One of the strongest, and most beloved, parts of our local Hudson Valley economy is food and agriculture. And cooperatives have long been a backbone of the US rural economy. So it would make sense to start with food as a place to look to strengthen the democratic and solidarity components of our economy. And in fact, the fastest growing sector for cooperatives in the Hudson Valley appears to be in agriculture and farming.
At a cooperative networking gathering hosted by Good Work Institute in October, Faith Gilbert of Letterbox Farm remarked that when Letterbox started organizing themselves as a cooperative several years ago, no one she talked to had ever heard of what they were trying to do. “Now half of all our new farmer friends are working cooperatively,” Gilbert said. “It’s just too hard to get started alone.” Gilbert has written two guidebooks on cooperative farming, available from Letterbox, sharing what she’s learned.
Last winter, in response to this growing interest, Glynwood hosted a daylong workshop on cooperative farming. Farmers, coop developers, and food justice advocates discussed the history of farm coops, the nuts and bolts of forming and governing coops, and the many ways cooperating can strengthen farms and food systems. D. Rooney and Maggie Cheney from Rock Steady Farm and Flowers shared their experiences with growing their team and refining their business model to meet their joint commitments to social justice and financial sustainability. Hilary Martin of Digger’s Mirth in Burlington, Vermont shared how being a cooperative — and being connected to other cooperatives — helped them weather flooding from Hurricane Irene, when farms around them were failing. Martin also discussed the Intervale Farmers’ Equipment Company, which makes shared tractors and other capital-intensive equipment available to its member-owner farms, including Digger’s Mirth. Hilary Corsun of Dog Wood Farm described the Good Food Farmers Network, a cooperatively-run multi-farm community supported agriculture (CSA) network, which is connecting small farms to customers while reducing some of the barriers to CSA membership. The network offers home and office delivery, customizable orders, and a pay-by-the-week subscription model.
Megan Larmer of Glynwood, who organized the workshop, said they were thrilled with the packed house in attendance and the sharing of information. “There’s so much interest, so much potential here,” she said. “This is clearly something that is really needed.” Larmer said that Glynwood was considering hosting a similar gathering next winter and was also in the process of seeking support for starting a working group on supporting small to mid-size farms interested in transitioning to cooperatives.
Meanwhile another national scale effort to support small farms is under development here in the Hudson Valley. The National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC), based in Hudson, is working on the development of a platform cooperative to help farmers manage the many direct marketing channels their businesses rely on. After several years working with young farmers on advocacy and policy, says Michael Parker, Land Access Program Associate at NYFC, “it’s become pretty clear that, for many farmers in the coalition, their businesses are one accident, or one bad season, away from failing.” So NYFC decided to see what they could do to more directly strengthen the small farm business model.
“There’s a lot of chatter out there about ‘solving local’ as if it were a technical problem to solve”
“There’s a lot of chatter out there about ‘solving local’ as if it were a technical problem to solve,” says Parker. “It seems obvious. It should be cheaper for farmers to sell to directly to consumers, and the food should be better, and so there’s a tech problem to solve here. We said, ‘if there is a better way for food to be bought and sold, who’s benefiting from that?’ It ought to be the farmer, and so the software is the venue for us to try to start tackling that problem.”
Parker is assisting NYFC co-founder Lindsey Shute in the development of the Farm Generations Cooperative and their GrownBy platform, which aims to streamline and integrate the many different channels of direct marketing that most small farmers are juggling. The first version of GrownBy, currently in beta testing, will support CSA operations, allowing farmers to process transactions and manage their customers and communications. A customer-facing interface will let customers set pickup dates and make changes to their shares. Future developments planned include a point of sale system for farmers’ markets and systems to support orders from restaurants and automate invoicing. All will feed into the same database, so that farmers get much more complete data about their operation, while greatly reducing their sales costs and paperwork time.
Farm Generations will be structured as an agricultural coop, Parker says, owned by members who will pay for services and receive dividends back at the end of the year. Parker says the platform will be cost competitive with other platforms farmers are currently using that tend to support only one of their marketing channels, whereas GrownBy will eventually support them all.
Democratic and solidarity economy approaches are also germinating on the retail side of the Hudson Valley food system. Random Harvest Market, recently opened in Craryville, is a worker-owned coop dedicated to growing what they call a relational food economy, facilitating connections among workers, producers, and community members. They source directly from local producers and use a consignment pricing model. Producers deliver to the store and set their own prices. Upon sale, the producer gets 75 percent of the retail price and Random Harvest 25 percent. They also have a beautiful community space upstairs and a commercial kitchen available for rental.
In Hudson, Rolling Grocer 19, a project of Long Table Harvest, opened its retail store in March. Their mission is to make wholesome food and local produce accessible to Columbia County residents of all income levels. They use a three-tiered pricing system, which customers self-select from the first time they make a purchase at the market. A large poster on the wall provides guidance for choosing your tier. “Consider joining a higher tier,” it reads, if you own your home, travel recreationally, and have no trouble purchasing food, for example. Consider joining a lower tier if you receive public assistance, have immigration, medical, or educational expenses, or significant debt. Purchases in the lower tiers are financially supported by partnering community organizations.
In March — at Commonwealth Hudson Valley’s launch party — the Kingston Food Coop launched its own membership drive. The Kingston coop has chosen a multi-stakeholder ownership structure, drawn from the highly successful Weaver Street Market in North Carolina, now in its 33rd year. Worker members and customer members will have equal roles in coop governance and profit sharing as a class, providing a strong role for employees in the governance of their workplace and embedding values of good jobs and affordable access to healthy food in the coop structure.
Customer members can join for a one time membership fee. The recently launched Solidarity Share Fund will allow members and community groups to support the membership fees of their lower income neighbors, reducing their effective membership cost to $15. Once the store is open, employees will be able to join as worker members, with their fees payable over time through payroll deduction. The coop has already reached nearly one-fifth of its pre-opening membership goal, and hopes to be open within two years. Meanwhile the High Falls Food Coop, now in its fifth decade of operation, is working on expanding, and a recently formed group in Newburgh is exploring creating a food coop there.
Another essential component of strong regional food system is the distribution system. While the Hudson Valley has a growing network of distributors who carry local produce, as Hilary Corsun pointed out at the Glynwood workshop, none of them are cooperatively owned by producers or consumers. Around the country, a variety of cooperatives might offer examples for further growing out our regional distribution network. Deep Root Organic Co-op in Vermont is cooperatively owned by its more than twenty member farms, and sells to food coops, supermarkets, and other distributors throughout the northeast. Co-op Partners Warehouse in Saint Paul, Minnesota is wholly owned by the Wedge Natural Foods Co-op. It now serves multiple regional coops, natural food stores, and restaurants, and also provides warehousing and delivery services to farms that sell directly to customers. The Fifth Season Cooperative in Viroqua, Wisconsin is a multi-stakeholder cooperative organized to facilitate sale and distribution of locally grown food to large institutional purchasers, such as schools and hospitals. Its six member classes include producers, workers, buyers, and other distributors.
I’ve been talking with many of the folks mentioned in this article, and others, about getting a group together to talk about how we can use cooperative models to strengthen the regional distribution system. Please get in touch if this is something that interests you.