For Small Farms Surviving the Pandemic, Co-ops Are a Lifeline

Ian Colburn, Zoey Fink, and Casey Holland all operate small, diversified farms in the Albuquerque, New Mexico area. The farmers already had plants in the ground in March when they realized restaurants and farmers’ markets—two of their biggest sales channels—would likely shut down due to the pandemic.

Colburn of Solarpunk Farm worried his acreage was too small to support a robust Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and that he hadn’t planned for the kind of crop diversity that model demanded. Fink works part-time at Farm Shark Farm with her husband. They already had a CSA but didn’t think they could increase membership enough on their own to sell the rest of the vegetables.

“It was a scary time,” she said. “We thought: if we work together, we can be scaling up and serving 100 families per week.”

What emerged was the Better Together CSA, a cooperative effort that pooled their produce and resources to get fresh food to local families stuck at home. Now in its fourth membership cycle, the CSA has grown from 45 shares to 85, with nine to 12 farms participating, depending on the week.

“It felt very urgent,” said Holland of Chispas Farm. “We threw this whole operation together in a week, and we kind of workshopped it from there.”

Since the pandemic disrupted agriculture supply chains and changed how most Americans eat, a number of small farms around the country have been working collaboratively. Better Together is just one example.

While cooperative business structures are common in agriculture, they are often large and represent single commodity supply chains, like Organic Valley for milk, Ocean Spray for cranberries, or Midwest grain co-ops. On the flip side, small, diversified farms tend to operate independently and then sell directly to wholesalers or local customers. And many of them have been particularly hard hit by COVID-19 because of their dependence on restaurant sales and the fact that coronavirus-related federal aid for farmers largely passed them by.

As of yet, there is no formal count of the number of farms banding together to sell their goods, but it’s taking place all over the country—from New Mexico to Massachusetts to North Carolina. In April, North Carolina State’s Agricultural Extension hosted an educational series called “How to (Quickly) Organize Farms to Market Together.”

“The co-op knows what farmers are going to need to survive, and they want the farmers to survive—because they are the farmers.”

Doug O’Brien, the president and CEO of the National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International, said that even before the pandemic, his team was talking about this time in history as a potential “cooperative moment.” Now, COVID-19 seems to be amplifying and accelerating that movement.

“If you look historically at when people have really recognized co-ops . . . it’s been in times of economic or social turmoil,” said O’Brien. “One of the great advantages is their resiliency. The co-op knows what farmers are going to need to survive, and they want the farmers to survive—because they are the farmers.”

O’Brien said that co-ops are particularly good at long-term survival, while investor-beholden corporations are more focused on short-term returns. Therefore, cooperative structures can help small farms—and many other food businesses—meet looming challenges related to equity and climate change.

Still, many of the collaborations that have come out of the pandemic have also added additional work to farmers’ plates, and it’s unclear whether COVID-19-related cooperation will last into the future.

“What I like most is that, from the beginning, we were creating this for farmers, by farmers,” Colburn said.

New Co-ops Forming on the Fly, Older Ones Stepping Up

As a business model, a cooperative is generally a business owned, controlled, and benefitted by the people who work or support it. Co-ops can be owned by producers, workers, or consumers—or a combination thereof.

How co-ops are structured and which part of a business or industry they represent varies. For example, many agricultural co-ops, like in dairy, are focused on marketing and distribution. The co-op pools the milk from many small farms and handles selling it at the best price for farmers (although some co-ops in dairy, like Dairy Farmers of America, have gotten very big, and farmers argue they now operate like profit-hungry corporations rather than representing farmers’ interests).

On the other end of the spectrum, many small farms, especially during COVID-19, have started working together on the fly, while figuring out the business structure along the way. “A lot of the local food stuff is done informally with a handshake,” O’Brien said. “People just kind of do it.”

Filling the first order of CSA boxes at Sunderland Farm. (Photo by Caroline Carter Pam on Instagram)

The Better Together CSA was created that way, as was the Sunderland Farm Collaborative, an online marketplace that now sells food from 40 local farms, many of which lost restaurant accounts, to residents of Western Massachusetts at home, through pick-up or delivery. In North Carolina, Lil’ Farm organized a multi-farm CSA that aggregated produce from several local farms as early as mid-March, just after the local farmers’ market shut down temporarily.

Additionally, some local food co-ops that existed before COVID-19 found they were uniquely suited to respond to the pandemic’s challenges. As large meatpacking plants shut down and commodity hog farmers struggled to sell their animals, Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative, which processes and sells meat from 32 small farms in Arkansas, ramped up processing to meet the rise in demand.

