Cooperative and collaborative businesses have the potential to ease many barriers to new farmers, by allowing farmers to work together to access land, pool capital, and share equipment, markets, or expertise. The Greenhorns, in partnership with Cooperative Development Institute and Land For Good, designed this publication and outreach project to provide small and beginning farmers with the information they need to form collaborative farm businesses.
We designed a publication that would cover in depth information on the social, legal, and financial considerations for forming a collaborative business, plus a range of case studies and best practices gathered from existing projects and businesses. To gather information, we sought participation from over 50 collaborative projects in development, 22 existing businesses, and a dozen professionals from the realms of cooperative development, land access, farm finance, and more. After publishing a 55-page guidebook online and in print, we conducted outreach through 1 webinars, 4 conferences, and through online and email campaigns. In total, the guidebook reached 12,000 people and received 1,200 downloads in the month following its publication.
The original outcome goals of the project were to (a) research and create a useful publication on cooperative farming, and (b) to follow with an outreach plan that would increase knowledge in the beginning farmer community, farm service agencies, and related support organizations.
Using the research methods below, we sought to create a comprehensive guidebook that wove together the many types of information required to form a successful group business. We met or exceeded all of our goals for gathering information and input. We had originally planned to include input from 10 existing farms and 5 groups in development. In the end we conducted interviews with 21 farm businesses and 14 groups in development, plus a wide range of professional input. We expanded the content based on feedback from preliminary surveys, adding two chapters and an additional 15 pages of content.
Our outreach efforts, described below, also exceeded our goals. The guidebook received 1200 downloads following its publication, more than double our expected reach. Our workshops were well-attended and well-received, ranging from 20-75 participants. We continued to receive high interest throughout our project from both farmers and agricultural support organizations.
We involved several key support agencies in the process of creating the guidebook, including Farm Credit East, Cornell Extension, and two cooperative development agencies. Following publication, 11 additional organizations included our work in their newsletters or social media, and we were invited to present at additional conferences and gatherings. These responses indicate to us that this project has been successful in opening dialogue on collaborative farm structures, and validating these models as important tools to overcome current challenges.
Perhaps the best indication of our success is the number of voluntary responses from readers: we have since received more than 25 emails from readers in the northeast, Midwest, and western seaboard that sought us to to let us know how much they appreciated the book.
Collaboration in creating farm businesses can provide a solution to a number of the challenges faced by new farmers. Most resource-limited beginning farmers have difficulty accessing credit, start-up capital, and farmland to start their operation. Our organizations have encountered many beginning farmers looking overcome these challenges by working together to start a farm business, share land, market together, or share access to resources like equipment.
However, forming a group enterprise can be a complex process, requiring thorough planning and clear agreements. Our publication was designed to build knowledge of business structures and group processes that provide the backbone for effective collaboration.
Our research methods included the following approaches:
1. Interviews of farmer groups developing or seeking to develop a group business.
We began with an open-call survey of farmers who were working to create a collaborative enterprise. We received 50 voluntary responses in two weeks from farmers across the country. The survey results indicated that there was a great need for this information, particularly regarding legal structures, operating agreements, and financial considerations. We followed up with 14 of the farmers that responded, to learn the details of their plans and operations. The survey and interviews revealed the diversity of approaches sought and employed by farmers seeking to work together in various ways. In response, we reframed the project to meet the needs of a broader audience. We expanded the content from a focus on group-managed farms, to cover sharing markets, equipment, and other resources between separate enterprises.
2. Interviews of existing farms with collaborative structures.
Altogether, we interviewed 21 farms demonstrating existing models of farmer collaboration, more than double our goal. The interviews spanned a broad spectrum of types of collaborative models, and yielded a strong body of information on common considerations for group farming. Many of these interviews provided case studies for the guidebook.
3. Literature Review
We reviewed over 100 documents, including resources from the USDA’s Rural Development program, cooperative development organizations, incubator farms, cohousing and community organizations, and Cooperative Extension materials.
4. Professional Input
We sought input from 14 professionals in cooperative development, cooperative finance, farm finance, farm business and law, land access, community development, and beginning farmer support. Lastly, we interviewed related programs and businesses on the details of how their organization was structured and operated, such as distribution companies and food hubs, incubator farms, and non-profit tool lending programs. Direct input from professionals in the field resulted in very valuable information on best practices and common pitfalls.
We conducted a post-project survey with 10 of our readers. We asked them to assess their knowledge on the below topics before and after reading the guidebook, with 1 indicating low to no understanding and 5 indicating high knowledge:
- Existing forms of collaborative and cooperative businesses
- Legal forms available for group businesses
- Governance methods and processes
- Structuring business agreements
- Group process and facilitation
Readers indicated an increase in each category, with an average increase of 1.4 in the first 4 categories and an average increase of 1.8 in group process and facilitation.
In addition, 60% of readers indicated they were more likely to move forward with their plans for collaboration. 70% indicated they were more aware of available resources. 80% indicated they were better able to articulate their plans, better prepared to seek professional assistance, and more aware of potential challenges.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The resulting guidebook included 55 pages with chapters on (1) sharing resources and services between businesses, (2) group-managed farms, (3) structuring a group business, (4) group process and conflict resolution, and (5) cooperative landholding. Online copies were made available for download for free on the Greenhorns website. We printed limited quantities of print copies for display, distribution, and for sale at cost. We created postcard fliers with the link to the free download for display at conferences and events.
We also conducted a series of workshops based on the guidebook’s content. In total we presented 4 workshops at NOFA NY, NOFA NH, Stone Barns Young Farmers Conference, and the Just Food Conference. During our outreach efforts, we were invited to present in an online webinar and in Farm Beginnings, a farmer training course.
We conducted an outreach campaign to disseminate the resource to beginning farmers and allies. Our efforts reached 12,000 readers, and prompted 11 additional organizations to share it with their readership.
In the process of developing this resource, we encountered the following needs regarding cooperative education for small and beginning farmers:
Training programs for skilled leaders and facilitators. Lack of skilled leadership is a central limitation to the development of more collaborative farming organizations. We need to train more facilitators and organizers that are embedded in their local farm communities and can support producers to enact their collaborative ideas.
More contemporary written resources addressed specifically toward beginning farmers and ranchers. In reviewing existing literature on forming farm cooperatives, we found that many of them were highly technical or written for much larger established farms, with case studies and financial information that did not apply to new farmers. We need current resources on cooperative development written with language, case studies, and financial information relevant to the scale and experience level of new farmers, who are often new to business management. We also need to get this information out to new farmers by integrating it into the core curriculum of beginning farmer training programs.
Additional technical assistance from cooperative development agencies. Our intent was to provide a foundational resource to build literacy and understanding of group structures. Many groups in development will need one-on-one assistance from technical advisors to successfully build their businesses. Earmarked funding for technical assistance for beginning farmers would allow technical advisors in cooperative development to conduct more outreach and provide one-on-one assistance.