October is National Cooperative Month, a time when more than 29,000 cooperatives across the country advocate for the cooperative business model and its myriad benefits for co-op members, consumers, and local communities.
Cooperatives are of particular importance in rural America, where they have offered both political and economic sovereignty for over a century. Farmers Union’s roots in cooperatives go all the way back to the organization’s founding in Point, Texas, in 1902, when farmers began to see an increase in both political strength and visibility through strength in numbers.
In the subsequent 115 years, the relevance of cooperative principles have not waned; indeed, extreme consolidation in the agribusiness, food processing, and supermarket industries cooperative businesses have made cooperative businesses more valuable than ever in rural communities. Farmers Union members have organized cooperatives that focused on storage warehouses, supply and marketing, purchasing, rural electric and even credit unions. Today, they’ve expanded even further, and in states like Michigan have even teamed up with public schools to provide local, nutritious food for school lunches in the Farm to School program.
So in honor of National Cooperative Month and Farmers Union’s cooperative history, we’re highlighting two shining examples of agricultural co-ops.
WyoFresh Co-op enables producers to bring farm-fresh products raised or made in Wyoming to families throughout its vast marketing territory of 11,345 square miles.
Started in 2010 as a pilot project in southeast Wyoming, WyoFresh hit its stride as an online food co-op in 2012. The co-op enables producers to bring farm-fresh products raised or made in Wyoming to families throughout its vast marketing territory of 11,345 square miles – no easy feat given the distances and limited growing opportunities involved.
And if its vast territory of today is not enough, WyoFresh is now working on expanding into central Wyoming.
This type of online market provides producers with significantly more markets without added travel expense. It also gives consumers the chance to purchase more locally produced foods, which can be challenging in a state with a short growing season and a relative absence of fruit and vegetable production.
Consumer pick-up locations are in central and southeast Wyoming, which also serve neighboring areas of western Nebraska, and northern Colorado.
WyoFresh producers are committed to selling quality, locally-made items. Each producer is required to sign a standards agreement that assures member producers may only sell products they have grown or processed. No member can buy from any other source and sell that item through WyoFresh, with the exception of when they are buying ingredients for their own value-added or processed foods being prepared for sale. But the value must be added by the work of the producer. Simply repackaging ingredients from another source is not adding value.
For example, producers can sell tomatoes they grow, but not tomatoes grown by another producer. They can, however, buy tomatoes from another producer to make salsa in a certified kitchen to sell through the co-op.
Another example is that member producers can’t buy an animal from another to butcher and sell through the co-op as though it was their own product. All of this is to assure customers they are shopping with a cooperative business that values the integrity of the origins of its products.
The territory is vast, the markets relatively few and far between, the producers scattered about – yet the WyoFresh online food co-op’s future, while not guaranteed, looks promising thanks to the determination of its member producers to be creative in expanding markets for their own labor and selling the virtues of local.
Tap Root Cooperative
In 2013, a group of producers and consumers, nonprofits, and producer/consumer cooperatives in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Wyoming came together to meet the challenges small producers face in accessing larger markets, including wholesale and institutional markets and restaurants. For many producers, developing these markets is literally a question of their long-term survival.
The solution they developed was to leverage the strength of the planned, emerging, and existing food hubs in the region to form a finely-tuned network that could finally resolve distribution inefficiencies and product variety limitations. These 16 partners brainstormed on how to craft the network, which proved sufficiently complicated that they agreed the best way to proceed was to start small.
In 2016, a trading network of four farmer-owned food hubs plus a distribution company emerged from the larger group to tackle these issues.
Supported with funding from the Gates Family Foundation and the FUSA Insurance Agency through the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Foundation, the food hubs — Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, High Plains Food Co-op, Southwest Farm Fresh Co-op, and (San Luis) Valley Roots Food Hub — along with distribution partner Peak to Plains Alliance formed the Tap Root Cooperative.
The co-op produces and distributes a wide variety of mostly Colorado-grown, fairly priced fresh, organic, conventional, and non-GMO (genetically modified) agricultural products. By trading with each other in a uniquely organized and efficient way, Tap Root’s food hub members have extended their market reach from across southern Colorado and the High Plains to Metro Denver and other Front Range locations.
Tap Root recently hired a marketing coordinator for Metro Denver, which should lead to significant new markets for the partner hubs. The founding hubs plan to jointly market products under the “Tap Root Cooperative” unified brand.
Our RMFU Co-op Center believes this cooperative of farmer-owned food hubs is the first of its kind nationally. We have been sharing information about the co-op with other organizations and food hubs interested in embracing similar business structures and strategies.
More retailers and food service companies are finding that food hubs can help them deliver the real thing: food from nearby with verifiable people, places, and practices behind it.