Pacific NorthWest food co-ops - investing in farming

Community Co-op Farm Fund

Seattle was the first stop on my trip, and provided the perfect introduction to the world of US food co-ops and what they’re achieving in their communities and for their local food systems. This post is focussed on the work that is being done by a couple of those co-ops to make significant and proactive investments in sustainable farming in their region, something that my co-op Unicorn can certainly relate to.

It’s been incredibly inspiring to me personally, to see the vision we have at Unicorn being shared and acted upon strategically by co-ops here to create real and lasting change to the picture of food and farming in their region. Like us, they aren’t just grocery stores. We are all very much part of a global movement, of co-operation and creative collaboration for a better way of feeding people without trashing our land or the people who produce our food, and it’s really exciting to be reminded of that.

First up was PCC Farmland Trust, which secures and preserves threatened farmland in the state of Washington, ensuring generations of farmers can continue to produce foods for local markets. It was established by PCC Natural Markets (the US’s biggest consumer food co-op) in 1999, as the PCC Natural Markets Farmland Fund.

Washington farmland is being lost at a rate of 45,000 acres each year, and often the farmland that is the most agriculturally valuable – flat and well-drained prime soils – is also the most desirable for development. Since its formation in 2000, PCC Farmland Trust has protected 1306 acres of working organic farmland from development, forever.

In its early days, the fund was pretty much part of the co-op, staffed by co-op personnel and with a board largely made up of co-op employees. It acquired land on a fairly adhoc basis, responding to opportunities that came its way. Nowadays it is pretty independent of the co-op (although the co-op remains its biggest donor), has several paid staff members and operates according to a clearly defined strategic plan, operating in the two counties of Washington losing farming land most rapidly and prioritising land with the highest conservation value.

The Trust mostly operates by buying ‘conservation easements’ for farms, to bring the price of land down to its agricultural value instead of development value, allowing the existing farmer to continue farming. But they also buy land outright, and matchmake want-to-be-farmers with parcels of land. Due to a shortage of potential new farmers, they work closely with FarmLink (a farmer incubator programme) and are also looking at turning their next acquisition into what they call an ‘agricultural park’, where people can split land between them and farm on a small scale, possibly as a second job. I’m hoping to visit an existing version of this in California (SUNOL agricultural park) later this month.

My second visit had a similar theme, being to a co-op that is also investing heavily in its region’s farms and farmers.

Bellingham’s Community Food Co-op was established in 1970 with 40 volunteer members and just 8 basic product lines (a pleasing reminder of our original Rochdale co-operators!). They now have two stores in the town, 12,000 customer-members and as of this summer, a brand new bakery, café and Community Connections Building.

In the same year that PCC Natural Markets bought their first piece of organic farmland, CFC set up its Farmer Fund, open to all organic and ‘in conversion’ farmers in the county (approximately a 50 mile radius around the store) and designed to

  • Establish programmes  and provide funding to benefit the local farming community
  • Encourage ecological and socially responsible stewardship of our farmland
  • Increase access to healthy, local food

Jean Rogers, the fund’s co-ordinator, explains “Our large, rural county has a strong agricultural economy, rich soil, good growing conditions, and over 3,000 acres in organic and transitional production. Still, farmland is threatened by encroaching development; small farms face significant financial challenges; the average age of farmers is 53.4 years old; and organically grown food makes up only a small percent of our total county agriculture. Strengthening our local, sustainable farms is a big goal to achieve with limited labor hours and capital—a typical scenario for many co-ops”.

From the start, the Farm Fund enlisted the community’s expertise. The co-op’s board of directors commissioned a survey of farmers practicing small-scale organic agriculture and farmer focus groups were asked to identify the challenges they faced, potential solutions and the best way for the co-op to support the viability of sustainable farming in Whatcom County. The co-op also invited participation from an advisory committee of farmers, food advocates and co-op member-owners to guide the use of the Fund. The presence of local farmers on the committee has been central to the Fund’s ability to prioritise the most pressing needs of their food producers.

Since its inception, the fund has developed enormously. Depending on fluctuations in capacity, it has sometimes focussed on incubating its own programmes, while at others on supporting external projects, including startup funds for a farmers market in a nearby town; the first organic-seed-saving workshops in the county; funding for a worker-owned cooperative farm; and a subsidized Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program for low-income residents.

Tackling both food access and the shortage of organic farmers, their Food to Bank On initiative matches up starter farmers to be trained up, mentored by experienced farmers, and supported with marketing, all the while being paid to grow food for local foodbanks. It’s now such a big programme it’s been hived off to be managed by a local non-profit who had the resources to manage it and the ability to apply for grants. Over 20 farms have participated in the three-year program. Many are now co-op suppliers, and FTBO “graduates” are mentoring the next group of new farmers.

To complement the grant programme, the fund also has a loan element (currently containing around £50,000), designed for applications from individual farmers that are important to the farms’ success, but don’t fit the grant criteria, which is more designed for community or multiple-farm-based projects. Short-term low interest loans have the potential to help local farmers meet their infrastructure needs, diversify products, increase environmentally friendly practices, fill gaps in the local food supply and create new markets. As the loan fund revolves continually, it’s a strategic investment in the future of local farming.

Exciting and inspiring stuff - co-ops have so much potential! Thanks so much to the good folk at PCC Farmland Trust and the Community Food Co-op for taking the time to show me around and explain your wonderful work.

The Kindling Trust is a not for profit social enterprise with charitable aims (Company number: 6136029).
Kindling Trust Ltd - Bridge 5 Mill, 22a Beswick Street, Ancoats, Manchester, M4 7HR