COLUMNS


Doing More by Working Together

Launching the New Cooperative Decade
By Erbin Crowell


The past year has been a watershed opportunity for farmer co-ops, the New England Farmers Union (NEFU) and the wider cooperative movement. When the United Nations (UN) declared 2012 the International Year of Cooperatives (IYC), it brought unprecedented attention to a business model that has been crucial to the survival and success of family farmers in our country and around the world. The central purpose of the IYC was to shine a light on co-ops as effective tools for poverty reduction, social engagement and food security, particularly in the context of the continuing global recession.

As Charles Gould, secretary-general of the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA), pointed out, the real opportunity of 2012 was to use the IYC to help achieve a longer-term vision. At closing ceremonies for the Year of Co-ops in Manchester, U.K., the ICA presented its "Blueprint for the Co-operative Decade," in which co-ops are acknowledged as leaders in economic, social and environmental sustainability, the preferred business model of people around the world, and consequently the fastest-growing form of enterprise by 2020.

It is an exciting and ambitious vision that builds on the growing recognition of the dramatic impact of cooperative enterprises, far beyond the attention they receive from policymakers and educational institutions. Around the world, about a billion people are members of co-ops - more than directly own stock in publicly traded corporations. Co-ops also provide employment for more than 100 million people, more than multinational corporations. Here in the U.S., where an estimated one in three people are co-op members, including a majority of farmers, cooperatives play a particularly important role in rural communities, enabling family-scale producers to secure goods and services, achieve scale and compete with large corporations without sacrificing local ownership and control.

Cooperative enterprise is also innovative and successful. Just this fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a report revealing that farmer, rancher and fishery cooperatives posted record sales and income in 2011, surpassing the previous record sales year of 2008 by $10 billion. In addition to supporting the success of producer members, these co-ops have remained important employers, providing 184,000 jobs, up slightly from 2010. Keep in mind that this is in the context of continuing global recession.

In a blog post on the report, USDA Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager noted that cooperatives are also effective at the other end of the food system where consumers do their shopping, citing the City Market/Onion River Co-op in Burlington, Vt., as an example. City Market is among the members of both the Neighboring Food Co-op Association (NFCA) and the NEFU, representing an exciting trend toward closer collaboration among consumers and producers in building more vibrant and resilient regional food systems.

Farmer co-ops in our region, such as Agri-Mark (Cabot) and Organic Valley, grew dramatically this past year, leveraging the shared strength of their member-owners. Cooperatives are also on the cutting edge of the new entrepreneurial energy around local and regional food systems, proving to be an effective structure for food hubs, farm-based processing and marketing. The cooperative structure breeds innovation and community, and can ensure that producers are the primary economic winners from the growing consumer interest in local and regional food.

For the past couple of years, NEFU member Deep Root Organic Co-op has been collaborating with the NFCA on Farm to Freezer, a pilot project of regionally sourced and processed frozen fruits and vegetables available at food co-ops in the region. More recently, a wave of community entrepreneurs - from grocery stores like Old Creamery Co-op to independent food processors like Real Pickles - have started looking to the co-op model as a tool for business succession that keeps the mission intact and ownership local.

In a report titled "Agricultural Cooperatives: Key to Feeding the World" for World Food Day this past October, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) notes that a "powerful contribution of cooperatives and producer organizations is their ability to help small producers voice their concerns and interests, and ultimately increase their negotiating power and influence policymaking processes." This is why the National Farmers Union worked to establish the legal framework for farmers to form co-ops back in the 1920s, and continues to be an advocate for the cooperative model in rural America.

Earlier this year, NEFU and the NFCA collaborated with the National Farmers Union in the development of a curriculum on cooperative business that communicates some of this history. With modules for groups from first grade to adult, this resource is now available for free download from the NEFU website.

The central role of the Farmers Union is strengthening the voice of family farmers, fishermen and producers in the food system, and joining this voice with consumers and other advocates to create change. We can accomplish many things together that we cannot do alone. This past year, the Farmers Union and its partners worked hard to influence and encourage passage of the 2012 Farm Bill. Congress allowed the 2008 bill to expire on September 30, leaving New England farmers, especially our dairy farmers, in the lurch. Our farmers, fishermen and producers need the certainty of consistent food policy, and we'll continue to press Congress for such legislation.

This is where you come in. If you are not yet a member of the NEFU, please join us and support our work. If you are already a member of the NEFU, please help us spread the word among your colleagues, friends and family and encourage them to join. Remember, you do not have to be a farmer or a fisherman to be a member. We can do much more if we work together.