Cooperative Structures: Finding a Way Forward for Mid-size Farms

Thomas Gray
2020 Scientia  
This study explores choices of cooperative structure -local, centralized, or federated -for mid-size farms, also referred to as the "agriculture-of-the-middle" (AOTM) or farms of "the disappearing middle." They are referred to as "in the middle" structurally (in terms of numbers and production output) because they are positioned between large industrialized farms and much smaller farms located near metropolitan areas. The largest farms have increased in numbers as well in the proportion of
more » ... U.S. farms..These farms fit the large-scale, industrialized and commodity-production farm model. The smallest farms have increased in numbers and output as well and are generally specialized for "local" and organic markets. The financial stability of many farms in the middle is tenuous. They generally have both too much output and are too distant from metropolitan areas to take advantage of the niche markets that the smallest farms have been able to access. While further industrialization and increasing scale may be an option for some, for most it is not desired and/or possible financially. "Middle farms" are a focus for different interest groups-including farmers, food wholesalers and retailers, university and government personnel, non-government organizations (NGOs), independent certification organizations and rural and community development experts--seeking to protect and expand farm viability. Their strategies are generally organized to develop niche-specified, differentiated products that encompass various sustainability agendas (economic, social, and environmental sustainability). These initiatives are, in fact, budding collective actions that seek to mobilize AOTM farmers for survival. This report argues that the historical conditions setting the context for this mobilization cannot be taken lightly. The report, therefore, reviews the historically based changes that have occurred in the agricultural context--i.e., shifts in agricultural production, changes in agribusiness complexity, and changes in consumption patterns--and understands these changes as the historically set conditions that the AOTM initiatives must accommodate in their development strategies. From this socio-historical context, the paper assesses different cooperative membership structures--local, centralized, and federated--for their appropriateness to the collective action initiatives of the mid-level farms. Section III assesses three different examples of membership structures -local, centralized, and federated -in the context of (a) historic socio-economic changes in production, agri-business organization, and consumption (as outlined in Section I); and (b) the inherent tensions in cooperative organizations and the character of cooperative development historically (as outlined in Section II). Considering socio-economic context, history, and tensions, federated cooperatives seem a likely choice for the agendas of mid-size farms. The cooperative model, particularly the federated co-op, may have the capacity to empower mid-level farmers by providing an outlet for their volume, the organizational capacity and scale to compete with much larger organizations, the ability to provide standardization and coordination, and a "local" democratic process that can engender and promote grass-roots creativity, responsiveness, and local identity. However federations must be chosen and monitored with caution, given their inherent capacity (like all cooperative types) to shift along the various internal tensions that are intrinsic to their structure (e.g., bureaucracy versus democracy, shortterm returns versus long-term service, and efficiency versus participation).
doi:10.33548/scientia536 fatcat:cifvi4yyfba4lhfvcsgxwu76ei