Small Farmer Commentary – Local + Cooperative = Resilience2
By Stu Shafer
Last March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit us head on, the ten farmers of Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance scrambled to figure out how we were going to operate our CSA with many of our usual delivery sites shut down along with just about everything else. Through email and something called Zoom, we discussed adding a bulk order and delivery function to our website, offering home delivery of shares for an extra fee, finding new drop off sites, and developing additional sanitation and PPE protocols. We had no idea then that it would not, in fact, be a challenge to get enough subscribers because of the new restrictions, but membership would grow by leaps and bounds. It seems people were looking for local, reliable sources for their food as it became clear that long commodity chains in the corporate dominated food systems were extremely vulnerable, with shortages of not only toilet paper but food staples like meats on supermarket shelves within weeks.
At the same time, the farmer-owners of the Kansas City Food Hub—like Rolling Prairie, a cooperative of growers—were suddenly confronted by the metro-wide shut down and loss of the institutional sales (restaurants, corporate cafeteria, schools, grocery stores) their model was built on. Like Rolling Prairie, the core group of farmers rapidly and creatively adjusted their strategy and adopted a modified CSA system, a “neighborhood food share” using their logistical knowledge and experience to organize deliveries in the metro area to a whole new set of customers. Not only did they add new customers in the neighborhoods, they brought in other growers who faced the same challenge when market and restaurant sales evaporated. The coop grew to a total of 30 farms, including small and medium-size family farms and non-profit community organizations.
Rolling Prairie is the oldest vegetable cooperative, multi-farm CSA in the Midwest. Founded in 1994 by then Executive Director of the Kansas Rural Center Dan Nagengast and five other family farmers in Douglas, Jefferson, and Leavenworth counties, the “Alliance” moniker and cooperative structure were both inspired by the Populist Movement a century earlier, when farmers rose up against the railroad and banking monopolies to “raise less corn and more hell” in the famous words of Kansan Mary Elizabeth Lease. They formed Farmers Alliances, Wheels, and ultimately a Peoples Party to work toward building a Cooperative Commonwealth.
Rolling Prairie grew out of the same social movement that gave rise to the Kanas Rural Center. The farm crisis of the 1980s and the resulting popular movement to protect and adapt a sustainable, family farming system understood that rural communities also depended on a vibrant, family-based agriculture. Both organizations have always rooted themselves in Kansas and local conditions, while pursuing the broader and deeper social mission of building an ecologically sound, socially just farm and food system.
The original CSA model originated among more urban affluent populations in Japan, Switzerland, and the Northeastern U.S. The idea was to provide community support to farmers through up-front investment by customers in “shares” of the farm’s produce for the season. Customers thus assumed a share of the farmer’s risk as well.
There was clearly popular support for the family farm in Kansas in the 1990s, but not necessarily the same ability or willingness of large numbers of consumers to take on that level of shared financial risk. “It was never our sense that we could find people who would put four or five hundred dollars down on a gamble that they would be getting vegetables,” Nagengast explained (Subscribing to Change, Bethany Spicher, 1999). Knowing and responding to local communities proved to be a successful strategy, as the basic “subscription” model the original growers developed is still being used. The cooperative is now into its second generation of grower members, the majority of them young and beginning farmers, many of whom have been mentored by the original group.
COVID-19 has shaken everything in our world, and caused us all to think deeply and creatively about our present and future. Many of us can see this moment as a necessary, terribly tragic reminder of the uncertainties and crises to come with climate change running full steam ahead. Although more rural parts of the state did not feel the effects as immediately and directly as those in and closer to the cities, it is everywhere now, and as I write this the health care system across the state is stretched to its limits. Although as a society — with all of our rampant divisions and conflicts — we have managed to keep commerce flowing enough to avoid major, lasting shortages on the shelves, we now know that could happen again any time.
Words like “resilient” and “regenerative” are embraced by increasing numbers of growers and eaters alike. Growers concerned with soil health know the microbiome of the soil is key to its health. Eaters concerned with their own health are learning their gut microbiome is key. As David Montgomery and Anne Biklé pointed out at the 2018 KRC Farm and Food Conference (and in their book, The Hidden Half of Nature), these symbiotic, mutually beneficial systems are not only parallel, they are interconnected.
So what about our social system, and in particular our food and farming system? Maybe one of the lessons we can learn from 2020 is that in spite of all our differences and seemingly intractable disagreements, we still need each other. People need farmers to grow their food, and farmers need doctors and nurses to take care of them when they fall ill, teachers to educate their children, electrical workers to repair the grid when it goes down.
And maybe another lesson is that cooperation is really the way of the world, from the soil to our guts to our communities. As the ironic slogan on an old Community Mercantile Cooperative Grocery t-shirt said — right out of the old Westerns many of us used to enjoy — “Cooperate and nobody gets hurt.” Maybe we can put our minds together and come up with that Cooperative Commonwealth after all.
Stu Shafer is the board president for KRC.
Photo: Shafer on his Sandheron Farm. Photo taken by Nick Krug, reprinted with permission from the Lawrence Journal-World.