The Cooperation Works Professional Development Training Program was designed to increase the number and success of sustainable agricultural cooperatives in the Northeast region. This program consisted of three, three-day sessions held over the course of 13 months and addressed the legal, accounting, business, and organizational aspects specific to cooperatives. The course was designed to prepare cooperative development professionals from Cooperative Extension, USDA Rural Development, Cooperative Development Centers, and other community development organizations in the region to support a cooperative development project from inception through feasibility analysis, incorporation, business planning, membership development and start-up. The program curriculum was designed to meet the needs of sustainable agriculture participants (SARE participants) by introducing segments on Northeast SARE and other available resources; current opportunities and challenges in sustainable agriculture, the associated benefits of cooperatives and other group-based businesses; as well as by incorporating two sustainable agricultural cooperative case studies per session (see Appendix B) to anchor the learning process with real world examples. With ongoing support from CDI, SARE participants applied what they learned by providing technical assistance to new and existing agricultural cooperative projects with the aim of diversifying agricultural products, making farms more profitable and making farming more environmentally sustainable.
An On-Line Resource entitled “Group-based Businesses Sustaining Agriculture in the Northeastern United States” was also developed to help farmers, agricultural service providers, and economic development professionals work together to develop the products, services, markets and business structures that are needed to sustain agriculture in the Northeast. This web resource was developed collaboratively with an advisory committee composed of Northeast sustainable agriculture leaders and sustainable agriculture participants. It is available on-line at http://www.cooplife.coop/sustag.html.
In our proposal we said 12 people would support the development of agricultural cooperatives in the Northeast targeted at achieving Northeast SARE outcomes. These 12 people would set a target to provide technical assistance to four agricultural group-based businesses and to support the development of one new sustainable agricultural cooperative every other year, serving a total of 48 businesses and likely resulting in 12 new cooperatives every other year. They would each provide more than 50 hours of technical assistance to these agricultural businesses, for a total of 600 hours during their training program.
Reporting against the accepted “Changes in Workplan” Apendix A-2, we anticipated that an average of 16 participants per session and a total of 25 overall would attend the three training sessions and study sustainable agricultural cooperative development.
OUTCOME: 15 people on average and 29 overall attended the three training sessions as SARE participants. Participants attended one or more of the following training sessions: Session I – Cooperatives and Cooperative Development. This session explored the principals of cooperation and the value cooperatives bring people and their communities; and provided a basic overview of the co-op development process from project inception and fundraising through feasibility analysis, incorporation, business planning, membership development and start-up. Session II: Effective Cooperative Development Consulting explored the role of the consultant in cooperative development; provided tools and techniques consultants employ in supporting project inception and planning, including defining consulting contracts, timeframes, milestones, outcomes and how to measure those outcomes; provided an opportunity to learn and practice project, group and meeting facilitation skills, effective communication and conflict resolution strategies; and of course, the art and science of supporting cooperative members to make key business decisions and the board’s role in proactively guiding the business planning process. Session II also looked at the Madision Principles, which are the professional standards which guide co-op development practioners; and strategies and information for bringing in additional resources to support the business planning process. Session III: Effective Cooperative Business Planning provided an intensive, step-by-step approach to market research, feasibility analysis, writing the business plan; and creating financial pro formas. Training session were coupled with out-of-session mentoring support for participants as they engaged in sustainable agricultural cooperative development.
MILESTONE 2: We had said 20 participants would provide a minimum of 10 hours of technical assistants to sustainable agricultural cooperative development projects and reflect on their work.
OUTCOME: 18 SARE participants provided at least ten hours, 13 of whom provided well over 50 hours, of technical assistance to sustainable agricultural cooperative development projects and have reflected on their work. 23 are planning to support cooperative development projects in the coming year.
MILESTONE 3: We said 12 of the participants would assist in developing the on-line website for developing sustainable agricultural cooperatives.
