers to overcome barriers to entry and share land and labor
- The basics of worker cooperative start-ups
- Attendies questions on worker cooperative farm structure, operations, management and governance
- Faith Gilbert- author of Cooperative Farming, a SARE-sponsored guidebook on collaborative business models for small and beginning farmers and a co-founder of Letterbox Collective Farm.
- Joe Rinehart- Rural Programs Coordinator with the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives and the Democracy at Work Institute
- Sophie Ackoff- Membership and Development Coordinator, National Young Farmers Coalition
- Frederic Theriault, Tourne-Sol Cooperative Farm
- Dylan Zeitlyn, Diggers Mirth Farm