Organic strawberries–cooperative or not?

The thunderstorms have moved through and the Milky Way is dominating the pre-dawn sky.  Clear skies  mean we can finally get back in the garden.  We have a full day of working the soil ahead of us.  It’s still cool enough in Arkansas for such work to be pure fun, especially when the sun is out.  Looks like several days of sunshine ahead–great for strawberry ripening.

FreeGreatPicture.com-3172-high-definition-material-strawberryThe garden’s a cooperative effort.  Everyone helps plant and weed and harvest.  And everyone shares in the produce.  But all the inputs come from private companies. The strawberry plants arrived from a private company, not a cooperative.  All the tools and other inputs were provided by private companies, not cooperatives.  Private companies produce nearly all the inputs and market nearly all the outputs of American agriculture. Cooperatives, mostly buying inputs in bulk for their members but including some processing and marketing, were powerful in much of American agriculture for many decades after the 1930s and experienced a resurgence in the 1980s and early 90s.  Both these epochs resulted in cooperatives being transformed into private businesses in fact or de facto.

In some circles, a new era of cooperatives appears to be upon us.  The new cooperatives and farmer/worker-owned businesses are, as in the past, a response to the inequities created by large, greedy corporations intent on squeezing profit from the land and from productive farmers.

The question is how many of the new cooperative organizers will heed the hard lessons of the two previous heydays of cooperatives.  Seeking answers, the Resilience Project took a couple of cooperative advocates to learn from the history of cooperatives in California.

Overlooking the Pacific coast near Swanton, we met Jim Cochran who began organizing cooperatives in the 1970s.  Jim came to the coast as an undergraduate studying 19th century intellectual history at UC Santa Cruz in the late 1960s.

He lived up the hill from the Chadwick Garden and admired the organic food and flowers grown on that steep hillside where organic agriculture took root in America.  After he graduated, Cochran took a job as an assistant to organizers of farm worker-owned production co-ops on the coast and in the Pajaro Valley.  He then worked to help various Central California cooperatives with  marketing and financial planning.

His experiences convinced him that the average farm worker is not proficient at marketing and finances.  When people  who don’t understand a system try to manage a system, they are asking for failure.  Jim watched several worker owned cooperatives fail and put workers out of work.

He decided a better route was to let people experienced in marketing and finance run those aspects of the business and support unions to provide benefits for farm workers.

In 1983, he came back to the coast to found Swanton Berry Farm, famous as the first certified organic farm in the United States to sign a labor contract with the United Farm Workers (UFW). Swanton Berry Farm offers their workers low income housing on site, health insurance, vacation and holiday pay, a pension, and other benefits including an employee stock ownership program. In 2006 Cochran received the Honoring Advocates for Social Justice in Sustainable Agriculture (Justie) Award from the Ecological Farming Association.

Cochran began his commercial farming career growing strawberries using conventional methods, but switched to organic farming methods after he was nearly poisoned by pesticides.  In 1987, his farm became the first CCOF-certified organic strawberry farm in the State of California.  He subsequently developed a wide range of new methods, which include crop rotations, such as rotation with broccoli to replace soil fumigation, mustard and alfalfa as trap crops, and the use of natural predators.  His mostly intuitively developed methods were later verified scientifically in a series of studies by University of California, Davis plant pathologist Krishna Subbarao and his collaborators.

Cochran originally found it difficult to get funding for his experiments from the California Strawberry Commission, stating that “The industry blockaded our efforts to get money to research alternatives, and spent a lot of money in Washington making sure our proposals didn’t get funded.”  Despite this opposition from mainstream growers, Cochran’s methods made large-scale commercial organic strawberry industry possible in California.

in 2002, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency awarded him the Stratospheric Ozone Protection Award for developing organic methods of growing strawberries that did not rely on the soil fumigant methyl bromide.

Travelers along the coast visit the Swanton farm stand on Highway One, where they pick strawberries by the sea, and savor the fabulous jams, truffles, strawberry pies, scones and other treats concocted in the kitchen. When no one is minding the store, customers pay on the honor system, a lesson in trust that Cochran encourages. A photo exhibit documenting the agricultural history of Santa Cruz County and of the United Farm Workers is displayed above long comfortable tables where customers sip coffee supplied by the Community Agroecology Network.

Jim created a socially just and ecologically sound farming system only after he abandoned the idea of cooperative management.  He now forcefully says he believes in a top-down, not a bottom-up approach to management.  He contends he could never have created a farm providing so many benefits to workers and the environment if he had organized his farm as a cooperative.

He firmly believes that not everyone has both the ability and desire to manage a farm successfully.  Unless good managers are in charge, the farm will fail.  Most farm workers just don’t have the skills to manage all aspects of a farm.  He also contends that many of those who advocate for sustainable and organic systems aren’t nearly as smart as the farmers who succeed in developing resilient farms.

Jim’s experience echoes my own and that of dozens of folks who have managed cooperatives.  I made a 200 farmer cooperative in Appalachia a success only because I insisted on overruling farmers who wanted to make management decisions.  Some farmers will always want to increase their return at the expense of the viability of the cooperative.

Another problem in cooperative management is free riders.  I’ve experienced this all around the world.  Some cooperative members try to access all the benefits of the cooperative without contributing much of anything.  When workers perceive they can reap the same rewards with less work than others contribute, the temptation can be over-powering.

The bottom line is that cooperatives must hire good management, set guidelines and let them do their jobs.  And those enamored by cooperative theory should recognize that a well-managed private company (such as Jim Cochran’s) can provide better benefits for its workers than cooperatives.  Cooperatives  do not cure greed.  Greedy cooperative members can undermine an organization as easily as greedy management can exploit workers.

The greed of some owners of private companies remains one of the key problems in American business.  Overcoming that greed will not result from cooperatives with unskilled management.  Those who seek to transform our economy to make it more resilient will learn the lessons of the past, either by studying history or by making the same mistakes once again.

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