Co-op Development Action

High Plains Food helps consumers
gain access to local/regional foods

By Susann Mikkelson
Co-op Development Specialist
Rocky Mountain Farmers Union

usiness has never been stronger for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative Development Center, which has been serving Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming for almost 15 years. The Center provides technical assistance, helps find funding and provides other general support to individuals and groups seeking to start cooperative businesses and similar enterprises in rural communities. Its efforts support everything from food production and consumption interests to renewable energy initiatives, and from rural health care to preschool development.

In the past two years, demand for the Center’s services has grown exponentially. Though the Center has not formally tracked the reasons behind this trend, it is likely a result of a combination of factors, including the Center’s continued outreach efforts and growing interest in cooperatives as co-op success stories surface around the country. The recession, which left many looking for new ways to generate income, is another likely factor.

This trend includes rising interest in new-generation and “blended” cooperatives. There is a great deal of ingenuity revolving around ways the cooperative model can be adapted to form successful businesses and other ventures. Times have changed, and no longer is the cooperative seen simply as the town grain elevator or the feed and seed supply store.

‘Local’ is a relative term
In the West, distances can be vast between agricultural production areas and population centers. Urban and suburban expansion during the past two decades has effectively converted almost all of the farmland located adjacent to these cities into residential or commercial development.

There is growing consumer demand in the Denver metro area and all along the Front Range (the region’s main population center) for locally and sustainably produced foods. While this interest in returning to a food system that better sustains local economies opens exciting possibilities for producers, it also creates challenges. Consequently, even with the growth of farmers markets, it is difficult to find enough local farmers to meet the growing demand. Now more restaurants, retail food stores, food distributors, schools and other institutions are also seeking local/regional foods.

For small farms and ranches on the high plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, the Denver metro area is the primary direct market. Still, this represents a one- to four- hour drive for producers in the region, making it very hard for them to participate in multiple farmers markets, which most would need to do in order to generate enough profits to justify the travel.

Thanks in part to the Internet and the willingness of producers and consumers to work cooperatively, producers and consumers in the Rocky Mountain region have identified a viable alternative: a blended cooperative that serves as a “virtual” farmers market.

High Plains Food Co-op
The High Plains Food Cooperative (www.highplainsfood.org) is an excellent example of the creativity and innovation being used by the new generation of co-ops to meet this demand for local food.

It all began with a small, but mighty, group of producers that became acquainted with consumers along the Front Range who wanted more local/regional foods. Ogallala Commons, an organization incubated through the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative Development Center five years ago with the support of USDA Rural Development funding, introduced these producers to the Oklahoma Food Co-op, an online cooperative market.

These small-scale producers — including cattle ranchers, hog farmers, vegetable and herb growers, and even a natural foods processor — began to research the model that was being used successfully in Oklahoma. They made several visits to the Oklahoma Food Co-op’s distribution facility.

They enlisted the assistance of the Center and began to develop a plan for their own cooperative. Three years later, in May of 2008, the High Plains Food Cooperative managed its first food distribution, filling about 15 orders from consumer-members in the Denver metro area; each order averaged about $25.

At the end of 2009, the average monthly order with the High Plains Food Cooperative was just under $75. In less than two years, the number of producer-members grew by almost 50 percent, while consumer-memberships soared 200 percent. Products available through the online marketplace also more than doubled.

Two levels of membership
The High Plains’ co-op model is fairly simple. There are two classes of membership: voting members (which includes all producer-members) and non-voting members. Although it is a “blended” cooperative of producers and consumers with the goal of meeting consumers’ needs, production is still the essential component at the core of the co-op. Thus, providing these small producers with access to an expanding market is a key goal.

Consumer-members have the option of joining as full, voting members and taking on an active role in the organization and management of the co-op. Or they can be non-voting consumer-members if they prefer to simply gain a source of quality, local foods while supporting small farmers in their region.

The co-op board includes both producers and consumers representing a broad region of the service area.

The High Plains Food Cooperative shows how the cooperative model can successfully build a bridge between the needs and interests of producers and consumers. It is a cost-effective, alternative model to the traditional market.

School supply
and service co-op

The Rocky Mountain Cooperative Development Center is currently working with a private fund of a community foundation in the Roaring Fork River Valley near Glenwood Springs, Colo., to help develop a service and supply cooperative for independent preschools in the area. These preschools are usually located in resort communities and primarily serve lowwage, often single-parent workers.

The cooperative will help the independent preschools share staffing resources, such as nurses, dieticians and substitute teachers. It will also provide bulk order services and, possibly, offer insurance pools, among other options. If the effort is successful, the co-op will help some of these much-needed preschools remain in business.

The Center regularly receives calls regarding concerns or interests for which the cooperative business model is a viable solution. In addition to the examples discussed above, these interests may be from budding entrepreneurs or civic-minded investors looking for alternative ways to invest their money to support local economies and people.

There continues to be much to learn and explore in the world of cooperatives — and many more bridges to build!




May/June Table of Contents