Against the backdrop of fresh powder and the prospect of a long weekend, a group of New England farmers, leaders from Vermont’s farmer, worker and consumer co-ops, and state policymakers gathered in Burlington, VT, last weekend for the 2014 Co-op Convening, organized by New England Farmers Union (NEFU).

From the United Nations International Year of Co-operatives in 2012, to the release of the Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade in 2013, and now the International Year of Family Farming in 2014, this is a unique moment for the co-operative enterprise. Indeed, the co-operative business model is receiving renewed attention as an effective tool for addressing some of the core problems in our current food system: persistent food insecurity, growing awareness of the gap between demand and supply for local and regional foods, and a pervasive concern that those producing our food are not gaining a viable livelihood from their effort.

So what can we do to encourage the growth of the co-operative model in our region? What are the key challenges and opportunities for co-ops? And what role can NEFU play moving forward?

NEFU Vice President Erbin Crowell, who is also executive director of the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, laid the foundation for dialog by presenting some of the reasons that co-operative enterprise is being featured in regional food systems and economies. As member-owned and democratically governed organizations, co-ops are focused on meeting community needs before profit, developing local skills and anchoring economic infrastructure locally. In the wake of the global recession, co-operative enterprise has been shown to be more sustainable and resilient than other business models. This has drawn the attention of organizations from the United Nations to officials in local government. Crowell, who also serves on the board of National Co-operative Business Association, pointed out that co-ops offer a unique advantage to family-scale producers in particular because they are able to take advantage of economies of scale while retaining local ownership and control.

Diane Bothfeld, Deputy Secretary for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, then offered a broad view of the opportunities and challenges for food system co-ops from the Agency’s perspective. Some key opportunities exist in particular in the areas of fresh produce, livestock processing and developing creative partnerships between producers and buyers. Bothfeld also pointed to the importance of this dialog in advancing the co-operative model in a shifting agricultural environment and enhancing farmers’ access to markets, processing and distribution.

Several themes emerged from the group dialog that followed:

  • Co-ops have an important role to play in advancing the economic viability of New England’s producers.
  • We need to strike a balance between focusing on new enterprises and helping existing co-ops address opportunities in the food system.
  • There is a challenge getting access to technical and legal expertise appropriate to co-operatives. And even when available, these experts work as consultants and do not have a stake in the enterprise’s success.
  • Co-operative statutes are often misunderstood and there is a need for the development of legal and financial support.
  • NEFU is in a unique position to address some of the challenges and opportunities for co-ops as a producer-lead advocacy organization. In fact, the organization has been advocating for co-operative enterprise for years, building on the core values of the National Farmers Union, which was founded in 1902 as the “Farmers Educational and Co-operative Union of America.”

    Already, NEFU’s co-operative focus is bearing fruit. For example, New England Farmers Union policy intern, Barbara Patterson, has been collating and codifying the legal statues from across our region, and was on hand at the convening to provide clarity based on her ongoing review of the legal statutes pertaining to co-operatives. “Many people have thought that the Vermont co-op statutes were limiting and prohibited outside investors, but our research proves that this isn’t the case,” said Patterson. “There is an opportunity to provide support to existing co-ops and entrepreneurs considering the co-operative model as we build a more resilient food system in our region.”

    The closing presentation of the day included an outline of NEFU’s policy priorities, including defense of co-operative legal statutes and education on the co-op business model, and current related projects. For example, the NEFU Education Foundation helped secure a grant from Jane’s Trust to fund a collaborative project among NEFU, the Neighboring Food Co-op Association and the Co-operative Fund of New England to increase access to healthy, local food and co-operative membership among low income individuals. Another project with Vermont’s Deep Root Organic Co-op supports regional processing and distribution with food co-ops. The Foundation has also been successful in attracting grants that explore needs and opportunities for co-operative development across New England.

    “The convening more than met its goal of making connections and exploring opportunities,” said NEFU President Roger Noonan, who presided over the convening. “And the insights we gained will help focus our efforts as we work to build co-operative development capacity in New England.”

    New England Farmers Union will continue to develop resources to support co-operative enterprises in our region. You can view a powerpoint presentation from the co-op convening.

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