What does “local” mean when you live on a remote farm or ranch?

It’s an important question because going “local” has significant benefits: it gives us access to fresh, healthy food; it reduces our carbon footprint and lessens our dependence on fossil fuels; it keeps money circulating in the local economy where its multiplier effect can be large; it builds a sense of community among all participants; and it pokes globalization in the eye.

Good stuff, but when we talk about “local” we almost always mean from the perspective of a city resident, i.e., those products grown or made closest to a customer. Farmer’s markets are a good example. “Local” in their case means a radius around a point (the market) located in a city or suburb. This means participation is limited to those farms and ranches who can afford the time and money to drive into town every weekend. In other words, from the perspective of a city resident, anybody selling produce at a farmer’s market is “local.”

However, if you live on a remote farm or ranch, especially out West where the distances to potential markets can be staggering, “local” looks very different – especially with the high price of diesel. Without a Santa Fe or Denver or Portland nearby, how can an organic farmer or grassfed beef rancher participate in the burgeoning local food movement and reap its benefits?

Fortunately, the Oklahoma Food Cooperative has come up with an ingenious solution: redefine “local” to include the entire state – with significant help from the Internet. They do this in two ways: first, it is a producer and consumer cooperative, i.e., rural farmers and ranchers and urban consumers gathered under one umbrella. Second, the buying and selling between the two groups takes place in a virtual marketplace, which is where the Internet comes in.

Here’s how it works:

  • You pay a one-time fee of $51.75 to become a member of the Cooperative.
  • On the first day of every month, members can go on the Cooperative’s web site and purchase any food or craft product listed there.
  • On the second Thursday, this electronic ordering ‘window’ closes. The orders are then sent to the participating farms and ranches so they can be filled.
  • On the third Thursday of the month, designated drivers visit all the participating farms and ranches to pick up the orders.
  • All drivers then converge at a warehouse in Oklahoma City where the products are separated into piles and then rebundled according to the customer’s orders.
  • The drivers travel back home, dropping off the individual orders at one of 50 designated locations across the state, where the customers pick them up.

Presto! Local redefined. Here are more details:

  • All products provided by the Cooperative are made within the state of Oklahoma.
  • Each farm and ranch controls their own inventory, sets their own price for their products and each designs its own label and controls the advertising.
  • Customers can buy as much or as little as they want each month and they can earn credits toward a purchase by volunteering.
  • There are nearly 4000 items on the Cooperative’s web site, many of which are organic, natural or grassfed (there are many non-food items for sale as well).
  • Quality is guaranteed – or your money back.
  • All participating farmers and ranchers get roughly 90 cents of every dollar spent on their products.

This last point is huge. In the industrial agricultural model, producers typically get 20 cents of every food dollar. The rest goes to ‘middle men,’ including packers, truckers, grocery stores, and other corporate interests. In the Oklahoma Food Cooperative model there are no middle men, other than the Cooperative itself. Producers come out ahead because they are now ‘price givers’ instead of ‘price-takers.’ This is something new under the sun, and one of the reasons I made a long drive a few years ago to Fairview, located in northwestern Oklahoma, to see for myself.

I joined a tour of a certified organic wheat and grassfed beef farm owned by John and Kris Gosney called Cattle Tracks. Not long ago, John Gosney was a conventional wheat farmer, soaking his fields with pesticides, harvesting the wheat with a ton of fossil fuel, and watching his spirit decline along with the land’s health. He became depressed, he told the group, often finding himself sitting on a bale of hay wondering where his life heading. John said that he never gave organic agriculture a thought until a neighbor asked him to take over his farm, as he was about to retire and didn’t want to let his hard work developing an organic wheat operation to come to naught. John said ‘yes.’

John told us he was immediately struck by the profitability of his neighbor’s farm and decided to certify his own farm as organic as a consequence. Initially, he saw a drop in yield, but he also saw a drop in expenses, especially since he stopped using conventional fertilizers and pesticides. Eventually, as the yield came up, so did his profits. However, the main benefit of the switch, he said, was non-economic: he began to have fun again. Going organic cured him of his depression. He liked the challenge of organic as well as the hard work it requires.

Today, the Gosneys grow cattle to 800 pounds on their wheat fields and finish them on native grass (an all-wheat diet affects the taste of the meat, he said). He proudly pointed to an analysis by Oklahoma State University of the CLA (conjugated linoleic acid – a cancer-fighter) content of Cattle Tracks beef. According to the analysis it fell “in the highest range of CLA content reported in the literature for beef.”

The Oklahoma Food Cooperative, he told us, was the key to it all.

One downside to the Cooperative’s model is less face-to-face interaction between producers and customers. In both the CSA and Farmer’s Market models, the meet-and-greet relationship between grower and eater is an important part of doing business. By contrast, by working through the Internet, people don’t get much face time.

For remote farmers and ranchers, however, this downside is offset by a big upside: they get to participate in a “local” food economy. By offering products for sale via the Internet at a one-stop shop provided by the Cooperative, as the Gosneys discovered, “local” is extended to the state line. Suddenly, “remote” doesn’t seem so remote anymore!

Here’s a photo of John Gosney talking to visitors:Copy of IMG_1715

Cooperative Behavior

“Food for People not for Profit.”

