You may have seen the label in the cheese section on a sharp but affordable cheddar, or in the yogurt section, or on the parchment-wrapped logs of butter: Rochdale Farms. You know it signals quality, a creamy flavor that enhances whatever you eat. But what is Rochdale Farms? I spoke with Co-ops Accounts Manager Gina Palandri to find out.
You may be surprised to learn that there’s no Rochdale in Minnesota or Wisconsin. The name for this co-operative producer comes from the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers, designers of the original consumer cooperative model launched in 1844 in Rochdale, England. Facing poverty and personal hardship in the tumult of the industrial revolution, the Rochdale Pioneers opened the first cooperatively organized store offering only five items on the shelves: flour, oatmeal, sugar, butter and candles. The cooperative principles that are still in use today are derived from the Rochdale Society’s rules of conduct.
The name is just the first sign that Rochdale Farms takes cooperation seriously. The cooperative sources it’s product from many small dairies and creameries, each of which gets milk from anywhere from two to three hundred small farmers, many with very small herd size. Rochdale Farms products are only available at 39 cooperative grocery stores across the Upper Midwest that are affiliated with the National Co-op Grocers Association. Rochdale Farms products are picked up and brought to grocers through the Co-op Partners Warehouse, a cooperative warehouse based in St. Paul, MN. This commitment to a cooperative supply chain makes them a perfect embodiment of the goals of the P6 movement. Rochdale Farms uses a cooperative structure to link together small producers with local markets.
The economic impact of buying Rochdale Farms products is substantial. Gina walked me through the sourcing for a speciality cheese, Grazier’s Gold, that the co-op promoted earlier this year. Grazier’s Gold started as milk from PastureLand Dairy Cooperative, a small grass dedicated group of dairy farmers emerging in Wisconsin after a reorganization.” These farmers do the substantial work of caring for the cows and cultivating enough grass for the cows to eat. A vat of beautiful grassfed PastureLand milk was crafted into a batch of 69 wheels of buttery, gouda-style cheese. This amount is much too small for most stores to stock, but through the power of the cooperative network Rochdale Farms has built, they were able to bring this small-batch local cheese to a receptive market. Gina let me know that people who sampled the cheese were shocked at the low price for the high quality. That’s because Rochdale Farms prioritizes getting money to the farmer. As Gina put it “The financial vitality to the dairy farmer is the number one priority. Everyone in between is working as some form of a steward to the farmer. They’re the ones taking care of these very large animals.”
Rochdale Farms does most of its marketing through their website, social media, in store demonstrations, and at the Midtown Farmers Market. There is no need, as Gina explained, to “take out a billboard on Hwy. 35W.” The personal, direct attention to marketing the cooperative label on a person to person and co-op to co-op basis helps keep costs low and makes sure that people know they can trust the label. Using a cooperative label allows farmers to focus on farming and creameries to focus on making cheese, yogurt, and butter. Gina drew an analogy to P6 founder Equal Exchange. They have been very successful in partnerships with coffee-growing farmers, while consumers know when they purchase Equal Exchange Coffee, it is greatly impacting the farmers in a positive dynamic.
Gina emphasized keeping the food system local. With Rochdale Farms, farmers’ milk goes directly to the creamery/producer, produced into Cheese/Hand-rolled Butter or Yogurt then from the creamery/producer to the Co-op Partners Warehouse in Saint Paul, and from there to a small number of cooperative grocers. A customer at Seward Co-op or Eastside Co-op in Minneapolis can be assured that their yogurt, butter, or cheese most likely traveled under 200 miles from cow to co-op. This is a stark contrast to the industrial dairy system, which ships milk hundreds of miles to become dairy products, which are then themselves shipped hundreds of miles through warehouses and big box stores. Rochdale Farms is intentionally relocalizing the food system in order to keep costs down, products fresh, and farmers at the center of the system.