In the face of large-scale commercial farms, small-scale farmers are struggling to market their produce. Even the USDA has announced plans to spend $52 million to support organic and local food economies, recognising that the benefits of creating local and regional food systems are not to be underestimated. One way to create a stronger business model is by joining with others to form a cooperative, but without the background knowledge, starting a cooperative farming project may seem like a daunting task.
Created by Faith Gilbert, the Cooperative Farming guidebook was developed following extensive interviews with the people behind both established and start-up farm projects from across the US, along with information from 50 publications in cooperative development, farm business, finance, land access and more.
In the introduction, she writes, “I began this research motivated by a desire to farm with peers – to work together in managing land, sharing costs and equipment, and generally making our lives easier. Throughout this process I’ve found that desire echoed countless times, in many variations, by farmers across the country. It’s clear that we face common challenges.”
“It’s also clear that by working together, we get more than just a solution to a problem: we get solidarity.”
There is no one model for “cooperative farming.” You can form separate businesses or one business. You can share land, or farm as neighbours, or farm together in a community or a region. We need a whole range of models and solutions for working together. We are learning to design our own tools and methods to match our scale and soil. In the same way, we need the knowledge to design our own business structures and agreements, to fit our unique circumstances of person and place.’
So what makes a cooperative business? The three major standards that define a cooperative are that it’s owned and governed by its members and it exists for member benefit, and not for the profit of outside shareholders.
Compared to going it alone, a farming cooperative offers numerous benefits that are usually only available to larger operations, such as the ability to buy inputs at bulk rates and greater access to capital. Farmers can also share resources and equipment, saving them money in the long-term.
The guidebook is separated into five chapters and covers everything from the different types of cooperative frameworks and how to create a business structure, to dealing with the inevitable disagreements that come with managing a group business.
Click here to download your free copy of Cooperative Farming.
For those in the UK, the Community Supported Agriculture Network brings together CSA groups and enterprises from across the UK to share knowledge and skills. To find out more about the CSA Network UK, contact Rachel Harries.
Featured image by NG
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