From weathering droughts, price volatility, to creating markets, Maine farmers have a full plate. But there are many more courses in this meal. What about product development, market research, navigating regulations, and succession planning? Maine’s cooperative food system provides answers for many of these challenges.
What is a Cooperative?
A “cooperative” (or “co-op”) is a type of business. Typically they are values-driven businesses, democratically owned and run by their members. Members also share the profits. By joining forces, there are more resources available to tackle challenges shared by all members. This added capacity bolsters businesses against economic and environmental vulnerability and builds resilience. Agricultural cooperatives come in many forms.
Marketing cooperatives have access to wider markets than a farm would on their own. They allow farms to promote, sell, and compete for more market share. Processing cooperatives connect businesses to equipment they might not be able to afford. These include shared or mobile canning machines, packaging and processing equipment or slaughterhouses.
Employee ownership can support sustainable businesses and dignified jobs. Members have equal voices in the decision-making process. This makes employee-owners more responsible for their own success.
Also, this formal business arrangement facilitates succession planning (planning who will take over a business when one leader or generation retires), something critical for all businesses. They also play an important role in creating and expanding businesses in underserved communities.
Cooperatives in Agriculture
Cooperatives have long been a part of agriculture and food markets. Did you know that one of New England’s most recognizable dairy brands is a cooperative? Cabot Creamery Cooperative was established in 1919 to give farmers more leverage in the market place.
Cabot was created by small family farm businesses, with tight margins.
To ship their products they competed with large companies in the distribution chain. They also had to rely on other creameries to process their milk. Then they joined forces and bought the town creamery. Today 85 Maine farms are a part of the Cabot cooperative, including Krebs Organic Dairy Farm, Pineland Farms, Dunn Farm, Flood Brothers, Highland Farms, and Wright Place Farm.
A more familiar cooperative model is food cooperatives. The members, who are also customers, are the owners. Cooperative markets were developed as a way for consumers to source more local and nutritious food. The Belfast Co-Op is the state’s oldest cooperative, established in 1976. Starting off as a buyers club, it grew with the community’s interest in local food. It now purchases from over 220 local farmers and producers and is a staple in the community. (Pun intended.) The Portland Food Coop is a grocery store with a mission to support its community. Not only is 40% of its sales from local producers, but it also provides free market space for New American farmers.
Cultivating Community is a nonprofit food justice organization. They, along with Cooperative Development Institute, play a significant role in developing Black, Indigenous, and People of color (BIPOC) cooperative businesses in Maine. These organizations offer New American farmers business development services and access to markets.
After farming with Cultivating Community, four Somali Bantu farmers formed New Roots Cooperative Farm. This was the first immigrant-owned cooperative in Maine. In 2016 they started leasing a 30-acre farm in Lewiston and are working on purchasing the land from Maine Farmland Trust.
In addition, the Somali Bantu Community Association is another organization championing BIPOC cooperative farming.
Somali farmers are accustom to organizing into groups to farm. Together they share a piece of land, along with labor and the profits at Liberation Farms. The farm currently supports eight farming groups leveraging more market share together.
Cooperatives from Farm-to-Table
Moreover, as demand for local food increases in the market place so does cooperative business integration. One market which has seen a growing demand for local foods is institutions. To navigate the local supply chain the Maine Farm and Sea Cooperative was born. Also, cooperative restaurants like Isuken Co-op food truck and Pemaquid Seafood Restaurant source from other cooperatives.
In conclusion, from seeds cultivated at Johnny’s Selected Seeds or Fedco Seeds, to crops grown at New Roots, and sold to Co-ops throughout the state, cooperatives are woven throughout the food chain.