New generation of farmers forming worker cooperatives

September/October 2016

Written By Mai Nguyen of CCCD, published in Rural Cooperatives magazine, a USDA publication

WITH THE MEDIAN U.S. FARMER’S AGE being 59 and waves of farmers heading into retirement, who will grow our food? Who will maintain the United States’ status as the world’s largest agricultural producer?

There’s a desperate need for young farmers in the United States. Many of those raised on farms are not returning home to farm when they finish their education. People interested in starting a farm or ag business face many hurdles, including the high cost of farmland and acquiring the necessary farming skills, experience and
business acumen.

Enter the worker co-op model. Worker owners can pool their money to finance the operation, bring together ifferent skills and strengths and bring multiple perspectives to farm planning.  While there’s a long history of agricultural cooperatives, there aren’t many well-established models of farms run by worker cooperatives. But that’s changing.

Growing local produce for San Diego

Ellee Igoe and Hernan Cavasos have been working for several years to grow healthy, affordable food and to build food justice in San Diego. Food justice means that everyone — regardless of class, gender or race — has access to healthy, culturally relevant food that is grown using ecologically sustainable means and with ethical  labor practices.

Igoe and Cavasos were key organizers in changing local zoning regulations to allow for more community gardens. They initiated one of the first farmers’ marketfood stamp match programs and created a farm incubator to help resettled refugees farm, among many other projects that have increased availability of fresh, local food for San Diegans.

In the city, they addressed food justice from the consumer side and now they are working the issue on the production side.

Two years ago, Igoe and Cavasos decided to look for a place to farm, eventually leasing a half-acre in Pauma Valley, an agricultural region of San Diego County that is a major producer of avocados and oranges. They wanted to keep their connections to the urban communities they served, so they started a community supported agriculture (CSA) service that offers people fresh, affordable foods.

For $32 a week, a customer gets 13 varieties of quality, fresh produce weekly. In keeping with the ethos of their service to low-income customers and their dedication to fair labor practices, they called their operation Solidarity Farm.

Business is booming

In just two years, the half-acre operation has now grown to six acres. The CSA subscriber base has grown from 20 to 80 members, and gross revenue has risen from $3,000 a month in 2014 to $12,000 per month in 2016.

Solidarity Farm is one of the few diversified farms in San Diego, so the name has spread quickly, along with increasing levels of public demand for locally grown food. The farm has a great opportunity to continue to grow to help meet the demand for local produce in the nation’s seventh largest city. But growth is also creating a need for more employees.

The farm has been able to expand with the help of more hands, while it continues to adhere to the belief that anyone working on the farm should have a say in working conditions and wages. They also see this approach as a way for farmers to access land that is otherwise cost prohibitive. These are among the reasons they wanted to form a cooperative.

The challenge for Solidarity Farm has been finding people with skills and a commitment to farming, as well as a dedication to working in a cooperative. Thus far, there have been some disheartening experiences with people joining the operation, expressing commitment, but suddenly leaving at the peak of harvest.

But there have also been positive experiences. Steven Heslin, their friend and co-worker, joined last year. He has a gift for working with animals, so he has been tending the growing herds of sheep and goats and a flock of chickens. Ivette Vega, who helped start the farm, recently returned to it and is taking an active role in many facets of the operation, from seeding to marketing.

“I get to help with everything, help each part flourish — and I never get bored. This is what I want to do for the foreseeable future,” she says. Working together, the four co-op members cover all the tasks necessary to run a dynamic farm business.

Help from USDA, CCCD

With assistance from a USDA Rural Cooperative Development grant, the California Center for Cooperative Development (CCCD) is helping to organize Solidary Farm into a worker cooperative. The work includes educating the members about the new California worker co-op statutes (AB 816) and helping draft articles of incorporation and bylaws. CCCD also facilitates discussions and helps inform members about financing, patronage distribution, probationary period and business options. The co-op documents are being reviewed and are slated to be submitted in the coming months.

Its assistance to Solidarity Farm won’t stop there. CCCD will host training on financial management and will provide member education about working in a cooperative. These sessions will help the farmers gain tools to manage their farm, integrate new members into the cooperative and help them sustain their work towards food justice.

A rising number of farmers are requesting assistance from CCCD to explore worker cooperative farms. Cases like Solidarity Farm may become a robust model for young farmers who are integral to the maintenance of our agricultural economy, rural communities, and society.

Find out more about Solidarity Farm at:

To read the original article on pages 28 and 29 of the Rural Cooperatives magazine, click HERE.