Farming Magazine - December, 2011


New England Farmers Union: 2012: Co-operative Enterprises Build a Better World

By Annie Cheatham and Erbin Crowell

Happy New Year! Another year has passed with ups and downs for farmers and Northeast agriculture. Demand for regionally produced food continues to grow; consumers are energized about food policy issues; young and beginning farmers are coming to New England to learn how to be successful at this most demanding profession; and in spite of a global and regional recession, the New England Farmers Union (NEFU) is stronger. We have more members (over 1,400, 95 percent of whom are farmers and fishermen); more programs (carbon crediting, farm bill policy, apple slices for institutional buyers); more board members (all six New England states are represented); and strong partnerships with New England members of Congress and the National Farmers Union in Washington, D.C.

We at New England Farmers Union have a lot to be thankful for, and are especially thankful for all the partnerships we have developed over this past year. Outstanding among the many is our relationships with the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and food co-ops around New England. Farmers and their customers are hungry for alternatives to corporate greed and stock market speculation. As we look at challenges such as climate change, unemployment, and growing disparities of wealth and ownership, people are looking for opportunities to grow resilient regional food systems and economies. In this context, co-operatives are viable enterprise models that do business by putting people and community first.

In October 2011, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly officially designated 2012 as the International Year of Co-operatives, with the slogan, "Co-operative Enterprises Build a Better World." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "Co-operatives are a reminder to the international community that it is possible to pursue both economic viability and social responsibility."

This is not news in New England. Agricultural co-ops sustain New England's family farms and rural communities. Businesses such as the Pioneer Valley Growers Association in Western Massachusetts and Deep Root Organic Co-op in Vermont enable produce farmers to access major regional markets while building shared infrastructure and distribution. Dairy co-ops such as Cabot Creamery Co-op, Our Family Farms, Rhody Fresh and Organic Valley help preserve agricultural livelihoods and landscapes while helping family farmers compete with corporations many times their size. Farmers also use co-ops to obtain supplies and inputs. Examples include the Greenfield Farmers Co-operative Exchange in Massachusetts (founded in 1918), and Maine Organic Milling, a farmer-owned feed mill in Auburn, Maine. And, of course we shouldn't forget the Farm Credit system, a network of farmer-owned financial co-ops that provide lending services to their members.

Co-ops also play a key role at the other end of our food system. The Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) is a co-operative of more than 20 community-owned grocery stores in Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut, with a combined membership of 90,000 people. Together, NFCA's co-ops have annual revenue of $200 million and employ over 1,400 people. And, food co-ops buy a lot of regionally grown and processed food from New England farmers and fishermen. An independent study found that NFCA member co-ops purchased more than $30 million in local products in 2007, and that number continues to grow.

Food co-ops do many things to benefit our economy, including ...

  • represent genuine community ownership and control;
  • focus on meeting member needs before accumulating profit;
  • develop local skills and resources;
  • pool limited financial resources to create successful community enterprises (most food co-ops in our region are based on member shares of $200 or less);
  • have a low business failure rate and tend to be long-lived;
  • are difficult to move or buy out, rooting business in the community;
  • separate community wealth from speculative markets; and
  • create regional efficiencies by pooling purchasing power.

As a result of these factors, farm and food co-ops contribute to a more stable food system. The UN's designation of 2012 as the Year of Co-operatives represents a growing recognition that co-operative enterprises - including food co-ops, farmer co-ops, credit unions and worker co-ops - have been remarkably resilient in the current economy, preserving livelihoods, wealth and community infrastructure at a time of great instability.

We have begun to spread the word about this UN initiative. In May, the NEFU and the NFCA approved resolutions dedicating themselves to "efforts to raise the profile of co-operative enterprise, to demonstrate the benefits of co-ops in building local ownership and wealth, and to apply the co-operative model to new challenges and opportunities in our communities." Both resolutions noted, "a majority of our country's 2 million farmers are members of about 3,000 agricultural co-ops, helping them to sustain their farms, livelihoods and communities."

So, in 2012, let us resolve to support New England's vibrant co-operative community. Let's celebrate and educate other about our co-operative economy and make the benefits of co-operation available to people who want a different way of doing business. Let's build on the extraordinary efforts of generations of co-operators as we address new challenges and opportunities to build a thriving New England economy and food system. Let's demonstrate how co-ops can build a better world.

For more information, visit online.

Annie Cheatham is executive director of New England Farmers Union (www.NewEnglandFarmers, and Erbin Crowell is executive director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (