Co-Op Farm

I was working on the Farmland Fund, considering different methods a farm could be started and operated.  Since working it alone can stretch the ability of one person , I took a look at a small group sharing a farm.  The risk of failure is reduced, the workload is shared, there is more creativity and specialized knowledge that can be brought to bear, and the reduction of bills combined with each person involved having a job outside the farm gave the group some solid advantages.  On the other side of the spectrum I looked at a large group.  The investment dropped to incredibly affordable levels, and possibilities for the group exploded.

Using my place as a template, I realized that a small farm of a few acres could be easily afforded by a large enough group for a cost of a dollar a day.   The production potential of just a few acres can be incredible.  The people involved would be able to grow ample produce for themselves as well as for market.   There are properties out there that can be had for cheap.  Undeveloped property can be had in this area for $5000/acre in a 5 acre plot, with the price dropping as the lot size increases.  What's more, there are suitable properties available with owner financing.  This place was $45k, with $5000 down, $500/month for 7 years at 7%.  For my last house I paid $1600 down, $372/month.  It was cheaper than renting an apartment.

I examined other methods of cooperating as a group.  With a house in town on a postage stamp lot, a tool sharing library would work well, save the people involved a lot of money, and could be developed to put those tools to use and bring some paying work for the people.  I looked at commercial property, coming up with food service being extremely well suited for a group effort.   As different components were examined, it became evident that each project needed a home base, a large group would be able to establish and benefit from a combination of projects, and the entire enterprise would be best served with land for a farm.  We gotta have the core structures, and they may as well be on a few acres of land.  

Zoning and land use may dictate the food service aspect be in town.  The farm will work anywhere there is at least a couple acres available, but in town the price of land gets a whole lot higher.  Having the entire opeeration on a single property is the most efficient path forward.  Separating the farm is still possible while maintaining the advantages to the group.  Getting started with the plan is a matter of what can be afforded with the cash available ad getting the bills paid until an income stream takes care of itself.

The farm offers the ability to grow crops and raise livestock with a very low overhead.  Using organic methods the cost of inputs drops to such low levels it seems more like stealing.  Organic growing can be cheap, but it can also be labor intensive, particularly in the first couple of years.  Fortunately we've got plenty of labor available.  Much of that labor will be unfamiliar with organic growing so we'll need to train them up and provide a crop plan which serves the needs of the people buying the product. 

The initial customers for the product is the group.  I looked at free produce, work in trade for produce, rationing as with a CSA but the best method of handling the affairs of the farm is to sell the product at market price or better.  There is no free lunch.  If a member wants to take a bucket of cucumbers home, they need to be paid for.  We've got 200 people who own a part of this farm.  We've got to balance what people get with the work they put in.  Jack puts in twice as much work as John, John has a family twice as big as Jack.  Meanwhile both have the same invesment in the company.  If everyone takes what they need, Jack becomes John's bitch.  There is a growing movement saying  'Food should be Free'.  It's a compassionate movement that I'm sure comes the heart, but it demands the time the farmer puts in become free.  That dog don't hunt.  Sell the food.  We can probably beat the price in the stores, saving Jack and John some money which they are already spending, attract customers from the general public to bring their grocery spending to us, and use the sharecropper plan to reward Jack and John for the work they are putting in.   Economics is not Evil, it is the means by which we organize ourselves. 

The organic food market has been growing for decades.  Quietly at first, but developments in recent years have brought it to the forefront.  There are issues with pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, the bees, pollution, energy and water consumption, and the health of the people eating the food produced with synthetic inputs.  Food might be clean when it leaves the farm, but processors can treat that food with undesired contaminants in every step of the supply chain up to and including the store you buy it in.  The only way to know what is in your food is to grow it yourself or get to know your farmer in person. 

The public is growing increasingly disillusioned with traditional agriculture.  At this point the US is unable to keep up with the demand for organic produce and is importing a larger volume each year.  Meanhwhile, the cost of the synthetic inputs is rising along with petroleum prices.  Now that 25% of the corn crop is used in ethanol production, food prices are permanently linked to energy prices.  We've seen food inflation spike since 2008 when oil hit nearly $150/barrel.  Food is no longer cheap, and it will only get worse.