As with many coops begun in the late 60s and early 70s, this was the original slogan of La Montañita Food Cooperative, which was founded in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1976 with three hundred families as members. According to Robin Seydel, a coop staff person since 1985, it was very much a ‘hippie’ establishment in the beginning, dedicated to gaining access to “off-limit” food at the time, including organics, whole grains, and macrobiotics. The coop also threw early jabs at the industrial food system by offering workshops on the links between pesticides and cancer, food irradiation and GMOs. Its counterculture spirit even extended to its organizational structure. By being member-owned, it deliberately set itself as an alternative to the corporate model of soulless profit-making.

Fast forward nearly forty years and what was once counterculture is now mainstream, which is good news for all of us!

Today, La Montañita has over 16,000 member households, employs nearly 300 people, manages six stores in three cities, operates a regional food distribution hub, and has returned over $4.5 million to its members in patronage dividends since 1989. It is an active member of the National Cooperative Grocers Association, which encompasses over 140 food coops representing combined annual sales of over $1.5 billion and over one million consumer-owners. And as we all know, healthy, nutritious, organic, and sustainably-produced food that was once considered ‘off-limits’ is now widely available across the nation and has become a part of everyday eating habits.

This good news begs a question: could other kinds of regenerative activities considered “off-limits” economically today, such as building soil carbon or restoring damaged ecosystems or feeding large numbers of people sustainably follow a similar trajectory? Perhaps cooperatives are the ticket to getting this important work accomplished as well. What about a Restoration Cooperative!

It’s not a pipe dream. Cooperatives are all around us, including worker-owned manufacturing coops, depositor-owned credit unions and agricultural marketing coops. Overall, there are nearly 30,000 cooperatives in the United States, accounting for two million jobs and $500 billion in annual revenues.

IRS-recognized types include: (1) Consumer cooperatives, which are owned by the people who buy their products or use their services – REI is the nation’s largest example; (2) Producer cooperatives, where farmers and others group together to sell their products under one label – Organic Valley, for instance; (3) Purchasing cooperatives, where businesses work together in order to be competitive with national chains – just as the National Cooperative Grocers Association does; and (4) Worker cooperatives, which are owned and run by employees – a good example is the Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain, one the biggest cooperatives in the world.

Consumer cooperatives are by far the largest type of coop in the United States and the movement as a whole is gaining momentum. Recent research suggests why: the broad and diverse benefits created by coops make them resilient in a crisis. Credit unions, for example, survived the Great Recession of 2008 relatively unscathed because they viewed rampant mortgage speculation as contrary to the interests of their members.

Another reason cooperatives are resilient is that they often focus on the essentials necessary to a healthy society: food, water, electricity, insurance, finance. Their primary mission is to provide a public service, not act as engines for wealth accumulation. That’s why it is not such a big leap to extend the cooperative model to ecological restoration and carbon sequestration.

Although its ‘hippie’ roots have faded, there is an important element to the cooperative model that remains firmly countercultural: its communal ownership structure. Like nonprofits, cooperatives are a legally-sanctioned form of private ownership in service of the public good. While they are profit-making, they are not profit-maximizing. This sets cooperatives squarely against the corporate model of doing business, whose overriding goal is to turn a small pile of money into a larger pile of money (to paraphrase Wendell Berry).

In contrast, cooperatives see money as a means to an end: creating an economy that supports, rather than diminishes, the greater public good. It’s not just about economics, however. For organizations like La Montañita, the philosophy that motivates their work is the belief that cooperative behavior is the key to healthy communities and thus a brighter future for all.

This shouldn’t be news – humans have profitably engaged in cooperative behavior since, well, we became human.

“The cooperative economy is helping to reawaken an ancient wisdom about living together in community, something largely lost in the spread of capitalism,” writes Marjorie Kelly, an author and advocate for cooperatives. Cooperatives represent a need that “arises from an unexpected place – not from government action, or protests in the streets, but from within the structure of our economy itself. Not from the leadership of a charismatic individual, but from the longing in many hearts, the genius of many minds, the effort of many hands to build what we know, instinctively, we need.”

The first successful cooperative was organized in 1844 in Rochdale, England, when a group of weavers and other craftsmen pushed back against the tide of Industrialism sweeping the nation by opening a store to collectively sell their products. They called themselves the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers and they authored a set of Principles that have recently been updated by the International Coop Alliance. They include: (1) open and voluntary membership; (2) democratic control; (3) economic participation by members; (4) autonomy and independence; (5) education, information and training; (6) cooperation among cooperatives; and (7) concern for community.

Counterculture indeed!

Robin Seydel describes the difference between the cooperative and corporate models this way: the size of financial dividends paid to members by cooperatives is based on patronage (how much goods and services you purchase) not the level of investment made by someone with extra funds “after they put a roof over their head, food on the table and shoes on the baby.”

There are many other reasons to support the cooperative model: La Montañita pays a living wage – and did so before living wages became popular –and it provides an excellent benefit package. Its food hub, the Coop Distribution Center, serves several hundred local producers in a 300 mile radius around Albuquerque. It is farmer and rancher-friendly, sending them the important message that they can count on the Coop to be there. Which explains the unofficial motto of the cooperative movement: “We were local before local was cool.”

Cooperatives are cool. And important to our future!

Here’s a photo of Robin Seydel in the Coop’s produce section:la montanita 1.widea

For more info see: http://lamontanita.coop/

Marjorie Kelly’s quote: http://www.yesmagazine.org/issues/how-cooperatives-are-driving-the-new-economy/the-economy-under-new-ownership