Across the U.S., a small but growing movement of farmers is foregoing traditional farm ownership in favor of a cooperative model. Though these farms are run by people with diverse backgrounds, beliefs, and motivations, they all seek to rebuild what’s been lost over the past century: a connection with neighbors—whether personal, economic, or both—and a sense of the mutual support that keeps rural communities alive.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, this connection was generally established through a community’s general store. Farmers gathered there to repair their tools and swap news. Though the general store has been largely been erased from the U.S. landscape, the cooperative tradition remains in other aspects of American life, from credit unions to food co-ops to farms. Civil Eats spoke to farmers from four row-crop farm co-ops about the benefits, obstacles, and future of cooperative farming.
Farmer co-ops—which range from small to very large—have been around for nearly as long as people have been farming. But as worker-owned businesses undergo a revival, community-scale farmers are also turning to cooperative, more collaborative farming models.
Farming lends itself to multiple cooperative models. Agricultural cooperatives, such as Organic Valley, are groups of individual farms that have come together to meet common needs, from inputs like seeds and fertilizer to services like distribution and marketing. Then there’s the consumer cooperative, in which customers (such as CSA members) own and govern the farm. Worker cooperatives—a fairly new development in agriculture—refer to worker-owned farms.
In particular, the worker cooperative model is a natural fit for farming. Beginning farmers need land, start-up capital, labor, and diverse skills to launch a business. In a cooperative, farmers can pool financial resources and strengths, thus spreading out costs and drawing from a range work experience. This means more adaptability and resiliency.