Cooperative ownership is one of the key tools to building a more equitable food economy.
An ecosystem of support is necessary to provide opportunities for farm and food cooperatives to engage in peer learning.
Leadership must come from within communities to develop sustainable cooperative ventures.
Successful cooperative ventures not only empower their members, they also provide examples for others of regenerative alternative business models.
A Conversation with Jonah Fertig-Burd of the Cooperative Development Institute
Contributor: Robert Raymond
Jonah Fertig-Burd has always been a foodie. He grew up gardening with his family in Maine, and has worked in the food service indusry, starting out in restaurants in Portland, Maine. Living in New York City in the late 1990s he got involved in the struggle to preserve community gardens that were being threatened by then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani. At the time, seven hundred community gardens were going to be bulldozed. Through that experience he saw the power of food as a tool for building community and transforming relationships.
He started the Sprouts Cooperatives in Portland, Maine, in 2007, a worker owned cooperative, café, and catering business. For the past five years he has worked with the Cooperative Development Institute and is currently the director of its Cooperative Systems Programs. The program works with farmers, fishermen, food producers, cooks and food system organizers to develop cooperative businesses and networks that help increase equitable access to land, to the oceans, and to markets for food producers.
What is the current focus of your work?
A a lot of our work at the current time is with immigrant and refugee farmers and other people of color. Through that work, we support people in all different areas of development, from the startup to launch and beyond. We also support broader collaboration in network development in the food system as well. We really recognize the importance of working together in states or broader regions to achieve food system goals and to create a resilient and sustainable food system that is built on equity and access.
Why Cooperatives? What is it about co-ops that you see as a solution?
Cooperative ownership increases ownership in our society, which can lead to a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources. It can create opportunities for access for producers and for low income workers to gain ownership, gain access to markets, and gain access to key infrastructure. It can also help small farmers gain access to farmland and retain their level of scale, maybe a smaller scale, but then by coming together, join their power together, join their businesses together to help produce greater sustainability for their businesses and the food system. I believe that cooperative ownership is one of the key tools to building a more equitable economy. And when we look at the wealth inequality in our society and the way in which corporations control our economy and our lives and can dominate our food system with corporate consolidation, cooperatives are one tool towards building a new economy that works for people and the planet. It does that through creating jobs, creating food, and really making an impact now on the day-to-day level in people's lives while also working towards a new future for our economy and our society. It's that combination together that I think is what’s really powerful about cooperatives and what got me really involved. It’s saying, “Hey, you know, we need to be working to change the system, and at the same time, we need to be working to create meaningful work on a day-to-day basis.”
What are some of the successful food cooperatives in the Northeast?
The Cooperative Development Institute has been working with New Roots Cooperative Farm for the past almost five years. They’re a group of Somali Bantu refugees that came to Lewiston, Maine, almost 15 years ago and who come from a strong farming culture in Somalia. When they came to Lewiston, they wanted to farm, so they started off farming as an incubator farm run by an organization called Cultivating Community. And then CDI started working with them around 2014/2015, supporting them as they were looking to move off the incubator farm. They wanted to continue to farm together, because that resonated with them personally and also culturally—to work together on a piece of land, and so we worked with them to establish a small producer cooperative. Four farmers came together to share land access, equipment, and infrastructure. They were able to secure a 30-acre farm in Lewiston with a lease-to-own relationship with Maine Farmland Trust and they now farm that land. They have a CSA that they manage together, they do wholesale markets, farmer's markets, they have a tractor, wash station, solar panels...and so they've really been a leading example for their community in Lewiston, and they’ve also been inspiring to other communities in the Northeast as well.
In the Springfield, Massachusetts, area, the New Family Community Farm Coop was inspired by New Roots. They've now formed a co-op that's farming in Hatfield, Massachusetts—up to about 40 farmers, mostly Somali Bantu, but also from other East African countries as well. They're predominately growing food for their own food security, but they are doing some marketing and they're focusing more of their marketing on growing vegetables for their own community and also working with some different ethnic crops as well—growing crops that would not be available otherwise. They're actually partnering right now with a Latinx farmers co-op that's starting up and they are sharing this piece of land in Hatfield and are coming together to form this new farmers co-op—connected with the Pioneer Valley Worker Center. We've been working with the Pioneer Valley Worker Center, and a group called All Farmers in Massachusetts, to support their development. They're on their first year on that farm in Hatfield but they're looking to really grow their farm business and be doing wholesale marketing—they're talking with food co-ops in the area about growing and selling to them, really looking at how to build that cooperative economy and support amongst cooperatives.
What specific supports does CDI provide for cooperatives?
We really provide a range of different support, from basic conversations and introductory workshops to much more intensive work to support cooperative development, things like legal structure, business plans, and marketing plans. We often work with co-ops to help them access financing. For example, with New Roots Cooperative Farm, the fact that they're Muslim limits their financing options because of the Sharia laws around financing. And so we worked for them to access a Sharia-compliant loan from the Cooperative Fund in New England, which is one of our key partners, for their tractor. We provide those supports to get up and running and also for ongoing technical assistance and support afterwards so that cooperatives can really develop their management and governance and deal with other issues or challenges that they face.
