The idea of a farmer’s co-op is that farmers will band together and increase their profits and/or decrease their costs by eliminating the “middle man”. There is a wealth of cooperative models around the world. Everything from the rice farmers in Japan coping with their tsunami inundated rice fields to the Salvadorans I have worked with who cooperatively produce shade grown coffee. One of my favorites is an olive and veggie cooperative in Palestine.
Yes I said Palestine not Israel. These farmers are struggling to continue harvesting their olives from their ancestral trees under conditions which should rightfully be called apartheid. The olive trees that the Zionists haven’t bulldozed that is. Whenever I think of the West Bank and the struggle of these farmers I image what my reaction would be if someone came in and destroyed my antique apple orchard in an attempt to starve me out and drive me from my land. Needless to say I have great sympathy for these folks.
Back to co-ops: closer to home I started my research by looking at MOO (Maine’s Own Organic) Milk. This is a company that was formed by a small group of organic milk producers who had their contracts dropped by Hood. I had thought it was a coop but it turns out they are incorporated as a L3C in Vermont. Something I know nothing about but which their website states is better for the members. More on that later after I have done some research.
Cabot Creameries. Now here is a true cooperative of farmers. These dairy farmers have been producing, processing and marketing their dairy products since 1919 and continue to be a shining example of what a cooperative can be. On the other end of the spectrum is Land O’ Lakes. What I see on their website tells me that they are a cooperative in the same way Gov. LePage is a friend of the working people of Maine. In other words: not really.
Many large farmers’ co-ops in the Midwest started from cooperative grain elevators (also the starting point for the Grange and the Populist movement, more on that later). They grew to include not only the marketing of their end product but the group purchasing power that leads to a decrease in the cost of inputs and machinery. How well the co-op serves its smaller members really depends on how it is organized. There are co-ops that give bigger producers a bigger say in how the business is run. No “one person, one vote” in these groups. The more money you make or acres you farm the more votes you can cast during the decision making process. Definitely not the democratic cooperative model I am used to.
Bold statement alert: Cooperatives are the wave of the future in farming. Cutting out the middlemen as much as possible to keep the profits in the farmer’s pockets is the way to make a decent living farming. Just as farmer’s markets and CSAs do that on an individual basis for a farmer. And in cases like MOO Milk it is a way not to lose the farm when the big corporations suddenly decide to stop buying your milk or veggies or meat or whatever.