Cooperative work structures promote ecologically sustainable farming and create sustainable livelihoods for farmworkers and their communities. Here’s a general blueprint for starting a worker-owned cooperative farm:
Step one: Acquire farmland
You may already have some family land, or purchased land, to farm on. You want to convert an existing farm business entity to a cooperative.
If you don’t currently have access to land, there are many ways to get there. Long-term agricultural leases are common in every state. Working through land trusts, land contracts, or even crowdfunded down payments for land, are all possibilities as well. Your land acquisition can be rural or urban. There are many resources to help you start farms in many spaces.
Organizations like Rogue Farm Corps in Oregon and Farm Commons in Minnesota provide consultations and information on how cooperative-minded farmers can find their land. Farmers should be open to the many possible ways they may end up with their farm and seek routes that afford them the opportunity to set up a cooperative business.
Step two: Form your worker organization
You’ll need to create a legal business entity and the policies and procedures for operating as a worker enterprise. Numerous resources are available for both objectives. Keep in mind that states vary in how cooperative business entities are set up, with some having distinct legal categories for worker cooperatives and others allowing businesses formed as any legal entity to operate as cooperatives — such as creating an LLC with cooperative bylaws.
The cooperative work culture you create begins by writing out your operating agreements and procedures and adopting (and adapting) practices such as consensus-based decision-making, workplace democracy, and conflict resolution.
Step three: Develop your values-based mission
You’ve been doing this all along, probably before steps one and two. Once you have formed your cooperative and started pounding posts into the ground, you need to make your values and mission as concrete as your farming practices. This is a great opportunity to think about and invite others to think about the similarities between worker cooperation and farming/food systems, and how both local farms and worker ownership are good for communities.
Step four: Promote your values
Once you have articulated how your cooperative fits into new and increasingly popular ways of doing food and community, be bold in promoting its identity. Become a part of your local community — host and facilitate events that build awareness of cooperatives, farms, and democratic food systems. Network with the New Economy Coalition, Democracy at Work, farming cooperative alliances (including producer cooperatives), and other groups dedicated to defending the commons and food democracy.
Step five: Plan for the long-term security of the farm and its workers
You’ve adopted a model that will help you stay in business. Now is the time to develop practices and build knowledge to benefit from the particular advantages that cooperatives have to offer, while remaining aware of their challenges.
The longer you stay in business, the better off your worker-members are. While experts in farming business law and worker-owned cooperatives admit that it’s challenging to create long-term security for farm employees, they continue to explore and develop ideas, so it’s worth your time to keep engaging cooperative advocacy and research. Cooperatives can receive breaks on federal taxes too, so if your business attorney can’t answer all your tax questions, it may pay to consult with an accountant or tax attorney.
Organizations and publications with resources for these steps are hyperlinked throughout this article, so contact all those folks. Nobody in the worker cooperative movement wants any potential participants to feel unsupported.