Co-ops connecting
links in food chain

Editor’s note: Cooperatives are seeking
innovative structures and strategies to
deliver locally produced food to a host of consumers,
from Community Supported
Agriculture and farmers markets to schools,
restaurants and grocery stores. Several of
the new “food co-ops” (including one in
Nebraska discussed below) include producer
and consumer members. Local markets
mean lower transportation costs and better
prices for farmers, plus higher quality products
for those who buy their products. In a
world where consumers increasingly want to
know where their food comes from, these coops
are turning obstacles into opportunities.

Linking country to city,
traditional to high-tech

Several Amish and Mennonite farmers of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, were already sending fresh products to Philadelphia, 60 miles away. Still, they knew they were missing a lot of opportunities. So they approached the Keystone Development Center which helped them secure the services of a facilitator uniquely suited to help the farmers set up Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative.

The facilitator worked well with the farmers, whose way of life includes living without electricity or phones in their homes. And she moved easily in the high-tech world of the buyers. One of the first things she did was to upgrade the ordering system, from cell phones that farmers kept in their delivery truck to on-line ordering. Sales took an immediate leap forward.

The co-op also acquired a centrally located warehouse with the added advantage of refrigeration. Most co-op members are certified organic, and much of what they ship is organic-certified produce. Today, the co-op ships $16,000 of produce, meat and dairy products every week. It supplies not only Philadelphia and other metro markets, but also a rising demand right in Lancaster County, which means a big break on transportation costs.

One of the greatest benefits of starting the co-op has been the way farmers in the southern part of the county are getting to know and work with their counterparts in the northern part. They have coordinated crop cycles, thus extending the co-op’s product availability into a longer growing season and turning what could have been a divisive and competitive situation into one that enables them to increase market access and weave a tighter fabric of community. For more information, visit:

Nebraska co-op links
neighbor to neighbor

As interest in buying locally produced food grows around the country, farmers’ markets are popping up in rural and urban settings. Schools and other institutions are incorporating local produce. Restaurants, even supermarkets, use the ‘locally grown’ label to attract consumers.

All of these trends led a group of Nebraska farmers, ranchers and consumers to form a “multi-stakeholder” cooperative to provide not only new markets for locally produced foods, but also a distribution system. With technical assistance from the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, they did just that.

Each month continues to bring new members and new products into the coop. Members volunteer for delivery day, which includes pre-sorting individual customer orders. Working together, producers and consumers are learning more about one another and sharing a concern for their state’s future.

Taking advantage of new technology, the co-op offers a Web-based ordering system. Food is delivered once a month to members’ homes or nearby drop points. Depending on availability and seasonality, orders may include organic produce, grass-finished and grain-fed beef and pork, pastured poultry, eggs, jams and jellies, natural personal-care products, cheese, artisan breads and more.

As consumer interest in local food accelerates and the shipping costs of non-local food rise, the Nebraska Food Cooperative may play an increasingly vital role in the nutritional and economic health of its communities. For more information, visit:

Georgia farmers build peanut plant
Tifton Quality Peanuts has just completed its first year of operation as a Limited Liability Company doing business as a cooperative. The 146 producers located around the state have not only avoided disaster in the wake of federal cuts in the peanut subsidy program, but have built a thriving business. They’ve even received an offer from an international company to buy all of their peanuts.

When several of the farmers approached the Georgia Cooperative Development Center to help them figure out how to add value to their commodity crop, they already had a shelling plant in mind. The Center stepped in to help them with their business plan. It took a lot of work and many hours spent talking to other farmers, but in the end they raised $6 million in equity to construct the plant. They also created more than 50 full-time jobs in a depressed rural area of the state.

Tifton Quality Peanuts now owns one of only two peanut shelling plants built in the United States in the past decade (the other, also in Georgia, is owned by another co-op). It uses innovative technology to control the storage atmosphere that reduces harmful toxins and avoids other problems common in older facilities.

Oh, and the deal with the big corporation that wanted to buy all their peanuts? The farmers declined, choosing to balance their market rather than sell to one customer. What they essentially said was: “From now on, we’re going to be in control of our markets — and our future!”

September/October Table of Contents