For Small Farms Surviving The Pandemic, Co-ops Are A Lifeline

When their buyers closed up shop, some farmers created new opportunities by collaborating with their neighbors.

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).