Cooperative Farming Among Topics at First Northeast New Farmer Winter Gathering in Greenfield

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, December 14th, 2015, by Rachel Rapkin.

About 150 novice farmers of all ages, races and cultures traveled from various New England states to the Arts Block for the first Northeast New Farmer Winter Gathering during the weekend.

The Saturday seminar was filled with lectures, panels and small group discussions including an anti-oppression training and the impacts of a queer farming community, to Northeast land access opportunities and how to start a cooperative farm.

About 75 people filled the room for the cooperative farm panel hosted by Faith Gilbert, Warren Facey and Roger Noonan. Each co-op farmer spoke about the highs and lows of their operations and how new farmers can start one in their hometown.

“A cooperative is a specific type of legal structure. It’s a business entity,” Gilbert said. “It embodies international principles of cooperation.”

Gilbert is the founder of the Letterbox Farm Collective in Hudson, New York. She gave a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation outlining the types of cooperative businesses, the benefits of running a co-op and the various ownership structures available to the group operation.
Gilbert explained that a cooperative is owned by its members who share the profits, benefits and risks of the entire operation.

The main goal of a cooperative is to provide an economic advantage to its members and consumer base. Gilbert said there are various legal structures that a cooperative can adopt; however, it must fit within the group’s long- and short-term goals. Multiple businesses can own a farm under a limited liability company or an LLC.

Farms can also operate as nonprofit organizations if they plan to have an educational or charitable purpose, and if the cooperative is to be a temporary venture, the members can just sign a contract. Other than farms, there are also equipment-lending cooperatives such as the Tool Lending Library in Northfield.

“One of the most exciting things about cooperatives is that they are set from the get-go in order to transition ownership between multiple participants,” she said. “They can transition the value that you create to build a business or purchase an asset to future participants or the next generation. Lastly, forming a legal entity is a really helpful moment for you to organize your group and get really clear about what you’re doing together and how you’re working together.”

Noonan is the president of the New England Farmers Union and also sat on the panel. He said a successful cooperative is organized and run with people who possess different skill sets. If everyone in the group is an expert in farming techniques, he said, the other critical components of the business including the marketing and the bookkeeping could get overlooked, which would ultimately make the business fail as a whole.

Noonan added, “Even in the smallest cooperatives, somebody is a good bean counter, somebody is good with the books and handling the accounting, somebody is the big picture thinker who is thinking strategically about where we are going to be five years down the road, somebody is savvy enough to find the best deal on fertilizer for us to buy in bulk and somebody is a real good marketing wiz.”

Cynthia Espinosa Marrero of Holyoke was one of the many people who spent Saturday in Greenfield sitting through lectures learning how to build a sustainable farm. For the past three years she has seriously considered starting her own cooperative farm. She decided to listen to the panel rather than the simultaneous lecture in the next room on how to engage political leaders to adopt farming initiatives.

“I wanted to come and get business ideas and network with others about what co-op model to use,” she said. “Mostly, I’m doing this for myself and my family so I can feed them healthy food.”