Marcus Smith PhotoIn February, I had the opportunity to participate in the 2016 National Farmers Union (NFU) College Conference on Co-operatives (CCOC) in Minneapolis, MN. This annual event is designed to help shape the next generation of co-operative leaders, and my exposure to the co-ops, speakers, and other participants was a learning experience I will never forget! I’m particularly thankful to the New England Farmers Union (NEFU, a regional chapter National Farmers Union), for enabling me to attend the conference along with three other people from our region:

As a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, I have been focused on the connections between co-operative enterprise and sustainable food systems. I was appreciative of this unique opportunity to learn about the diversity of co-ops and their role in the economy. The insights offered by employees and members of Peace Coffee, Seward Community Co-op and the senior housing co-op with whom we spoke were invaluable to my understand of the impact and potential of this business model. I wish that more young people had the opportunity to visit these enterprises, from small community co-ops to CHS, the nation’s largest agricultural co-operative and a Fortune 100 business.

CCOCIt was also a pleasure to travel with fellow New Englanders — students and representatives from our region’s food co-ops — as we heard from teachers, co-opreneurs, and established co-op leaders alike. We met students of co-operative development from all around to country, had great conversations, and made great connections. We also visited the Mill City Museum, built into the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill on the only waterfall in the Mississippi — a stark reminder of how important, and risky, the agricultural industry is in America. I hope this program not only continues but expands to the Northeast if possible!

This conference is made possible by the generous support of the CHS Foundation, CHS, CoBank, Farmers Union Industries Foundation, NFU Foundation, Minnesota Co-operative Education Foundation, and Organic Valley. A special thanks goes out to NEFU, which was able to support the participation of our New England delegation through grants from USDA Rural Development and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. By becoming a member of the Farmers Union, you can support programs such as the CCOC. Remember, you don’t have to be a farmer to join. And if you are a member of your local Neighboring Food Co-op Association member food co-op, you can join at a special discounted rate.

Please consider joining at Together, we can strengthen the voice of New England’s Farmers and Fishermen!

Marcus A. Smith is a Sustainable Food and Farming major and candidate for the Certificate in Applied Economic Research in Co-operative Enterprise with the Economics Department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He manages the Amherst Winter Farmers Market and the Summer Amherst Farmers Market, and serves on the Board of Directors of the Amherst Community Co-op, a start-up food co-op. This summer, Marcus is working on an internship with the Neighboring Food Co-op Association, researching the synergies between food co-ops and farmers markets, and the potential for transitioning an established farmers market to a co-operative structure.


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