Food security is a growing concern in the 21st century. Since 1935, the number of small family-owned farms in America has dwindled from 6.8 million to just over 2 million today, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture. Locally, the Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative is working hard to reverse this trend.
Beginning its fourth year as a farmer-owned food distribution co-op consisting of more than 20 small farmers and ranchers in the region, Farm Fresh is growing its reach to food producers and eaters alike, said Ole Bye, Southwest Farm Fresh’s founder and general manager. This year, the co-op is expanding its multi-farm Community Supported Agriculture program beyond Durango to residents in Mancos and Cortez. The co-op continues to distribute fresh-picked produce to restaurants in Telluride, Cortez and Durango.
In 2016, a milestone year for Farm Fresh co-op, more income was generated from food sales than from grant funds. That bodes well for co-op farmer-owners by putting more money in their pockets and back into their farms, Bye said.
Rustin Newton, owner and chef at Mutu’s Italian Kitchen in Durango, says Farm Fresh co-op is working for him – in a very literal sense. Earlier this year, he met with Farm Fresh to discuss what co-op farmers could grow specifically for his restaurant. Newton came away knowing that he would have a specific color of tomato for his summer menu.
“With numerous farms participating in the cooperative, it gives chefs access to larger quantities and more variety of delicious, fresh, local produce,” Newton said. And his customers increasingly value locally grown food, he said.
For Emily and Mike Jensen, founding co-op farmers and owners of Homegrown Farm in Bayfield, the cooperative has revitalized their farm and their family life. “Farming can be an isolating livelihood, and being in business with other farmers has meant so much to us. Not only do we receive business support, we share ideas and techniques,” said Emily Jensen.
Farm Fresh provides a number of valuable business services to members, including joint marketing, delivery of their produce to CSA members and bulk purchasing of packaging supplies. According to Emily Jensen, developing relationships with other farmers and ranchers is especially valuable.
Jensen praised the co-op’s model for helping to streamline their business. “Instead of growing 34 types of veggies to please our CSA customers, now we only grow 10 varieties – other farmers fill in with produce they specialize in growing ... and that means my husband and I can spend more time with our kids.”
Rachel Bennett, Farm Fresh’s CSA coordinator, believes that it is the cooperative business model that offers this “win-win” for food producers and customers. “Cooperative principles ensure that everyone benefits – farmers and ranchers get the price they want and deserve, CSA customers get the diversity of freshly harvested food they want, and chefs get the high quality, local food they desire for their menus.”
Bennett said democratic member control, one of the “Seven Cooperative Principles” by which cooperatives around the world operate, ensures that Farm Fresh farmers and ranchers are active in running the business and support it through volunteer activities. But mostly, the co-op model helps them do what they do best – produce fresh food.
As a values-based business, Farm Fresh co-op’s success is measured by a triple bottom line – meaning the business must be economically viable, socially responsible and good stewards of the land and community.
For small farms and ranches, selling through a cooperatively owned distribution system guarantees that the farmers and ranchers sell their goods at a price that reflects the needs of the producer, not just the retail seller. The middleman is removed from the equation, making more money available for the growers to reinvest in their livelihoods, ensuring the viability of small farms, said Bye.
In contrast, conventional food outlets such as Walmart and City Market set the prices paid to producers. According to Bye, “Food producers have no control over their pricing and products – they are beholden to economic systems that are vertically integrated and vulnerable to distributors, brokers, grocery stores – a whole host of middle people wanting a cut.
“It should be easy to understand why it’s important to buy locally produced food if we can get people to see that the income from a bunch of carrots is paying for more than the carrots,” said Bye, “It’s ensuring healthy soil and water and a sustainable economic base in rural communities into the future.”
Contact Jules Masterjohn at email@example.com.