What it takes to farm and market cooperatively

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Mohamed Abukar, Jabril Abdi, Seynab Ali and Batula Ismail are Somali refugees who created a farming co-op in Maine. Photo courtesy of the Cooperative Development Institute

by Catie Joyce-Bulay

In many ways, New Roots Cooperative Farm in Lewiston is like most small farms in Maine. Its CSA makes up the largest part of farm revenue, which also includes six farmers markets throughout Southern Maine and a few wholesale accounts. They grow a variety of vegetables and are working on getting their organic certification. The farm differs from many Maine farms in its cooperative farming model – and that each of the co-op’s four member families began farming in Somalia and came to this country as refugees. They have had to overcome language barriers and navigating a foreign system of business and marketing in addition to the typical challenges of farming.

“Every year we see ourselves as improving,” said member-farmer Mohamed Abukar, translated by Omar Hassan of the Cooperative Development Institute. “Like this year we have doubled our CSA customers.”

The four Somali Bantu families began farming together in 2006 as part of the New Farmers Sustainable Agriculture Project through the Portland-based nonprofit Cultivating Community. In 2016 they decided to make a formal partnership and moved to their current 30-acre farm on land they lease through Maine Farmlands Trust. They grow a wide variety of vegetables, including some African varieties of corn and squash, and less common crops in Maine like okra and amaranth, on 10 acres of former cow pasture, expanded from an original five.

“It’s still a development farm,” said Abukar. “We still have a lot to figure out and are still working on purchasing the land.” Their lease agreement, which includes an option to purchase, ends this year. They opted to purchase and are raising money through farm sales, crowdfunding and grants.

Each member, including Abukar, Jabril Abdi, Seynab Ali and Batula Ismail, has their own plot. They all share marketing and equipment. New Roots farmers have a board that meets monthly and makes decisions based on majority vote. Sometimes they will pull in other parties for big decisions, like a member of Cultivating Community or Hassan, who works closely with them both in development and as a translator.

New Roots farms as a producer cooperative under Maine’s cooperative statutes, one of three models discussed in a recent Farm Training Project workshop, a series of webinars put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. They joined Jonah Fertig-Burd, director of Cooperative Food Systems at CDI, at the time of the recording. Fertig-Burd, who has since moved on to lead Elmina B. Sewell Foundation’s Food Systems Programs, delved into the structure of cooperative farming.

What is a co-op? “When we’re talking about cooperatives in general, and cooperative farms, there can be big ‘C’ cooperatives, which are legal formal cooperatives,” said Fertig-Burd. “Then there can also be more informal cooperation, like community gardens.”

He outlined the seven international principles of cooperatives, which are voluntary open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education and training; cooperation amongst cooperatives; and concern for community. There are a few different ways farming cooperatives can structure themselves.

“Producer co-ops are one of the more common cooperatives in agriculture,” said Fertig-Burd, who has co-founded three cooperatives in Maine. “In a producers’ co-op, you have multiple farms that come together, and then that co-op may help those farmers access different markets.” Members can be sole proprietors, LLCs or even other co-ops.

Cabot and Organic Valley are examples of large producer cooperatives in the Northeast. A smaller example is Eden Valley Growers Inc. in Eden, NY, which aggregates the products of six farmers that farm on 1,000 acres.

A worker cooperative, in contrast, is owned by the workers of the farm, and also run by a board. In many ways, New Roots functions as a worker co-op, because they share land, equipment and other resources, Fertig-Burd said.

“One of the leading examples of a workers’ cooperative is Ferme Cooperative Tourne-Sol,” he said. They are a diversified farm and seed business owned by five workers in Quebec since 2004. “These five worker-owners have been working together a long time and have been able to build their skills and their specialties as well.” They divide up planting and overseeing crops, then work together to tend them. Each month one person steps into the farm management role, while they all have set specialty roles. This way, they’re able to do things like take a vacation during growing season, take parental leave and maintain 40-hour work weeks.

Consumer co-ops are another common form in food businesses, like Maine’s Portland Food Co-op, but can be used in farming as well. These co-ops can be owned by multiple stakeholders, such as workers, producers and consumers.

The farmers of Colorado’s Poudre Valley Community Farms had difficulty accessing land in the Colorado Springs region, so they reached out to their community to help them purchase farmland.

“This is a really great way of engaging those CSA members or restaurants and institutions to become more engaged in preserving farmland,” said Fertig-Burd, who is a worker-owner of Celebration Tree Farm & Wellness Center in Durham, which is working on transitioning to a community-owned model.

Other types of cooperative models could include equipment sharing, land sharing, consumer/co-op-owned farms and farm labor co-ops. These could be both formal and informal.

Interested in starting a cooperative farm? Fertig-Burd recommended the book “Cooperative Farming: Frameworks for Farming Together, A Greenhorns Guidebook” by Faith Gilbert or contacting CDI at cdi.coop. Farm Commons, Legal Food Hub and Land for Good are more organizations that can help with setting up a farming co-op.

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