OUTCOME: 25 participants assisted in developing the online website for developing group-based businesses in sustainable agriculture. SARE participants were most interested in information on the cooperative development process, a resource list of existing sustainable agriculture cooperatives, associations and other group-based businesses, examples of group-based businesses that add value to farmers engaged in sustainable agriculture and the current trends, opportunities and challenges of sustainable agriculture in the Northeast. Looking forward, participants expressed a desire to access more sector specific information, including model business plans and financial pro formas.
Performance Target Outcomes
Over the course of this project, eighteen SARE participants supported the development of over twenty agricultural cooperatives or other group-based businesses in the Northeast targeted at achieving Northeast SARE outcomes, investing more than 50 hours of technical assistance each, far exceeding our initial Performance Targets. In the coming year, twenty-two SARE participants anticipate providing approximately 9,750 hours of technical assistance to sixty-five established and developing sustainable agriculture projects, cooperatives or group-based businesses in the Northeast. This outcome exceeds our Performance Targets in all areas.
As with all business development, cooperative development poses many challenges. One of the most significant challenges that participants faced as they engaged in their cooperative development projects, and which seems to be most particularly related to cooperative development, is the challenge of creating a business through committee. Because cooperatives are fundamentally a group-based business, their development holds all the challenges of a traditional business but with the added and often complex, difficult and frustrating dynamics of a group – competing personalities, and politics. So, it was no surprise that some of the most intense interest, discussions, and learning happened in Session II which dealt with the consultants role in the developmet process and provided many tools and techniques for creating shared vision and trust, practicing group-decision making, developing effective communication and employing conflict resolution strategies.
Another challenge that participants expressed in the cooperative development practice was understanding, being clear and confident about their role as consultants and defining boundaries.
They identified the real, and the often hard to avoid, sense of attachment to a project which can lead to personal, rather than professional investment and biased thinking in everything from providing guidance objectively, to interpersonal relationships with the clients, to interpreting the results of a feasibility analysis.
The need for the tools, the models and the resources to do the job without killing themselves or reinventing the wheel was commonly expressed. Cooperative development is still a developing field and it is a field that can relate to any industry. It is a business model that is employed most often when the current market is not meeting a need, and so becomes the vehicle for some very innovative and untried business ideas. It can be difficult to find the appropriate business model or financial pro-forma model for the particular cooperative business concept.
Here are some other challenges participants expressed:
“There is often cultural mismatch. It is difficult to move a group that is not used to being in charge of their own destiny.”
“It’s easy for me to see the framework for development. It’s hard for me to communicate it to other people. Everyone uses different words to describe all these things.”
“When I met with the forestry group, they really got into specifics. They were way too early in the process to even be thinking about how coops work; they hadn’t even thought through what the business would do. There were different interests, and different levels of interest. Some of the detailed questions I wasn’t able to answer. The information I received in the trainings will help me to engage in that more detailed conversation about how much a landowner might make from the coop, what the return on investment might be.”
“I’m best at conducting feasibility analysis. I’ve been most challenged by working with people/groups who don’t follow sound business planning practices, who don’t use the advice they receive from technical assistance advisors they bring in.”
“The challenge has been getting producers to work together and take ownership of the process. Time constraints have also been challenging. “
“My biggest challenge was needing to have an experience colleague to bounce ideas off of. The structure of mentorship CDI provided was absolutely invaluable to me as I negotiated everything from my rate to what to do with the not-so-great feasibility analysis conclusions.”
We initially anticipated that we would need to introduce 40 people to the principals of group-based business development in order to have 12 people interested in supporting this type of business development as a significant part of their work. Instead, we found that we only had to work with 29 people in order to have 23 people ready to commit to doing this work. Though we were a bit shy on meeting Milestones One and Two, as we were working more intensively with fewer people, we exceeded all of our Performance Targets by a large margin.
We trust you will agree that your investment of $62,600 brought great value by training 23 people in group-based business development and leveraging 9,750 hours of technical assistance to sixty-five established and developing sustainable agriculture projects, cooperatives or group-based businesses in the Northeast. Increasing our capacity to build and retain group-based, sustainable agriculture, value-added processing and marketing businesses is important for retaining farming in our region. This grant has made a significant contribution to that effort.