We also work a lot with businesses that are traditionally owned—whether sole proprietorship or corporation—and support those businesses in converting to worker-owned cooperatives. We've worked with a range of businesses in the food system to make that conversion, including with two grocery stores and a variety store on a remote island in Maine. We supported the owner of those stores to sell the business to his workers and they just celebrated their five year anniversary as a worker-owned cooperative. It's one of the largest employers on the island and without that conversion to a cooperative, those jobs and those essential services would have been lost. We are also in conversation with different farms to explore the conversion from traditionally-owned farms to worker cooperatives.
On the farm worker side too, we're working to develop a temporary farm workers cooperative that would essentially be contracting with farms to provide labor and then would be scheduling and coordinating workers to then work on those farms. We're looking to pilot that next year within the Lewiston and Auburn areas of Maine. We're working with some of the Somali farmers we've worked with in this area as well. Beyond New Roots, there are close to one hundred and fifty Somali Bantu folks that are farming in some capacity or another in the area. We're going to be working with some of those folks that either are just farming on a small scale right now or who realize they don't want to be farm owners, but want to work in the industry and doing that in a way that's creating more equitable and just jobs in farm labor. We’re excited to see how that unfolds and how it could really be a model for other regions as well.
Are any cooperatives that you've been in touch with or are working with in the Hudson River Valley?
Yes. Letterbox Farm is in the Hudson Valley. One of the worker-owners of that is Faith Gilbert and she actually wrote a guide around cooperative farming with the Greenhorns about five years ago. They run a small diversified farm with vegetables, meat, and some flowers—they do some weddings as well. Also Rock Steady Farm in Millerton does vegetables and flowers. They focus on ownership by women, queer folks, and people of color.
We've also worked with Earth Designs, which is a landscaping Cooperative. We worked with them to convert from a sole proprietorship to a worker cooperative. They've been very successful and they're expanding their operations. This past year we also participated in a workshop with Glynwood around cooperative farming. There's definitely a lot of interest in the region, and we're planning to do another follow up workshop this coming winter as well that's going to have a little bit more detail and depth.
How was that workshop structured?
That was an all day workshop around cooperative farming. Faith Gilbert and folks at Rock Steady Farm presented, along with Democracy Work Institute. This was an introduction to cooperative farming with different farm owners and farm workers exploring the potential of creating cooperative farms. Then further North, outside of Albany, there’s Soul Fire Farm, which is doing some really incredible work. They are a nonprofit but operate very cooperatively. And they're doing work around food justice—organizing the Northeast Farmers of Color Network and Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust. The Cooperative Development Institute has been involved in supporting the formation of the Northeast Farmers and Color Land Trust and is helping them develop a legal structure and process around that. Soul Fire has been doing some really inspiring work at the nexus of food justice, food access, and supporting the leadership and ownership of people of color within the food system.
We've also have been in communication with a group of Somali Bantu farmers in Utica that are just starting a farm this year. We've been talking with them and some of their support people and sharing some of the story of what's happening in Lewiston and what's happening in Western Massachusetts. One of our goals is to bring together some of these immigrant farm co-ops to support peer learning amongst them. We're excited to see how that helps to support the existing ones but also how it can help to inspire new farm projects as well.
What role did CDI play in some of these initiatives?
An important part of the work we're doing is not just about providing direct support, but also providing or organizing an ecosystem of support for cooperatives in the Northeast. We are really looking at different partners that we can work with to help support the development of cooperatives and the development of cooperative organizers. For example, in Lewiston, we've actually hired a Somali Bantu man onto our staff who comes from the community and we’ve supported his growth as a cooperative developer. And similarly, in Western Massachusetts, we're contracting with a Somali Bantu man to be doing development work there. So it's not just about us as an organization dropping in, but actually really supporting that leadership and that ecosystem of support around these coops.
How do you navigate your dual goal to effect systemic change but at the same time to create co-ops and meaningful work within the constraints of the current system?
It really takes both strategies and approaches and I think that creating meaningful change now that has direct impact on people's lives is important. Their livelihood, where they're getting their food, their access to farmland, their workplace—those things are really powerful and really important in terms of allowing folks to have the space for their empowerment, for their participation in creating their own future and destiny and really allowing folks to step out of a more spectator role to a more active participant role in the economy. We definitely see that being a cooperative owner in a worker cooperative feeds into other areas of people’s lives, where they're getting more politically and socially active in the community. Having a workplace that they own supports those other activities and is an important component of it.
Also, by creating these models, these examples, we then are able to point to something concrete when we think about how we are going to create a new economy. In and of themselves, they're not the solution—an individual co-op is not going to change the economy. But the more that we build these examples, these models, these approaches, the more we make these possibilities real to people. And I think that's very powerful and impactful.
At the same time, though, it takes broader systemic work to move and transform our society—it really takes folks doing that on the policy level and creating policies that are shifting our economy in more equitable ways. It takes work on the ground, people protesting and working directly to stop projects or stop corporations that are exploiting people and the planet and animals and our food system. It definitely takes that kind of direct active work as well. It’s also important to transform what we see as economic and community development in our society. There are all these people that are in the gears of the system in a variety of different ways and they are recognizing that the system isn't working for the majority of people, but they don't know what else is possible. I think when we can combine the energy and vision of broader activist social movements with the day-to-day reality and impact of cooperatives, we can really point towards a new way of approaching our economy and our society.