Did you know the Northwest Agriculture Business Center (NABC) is one of just twenty-two (22) United States Department of Agriculture designated Cooperative Development Centers? Funded by Rural Cooperative Development Grants since 2010, NABC has provided technical assistance for the formation of cooperatives including cooperative education, articles and bylaw development, incorporating and business formation, and preparation of strategic and business plans. NABC also provides executive management services to support local and regional collaborative efforts, including the Northwest Cider Association and the Puget Sound Food Hub.
On October 25, the Northwest Agriculture Business Center, Alaska Center for Economic Development, Northwest Cooperative Development Center and the Lake County Community Development Center are joining forces to offer an informative and engaging day-long conference, Food Hubs: Pioneering New Direct Relationships Between Buyers and Sellers, bringing together experts in northwest regional food systems development to share their experiences, thoughts, and strategies for creating greater community access to locally produced food. Presenters will represent food hubs, supermarkets, institutional food service, farm to school initiatives, and communities-in-need programs.
We caught up with Jeff Voltz, NABC Project Manager, about farmer cooperatives, food hubs and the upcoming conference.
Q. Can you give us a little more background on the upcoming food hub conference?
JV. We’re bringing together experts from around the region with experience in both food hubs and cooperative business development. The idea to collaborate with other cooperative development centers is fairly new. We realized over the last year of working with several start-up businesses that there is not a much common knowledge about cooperatives. People know a little about food hubs and not much about co-ops. There is a need for people to learn more about the co-op model especially since some of the most successful food hubs in the country are cooperatives. The good news is that they are eager to educate others and tell their story. If we can provide a forum where food hubs and cooperative development organizations could collaborate on some kind of regional conference to provide education and inspire farmers and other practitioners, then we could really benefit the region’s food economy.
Plus, the sixth principle of cooperatives is cooperation among cooperatives and this conference will be a shining example of our principles in action.
Q. What makes cooperatives different than other types of businesses?
JV. Co-ops have values that are different from any other type of business. It’s about the business providing mutual benefit to the folks who use the business. And only the people who use the business can be stockholders. Cooperatives are structured to operate based on a “one-member-one-vote basis” so they are really about democracy in business. Commonly farmers might view another farm as a competitor, whereas in a farmer cooperative, they see each other as collaborators with one big voice and enough market opportunity to go around. Other benefits include tax- advantages, resulting in more resources to capitalize a business. We’ll talk more about this at the conference, of course.
Q. Who should attend this conference?
JV. Anybody who is interested in local food systems, or anyone who is interested in learning about systems and models that work! This is a great venue for farmers and organizations working on grassroots food hub development projects to learn from others who have pioneered successful models in our region. Also folks who are interested in the cooperative model and anyone who eats food and cares about the food system. To quote Wendell Berry, “Eating is an agricultural act!”
Q. Why is this conference important now?
JV. It’s fascinating to me that food hubs are fairly new in urban centers whereas a lot of the food hubs that have been working for a long time, come from rural areas, and I think that cooperatives came into existence out of a need for farmers to work together to get their product to larger urban markets more affordably, efficiently and fairly. We’re really in our infancy so we have a lot to learn from more rural food hubs that have been doing this work for a lot longer than we have.
I really want people to bring together and create a broad community around this effort. I’d like us all to come away from this conference inspired to change the way we think about and relate to our food, the health of our communities and the region’s landscapes.
Register for Food Hubs: Pioneering New Direct Relationships Between Buyers and Sellers on Saturday, October 25th
Learn more about how NABC assists in the formation of producer-owned cooperatives at the Rural Cooperative Development page.