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Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative: A Model for Cooperative Farming & Marketing
Publish Date:Spring 2009
VolNo:Vol. IV No.2
The Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative is an agricultural cooperative in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley marketing organic vegetables through a Community Supported Agriculture program. Ten diverse, small organic farms participate in the cooperative in which each farm specializes in various vegetable crops for the CSA program. The CSA program has 140 members and reaches families throughout the Rogue Valley including Medford, Ashland, Grants Pass and Applegate.
The Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative began in 2003 and transitioned out of a group that started in 1997 called the Applegate Agrarians. Community members in the Applegate Valley started Applegate Agrarians in response to the need for local agricultural economic development. The group wanted to provide local farmers with marketing opportunities including value added possibilities as well assist local farmers earn a living wage. The group worked on a number of initiatives, but stopped functioning because of competing priorities and a lack of focused project implementation. After a few years, the group received a grant from the Oregon Department of Agriculture to write a business plan and form an agricultural cooperative. The cooperative incorporated in 2003.
The cooperative took on a few marketing projects at first including a community supported agriculture program, a farm stand and two local farmers’ markets. The farm stand turned out to be unsuccessful for a variety of reasons including lack of sufficient traffic to support sales as well as complications with produce tracking and distribution. The CSA was the highest priority for vegetables, so in turn the supply was minimal for the local farmers’ markets. As the cooperative worked to find its niche, it went into slight debt for a few years until the group addressed some tough questions. The CSA was the most profitable for the group so they regrouped and began to focus on this particular endeavor. In 2005, Maud & Tom Powell of Wolf Gulch Farm took over coordination of the CSA program. Maud Powell said, “If you look at the business plan of the cooperative, it was far-reaching, ambitious and comprehensive.” The business plan included things like establishing health insurance, farm-to-school programs, a credit union, land trusts, an alternative fuels department, and a shared use processing facility. It was clear very early on that working on this level with so many projects was not going to work. That is when Tom & Maud stepped into take over the coordination and reinvent the CSA program for the cooperative.
During the first few years, there were many challenges to making the CSA work including working out the distribution and pack of the CSA boxes. There was also not enough supply from growers at the time to meet the production goals needed for CSA shares. Now going into the 2009 season, through the organization of Tom & Maud, and the increase in new organic vegetable growers in southern Oregon, the Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative has grown to ten member farms supporting 140 members through a very coordinated and detailed pack-out and delivery to the Rogue Valley.
The cooperative has a board of directors with representatives from each member farm. Each farm has one vote. There are monthly meetings and an annual meeting and decisions are made through consensus minus one. The board of directors also elects grower officers to manage the cooperative.
Maud handles most of the marketing and outreach to members. There is a growing demand for memberships although she says this year is “unpredictable.” Her marketing strategy in the past has been helping to establish “an excellent CSA that sells itself.” Powell mentions that word-of-mouth and reputation are very important. One of the most effective ways for marketing the cooperative CSA is to post brochures all around the community. She also attends many events as the coordinator for the CSA program and generates new memberships that way.
Tom Powell, the other half of the Powell family, works with the cooperative of growers to coordinate production for each season. Tom sits down each winter and figures out how many times a member gets a certain type of vegetable per season and then translates that to the growers’ production. For instance, members will receive beets 4 times throughout the season meaning that the growers need to plant enough beets to cover 560 bunches of beets. Each crop has one or more growers assigned to it. In addition, many of the growers can specialize in crops they grow well. The cooperative takes advantage of the many microclimates in the Rogue Valley—growers who are located at a higher elevation are able to produce greens throughout the season, while others may have excellent southern exposure perfect for summer crop production. In reality, the selection of crops for the season is surprisingly democratic and based on how well a grower has produced a crop in past growing seasons.
Each week during the CSA season, Tom calls around to each grower to find out what they have available for that week’s box. From there, he designs the shares and puts in orders with growers the evening before harvest. Once a week, growers meet at a central location to pack the 140 CSA boxes and Tom then delivers to ten different drop points around the Rogue Valley. Besides organic vegetables, the CSA also offers meat products, goat cheese chevre, honey, flowers, eggs and bread from local farms, ranches and bakeries.
Maud thinks that one of the major strengths of the cooperative is the fact that there is more than one grower on each crop. She says, “There is built in risk management in case there is a crop failure on one farm, another farm can come through with a crop. Members will receive at least some of each crop.” Other benefits to this model are that the growers do not have to engage in marketing the products or administering the CSA program. Farmers in the cooperative do take a price cut getting paid at 75% of retail price in exchange for not having to market their produce. Maud says, “I love the group! There are so many collaborations and the cooperative atmosphere deepens relationships between growers.” To build on the collaborative relationship, the Siskiyou Coop manages cooperative seed harvesting and cleaning equipment for the Applegate Valley’s large number of organic seed growers. Siskiyou Coop treasurer Don Tipping of Seven Seeds Farm says, “We were inspired by the Mondragon cooperative from the Basque region of Spain, which is the world’s largest and most successful coop. Independent producers face many challenges and our hope is that as we work together more we are able to reach a better economy of scale. For instance, it is likely that we will initiate a group health insurance policy this season and many growers already pool resources to achieve bulk discounts for farm related inputs. The newly initiated CSA member advisory board will help us broaden the reach of our rural cooperative goals to include our suburban supporters.”
One drawback to being a member grower of the coop is that the growers do lose their farm identity when they sell into the cooperative distribution program. Growers also lose the direct relationship with consumers, although the cooperative is trying to change that this year. Each farm will be hosting a farm day this season allowing CSA members to meet each of the growers and establish a connection with where their food is grown.
Each CSA member receives a recipe page with the weekly box and Maud and Tom run a blog and website for the cooperative that allows growers to post information as well as allows Maud to write updates on how the CSA is going. Members of the Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative are mostly located in the Applegate Valley and include Wolf Gulch Farm, Barking Moon Farm, L&R Family Farm, Full Bloom Farm, Wandering Fields Farm, Seven Seeds Farm, Dancing Bear Farm, Jema Farm and White Oak Farm. Many of the growers are also marketing outside of the cooperative through farmers’ markets, restaurants and wholesale. A majority of them are also organic seed growers. Siskiyou Coop President Josh Cohen of Barking Moon Farm says, “What makes the Siskiyou Coop appealing to a grower like myself is that I am able to have all my crops sold before the growing season. Since it is basically contract growing, I have assurance going into the growing season how many of my crops are going to sell into that venue.”
Maud Powell also gives this advice to other growers interested in starting an agricultural cooperative. She says, “Quality is really important. All of the farmers have to be invested in having a high quality product. Come up with list of protocols or standards that you want to meet. Getting quality standards in a group that is also fostering collaboration is a challenge, but possible.” For more information about the cooperative, check out the cooperative’s website at www.siskiyoucoop.com.