And as reports of the many failures of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farm to Families Food Box program piled up, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, a co-op of Black farmers, landowners, and co-ops, landed a grant and began quickly buying excess food from small farms and distributing it to communities in need.

Pooling Knowledge, Skills, and Resources

In the recent past, aggregation of local food has often been done by food hubs, but many have struggled to access capital and maintain the complicated logistics of fresh food distribution. Tahz Walker, the program manager and farmer liaison for the Farmers of Color Network run by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), says it’s important to think about how farmers can own the process themselves.

Walker said that many of the farmers he works with were selling wholesale or directly to institutions and had to pivot quickly in the face of COVID-19. As they attempted to switch to direct sales, they struggled with creating structures to do so.

“[Often] one farmer who had been doing more direct sales would partner with a few others . . . and they would build out a CSA. That’s where I’ve seen farmers come together the most,” Walker said.

At Better Together, Holland was that one founding farmer. She had been running a CSA for over six years and had cold storage, wash stations, and outdoor packing space to share. Farmers dropped their produce off there and were scheduled to pack the shares on a rotating basis. The team raised the price of shares by a few dollars and created a fund to handle administrative costs.

“There’s a lot of opportunity around that kind of collective and cooperative organizing,” Walker said. And he should know. Walker is also a co-founder of the Earthseed Land Collective, just north of Durham.

About seven years ago, he joined a group people of color interested in buying land collectively as a means of  creating systems change and just communities. Land access is consistently ranked as the number one challenge young farmers face, and it is even more challenging for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) farmers.

“A co-op makes it all a lot less risky, and you have more of a support system.”

The seven members have now been living on 48 acres of shared land for about three years. Walker runs his two-acre vegetable operation, Tierra Negra Farm, there, and another member operates a vermicomposting company. In the future, the members hope to use the land for community gatherings and agritourism.

For Walker, the benefits of shared ownership, stewardship, and management have become even clearer during the pandemic. “It makes it all a lot less risky,” he said, “and you have more of a support system.”

“In the most practical sense, we couldn’t afford [the land] individually. I don’t even know if we could dream it. I think [land-based work] has been done in isolation for a long time, and it wears down farmers and other land practitioners and stewards,” he said, noting that many people are struggling to meet the day-to-demands of running a farm while also looking to help unravel systemic land access barriers, for example. “It’s hard to have your head down and have your head up at the same time.”

Post-Pandemic Predictions

In Massachusetts, Sunderland Farm Collaborative has been so successful that founder Caroline Pam is now investing in significant infrastructure to operate as a cooperative for the long haul.

But for all the benefits that cooperative farming can bring, the fact that it can actually add tasks to a farmers’ to-do list could mean that some won’t last beyond the pandemic.

“In many ways, they is more work for the members. There’s more participation and more engagement, but there’s more control and more benefit in many cases,” said O’Brien of the NCBA. “But honestly, sometimes co-ops aren’t the right solution.”

In August, the Better Together farmers were unsure about whether they’d continue to collaborate and form a more long-standing partnership going forward. Part of that uncertainty was based on the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 and what the world (and therefore markets for food) will look like next spring, when their next harvest season begins.

Colburn expressed a level of exhaustion in terms of dealing with the logistics of direct sales and collaboration. “I’m still up in the air, to be honest,” he said. “As much as I’ve loved collaborating, I’m also ready to just harvest vegetables and to sell everything wholesale.”

Fink and Holland jumped in to kindly tease him about being what farmers call “August tired,” the kind of deep fatigue that sets in after the grueling work of the peak harvest season. They quickly all agreed they’d keep checking in with each other as the winter got underway. “That’s the benefit of the collaboration. We can all make that decision together. There’s not a ton of pressure, when this ends at the end of October, to make that decision immediately,” Holland said.

All three farmers also agreed that they felt stronger and more certain of their resilience as individual farmers, and, more importantly, as a community that can come together and feed itself in a moment of crisis.

“As farmers, we’re like magicians. We’re able to create this food with seeds and sun and rain and the sweat on our brow—and we can do that with systems, too,” Holland said. “There will be future shocks and things to confront. To know that in an emergency we were able to throw this together, and that we can trust each other . . .  It’s really important to be reminded of our own self efficacy. To say, ‘Actually, we can do it, and we’re going to do it well.’”

Lisa Held

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior policy reporter. Her stories on the food system, sustainable agriculture, and food policy have appeared in many additional publications, including Eater, NPR’s The Salt, and Edible Manhattan. She also produces and hosts the weekly podcast “The Farm Report” on Heritage Radio Network. In the past, Lisa covered health and wellness for publications including the New York Times and Women’s Health and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism.

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