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A Guide to Using the Co-op Model to Start an Eco-farm

By Stephanie Hiller
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of Acres U.S.A.

If the high cost of farmland is all that’s standing in the way of realizing your dream of becoming a farmer, you might want to get together with a few other young farmers and form a cooperative.

After a hundred years of believing that Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species had proved that competition determined the “survival of the fittest,” visionaries striving to develop a more collaborative (and hopefully harmonious) society discovered that in another book, The Descent of Man, Darwin had actually argued that cooperation — and compassion — have saved the species all along.

Writing in Yes! magazine, Eric Michael Johnson writes, “the cooperative — the financial model in which a group of members owns a business and makes the rules about how to run it — is a modern institution that has much in common with the collective tribal heritage of our species.”

The cooperative economy may be an idea whose time has finally come.

History of the farming co-op

Begun in England in the mid-19th century by a guild of weavers who saw the quality of their craft declining in the emerging industrial economy, and employed by American farmers forming cooperative credit unions and supply cooperatives to cut costs, the popularity of co-ops waxed and waned for 150 years.

Then in the 1960s, cooperative ideals were embraced by young visionaries seeking pathways to a way of life more grounded in nature. Grocery co-ops sprung up everywhere, but in the long run they lacked staying power and were beat out of the market by giant supermarket chains.

Farming co-ops of the modern world

But when the going gets tough, cooperatives begin to look more appealing; and in today’s world, where the market seems to serve only the already rich, the idea of giving up some of that dyed-in-the-wool independence that allegedly has kept farmers from forming partnerships to take up the challenges of working together on shared land seems less daunting.

What’s the advantage of farming cooperatively? In addition to sharing the cost of land, co-op farmers share the work, keep each other company on winter days and share childcare. They can divide the chores according to each other’s respective skills, and they can cover for each other when someone is sick.

Just in the last few years a bounty of resources has appeared, offering information, advice and even grants for new farms – including the USDA, which offers grants through its Rural Cooperative Development Grant Program “to start, expand or improve rural cooperatives and other mutually owned businesses.”

Last March, President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act into law. Thanks to the efforts of Kirsten Gillibrand, senator from New York, the bill includes language encouraging the formation of cooperative businesses:

“It is noted that worker owned businesses are uniquely structured to provide wide-ranging economic benefits. In order to encourage new and assist existing employee owned businesses, SBA is directed to provide education and outreach to businesses, employees and financial institutions about employee-ownership. This effort should include information about the different business structures available, such as cooperatives, Employee Stock Ownership Plans, and technical assistance to assist employee efforts to become businesses.”

The legislation was supported by the Federation of Worker Co-ops.

Another organization dedicated to the growth of worker cooperatives is Cooperation Works, a “cooperative development network” offering trainings and advocacy across the United States (cooperationworks.coop).

Additionally, Cooperative Development Institute offers up to 5 hours of pro bono consulting for developing group businesses, plus further consultation services and written resources, such as Co-op 101: A Guide to Starting a Cooperative (cdi.coop/resource-center/).

Farmland Access provides all necessary legal materials for forming a co-op on its website, farmlandaccess.org.

Perhaps most helpful to farmers is the Greenhorns, a grassroots organization “with the mission to recruit, promote and support the rising generation of new farmers in America,” started by Severine von Tscharner Fleming in the Champlain Valley in New York.

The Greenhorns has published a number of helpful books, including the online report, Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together. The report, by Faith Gilbert, can be downloaded from the Greenhorns website and offers all the basic information you need to start developing your cooperative farm, including how to share resources, how to structure your operation, legal basics and forms to use for planning.

The guide advises starting with the question, “How do I want to work with other people?” There are many different ways to collaborate, from actually purchasing and working one farm together to having separate farm businesses that share access to resources and services, like marketing, equipment and labor. Visit greenhorns.org for more information.

Where to find farming co-ops

But where are all the cooperative farms? During the last five to ten years, they are beginning to pop up across the country.

Winter Green Farms, near Eugene, was one of Oregon’s first certified organic farms. Its six owners share the tasks of running the farm, which has a CSA and runs a herd of cattle (wintergreenfarm.com).

Also in Oregon, 15 miles from Portland, Our Table, founded by Machelle and Narendra Varna, states on its website, “Our goal is to have all the people who work with us be worker-members of the cooperative, allowing all of us to gain the full benefits of cooperative membership.” Formed in 2011, the 58-acre farm is certified organic, runs a CSA and has five owner-farmers. For more information, visit ourtable.us.

New Roots Cooperative Farm’s six members are buying a 30-acre farm with help from Maine Farmland Trust and Cooperative Development Institute.

In Cincinnati, urban farm Our Harvest has become “a multi-stakeholder cooperative — a cooperative that extends beyond just our workers to include members of our community, as well.”

Community owner shares cost $100 and entitle members to various discounts and direct participation in governance of the farm. This form of investment is known as a Direct Public Offering and was newly established by the JOBS Act signed into law by President Obama in 2012. It allows members of communities to participate directly in the formation and management of small business enterprises in which they are customers. This type of investment encourages localized economies. Visit www.ourharvest.coop for more information.

Cooperative farms, like cooperative businesses, tend to be small and embedded in their communities, thus supporting local economies and allowing money to circulate within the neighborhood instead of being siphoned off by big box stores located far away, with no personal investment in the welfare of their communities. More importantly, they empower the people who do the actual work, providing each with a fair share of the farm’s income.

“Something is dying in our time,” writes Marjorie Kelly. “As the nation struggles to recover from unsustainable personal and national debt, stagnant wages, the damages wrought by climate change, and more, a whole way of life is drawing to a close.” The cooperative economy, or what she calls the regenerative economy, could be our future.

Stephanie Hiller is a writer based in Sonoma, California.