Something like a third of US organic crop production is in California.  A third of the population is on the East coast.  We suffer price spikes when energy prices climb because our food travels thousands of miles to get to our plates.  God forbid we find ourselves in a fuel crisis as experienced in 1973.  Adding to California's woes is an unrelenting drought.   You've got to have water to grow vegetables.  Right now in California wells are running dry.  Groundwater is being depleted to such an extent that the ground is subsiding across the central valley, the Governor has declared a water emergency, and people are stealing tankers.  The impact on produce prices is being felt across the nation.

We've got too many eggs in too few baskets.  A few years ago, the drought in Texas caused a spike in hay and silage prices.  It became too expensive to keep cows.  Farmers sold off their herds en masse.  The rise in supply brought down beef prices for a time, but repopulating the herds drove them back up to the highest levels ever seen.   The bird flu epidemic going on right now has resulted in a spike in egg prices.  I'm hearing reports of $5/dozen in major cities, for battery eggs.   As a nation, our food system is in peril.  It needs to be more distributed, more diverse, relocalized, and removed from the chemical teat.

There's never been a better time to get into farming.  Input costs are rising for traditional farmers, but organic inputs are free.  Operating costs for traditional farming is heavily dependent on fossil fuels.  Organic growing can be done without the use of fossil fuels.  Food prices are rising.  The system is buckling.  People want clean, wholesome food loaded with nutrition and flavor.  All this creates opportunity for an organized group of motivated people. 

If we can grow it, we can sell it.  The first line of customers is the people in the group.  How much land we have available will determine production volume.  If our volume is less than internal demand, all our product is sold, and we'll be looking for more land.  We can make changes in our growing bed configuration to maximize our production space, and produce enough to meet internal demand on a few acres.  If all we did was supply our own produce needs, the income generated would be enough to start making a difference in the lives of the people in the group.  The cost of groceries is beating us down.  If we were to redirect that spending locally, we'd create employment for ourselves.  Local people + local production + local consumption = resilience.  In the event of another gas crisis, or a truckers strike, or droughts on the other side of the continent, we stay on top.   What's more, by diversifying our production with polyculture rather than a monocrop, the farm takes on a level of resilience that will outperform any traditional farm no matter what Mother Nature and politics sends our way.

The farm is only part of the equation.  It serves some of the needs of the kitchen and store operation.  It can readily absorb all the time the sharecroppers have to contribute and still ask for more.  A kitchen can only fit so many people at a time.  The farm gives us room to undertake a wide range of projects and do so with very little additional cost.

We need a home base, get one with land so we can grow vegetables.  We bring in our leaves, grass clipping, kitchen scrap and we've got a copious supply of compost material to put to use that costs us nothing.  While you're at bring in your aluminum cans and other recycleables.  Clean out your basement, attic, shed, spare room and back porch, haul that in for a repurpose shop.  We've got a need for tools to work around the farm, cashflow to aquire them and the room to set up a tool library which will benefit everyone.  We've got people and tools, we can put ourselves to work and gather more compost and reuse materials at the same time.  Drag in your scrap lumber we'll build a chicken coop or make use of it in the workshop.  People need information as part of their learning process.  With all our coming and going, a book swap and media library becomes a no brainer.   All of this can be done using perhaps as much as an acre.  The rest of the land is used for crops. 

How much space we have available is a key issue.  Not enough land will limit our income potential and ability to grow the operation.  Too much land at the start can take time to develop.   Meanwhile, we are paying the mortgage and property taxes.  There are ways to put that undeveloped land to use.  Garden plots and storage come to mind right away.  The absolute minimum is 5 acres.  If the entire enterprise is a 5 acre farm, it would be a hobby for most folks involved, yet big enough to offer a chance for some to pick up the ball and run.  We'd be able to develop that space in short order, pay the bills, and get into some projects which can save us all enough money to make it worthwhile.  The greatest gain on a small farm is the opportunity for the young people.  At 10 acres the income potential is enough to start making a difference in people's lives, even without the kitchen and store.  Beyond 10 acres we start to get into some serious numbers and gain the ability to handle livestock and orchards.   Sticking with vegetable production is still practical at 50-100 acres.  Starting with a spread of a couple dozen acres could be a strain on the budget.  Adding a property to our portfolio later gives us the means to grow at our own pace without biting off too much all at once.   Let's work on paying down that debt first.   Too much business is as bad a problem as not enough.

Cooperative Enterprise, Plan Outline