Helping farmers create group-owned farm businesses
The Greenhorns, in collaboration with Land for Good and Cooperative Development Institute, created this publication and outreach project to fill a gap in needed information, based on many received inquiries on the topic of collaborative farm ventures. While many publications exist on cooperatives in farming, we saw a demonstrated need for information geared toward small-scale and beginning farmers. It became clear that the current population of beginning and resource-limited farmers were seeking different models of collaboration that are traditionally found in agriculture, such as sharing land, collaborating in forming CSAs, and working together to manage farms. These needs were not addressed in the wealth of documents on producer cooperatives or other cooperatives typical in agriculture.
We designed a publication that would cover a range of case studies in collaboration among small-scale and beginning farmers with a guide to forming a group enterprise. To gather information, we sought participation from over 50 collaborative projects in development, 22 case studies of established group farming organizations, and a dozen professionals from the realms of cooperative development, land access, farm finance, and more. 10 months into our project, we have a draft publication on Cooperative Farming that’s undergoing final revisions and evaluations at present, and have begun outreach through conference workshops.
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. Below are the project goals as we originally stated them, with a note on our progress.
(1) Create a useful publication that provides thorough information and links to resources to take the next step.
(1a) Interview a minimum of ten farms with related structures.
Altogether, we interviewed 21 farms regarding 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 and case studies for the guidebook in development.
(1b) Interview a minimum of five farmer groups developing or seeking to develop a group business.
We put out a call for participants from farmers seeking to develop a group farm enterprise, and received over 50 responses in two weeks. Responders filled out a survey with information on their interests, stage of development, and readiness to launch their enterprise. We followed up with 14 of them to better understand their needs. The high level of interest confirmed that this project has relevance and meets unmet need in the farm community. The survey and interviews revealed the diversity of approaches to working together, which prompted us to reframe the project to meet the needs of a broader audience. We expanded the content to include more diverse options for structuring group enterprises, and added a chapter on sharing resources and services between separate enterprises.
(1c) Compile thorough information on the following topics:
- Seeking financing as a group
- Group governance structures and decision-making
- Legal structures available for group businesses
- Leasing or purchasing land as a group
- Creating operating documents and topics a group should consider in how they will operate
- Cost-sharing programs such as tool-sharing
In order to complete this step, we completed both primary and secondary research. We sought input from 12 professionals in cooperative development, cooperative finance, farm finance, farm business and law, distribution, land access, community development, and beginning farmer support. In addition, we reviewed over 100 documents on the above topics. Lastly, we interviewed related programs and businesses on the details of how their organization was structured and operated. The result is, we feel, a fairly comprehensive body of information made specific to farmers.
(1d) Have farmer groups evaluate draft and fill out post-project survey.
While we have not yet reached this final step on our timeline, we have received responses from over 50 farmers who are enthusiastic about the project and have agreed to act as first readers and evaluators.
(2) This information will reach the farmers most likely to use it.
While we are still in revisions and have not yet distributed the publication, we have hosted workshops at two farm conferences and have 3 more planned in the next two months. The workshops have been well attended with 20-30 participants in each. Through the pre-project surveys and workshops, we have identified 75 groups of cooperating farmers that will receive a personal invitation to download the guidebook.
(3) This information will increase the number of group-owned farm businesses in development.
We can’t yet track progress on our long-range impact.
(4) This information will reach farm credit agencies and extension offices and create a positive impression of group-owned enterprises.
We have planned an outreach effort to reach the above information communities upon release of the guidebook on Feb. 1st. To date, we’ve involved several key support agencies in the process of creating the guidebook, including Farm Credit East and Cornell Extension. As a result of our partnerships and outreach thus far, we’ve received requests for information from a number of cooperative development agencies and farm service organizations, indicating that interest in and knowledge of our research is high.
The original timeline was designed as follows:
By and large, we have kept to this original timeline. We completed the bulk of interviews with farms and prospective collaborators in the spring, researched and reached out to colleagues for input through the summer and fall, and are now finalizing a draft of the publication. We have begun to collect comments and evaluations of the draft and revise accordingly. We started an outreach process earlier than anticipated through conference workshops.
The only significant change to the original project proposal was in the content and focus of the guidebook. Our interviews with prospective collaborators demonstrated the variety of approaches, needs, and desires that fall under the broad term of “cooperative farming.” It became clear that beyond technical information on developing group enterprises, an overview of the broad “landscape” of cooperation in farming was needed. We needed to provide context so that groups could identify and name what they were looking to do. This expanded the subject matter, and we conducted additional interviews and research to fill in the gaps. Overall the length and breadth of the guidebook expanded over the year, and became less focused on the original iteration of “cooperative farming” that we had intended. We focused additional energy on compiling resources for further information, to make sure that it retained its usefulness to groups in the development process.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
In pre-publication, it is difficult to assess the contribution we have had. Before the round of outreach we have planned, we have only anecdotal evidence of an impact.
We have seen high interest in our project from farmers and farm service agents alike. We have brough in consultants and advisors from a wide range of organizations who have expressed enthusiasm and willingness to work on this project. Four of organizations have confirmed that they are receiving larger volumes of inquiries about this subject matter and are anticipating providing our publication to address these inquiries.
Two well attended workshops to date and over 50 voluntary responses to our pre-project survey, have demonstrated that our project fills an unmet need. We have been able to provide a number of farmers who participated in workshops or survey with references to support organizations in literature specific to their needs. We look forward to using this guidebook as a tool to host further workshops, trainings, and one-on-one consultations.
New World Foundation
PO Box 617
Kinderhook, NY 12106
Office Phone: 5182815074
Farm Credit East
785 Hartford Pike
Dayville, CT 06241
Office Phone: 8607740717
Land for Good
P.O. Box 11
Belchertown, MA 01007
Office Phone: 4133239878
Cooperative Development Institute
106 Harlan Drive
Barrington, NH 03825
Office Phone: 6036645838