Farmer Direct Cooperative: A New Kind of Co-op

P6 was honored to bring Farmer Direct Cooperative (FDC) on board as a member last year. FDC has been operating in Canada since 2002 but is just beginning to bring their products — beans, grains, and oilseeds — to the American market.

I spoke with founder and Director Jason Freeman and Retail Sales & Marketing Coordinator Katherine Gee about their co-op’s story.

Farmer Direct All Member MeetingFarmer Direct Cooperative was founded by Jason and three farmers in 2002. Jason had been operating a small organic food company and upon its sale was approached by the farmers he had been working with to market more of their crops. The farmers faced unfair pricing, poor logistics, and a lack of transparency. They collaborated with Jason to build a cooperative that would let them sell their crops, which included flaxseed, lentils, hempseed and peas, in a fair and direct way.

The Canadian prairies have a strong cooperative history, particularly for farmers. Farmer Direct Cooperative’s board president, Kevin Bristow, grew up watching his father run member services for a large conventional farmer co-op. What Farmer Direct Cooperative brings that is new is their commitment to their three attributes:

  • 100% Farmer Owned
  • 100% Certified Organic
  • 100% Domestic Fair Trade Certified

No other business boasts all three attributes, so let’s take some time to dig into what they all mean.

Farmer Owned

John Finnie & SonOrganizing as a cooperative, or farmer-owned businesses, was a bit of a no-brainer for the farmers. The strong culture of cooperatives in the area laid the groundwork, so when the farmers decided to come together, they knew they wanted one member, one vote; open and voluntary membership; and a way to participate fairly in an economic endeavor. What other way than through a cooperative? Their board president summed up why he joined the co-op as: “I believe in cooperatives, I believe in fairness, I believe in transparency. Collectively we have more strength, more advantage, more opportunity.”

Certified Organic

All 60 family farms that are member-owners of Farmer Direct Cooperative are fully organic. Most of them have been organic for at least 10 years. None of FDC’s members are “split operations,” or farms that grow both conventional and organic products. The strong commitment to only selling organic products is one of the big draws that brings farmers into the cooperative.

Domestic Fair Trade Certified

Farmer Direct Cooperative FamilyWhile running an organic farmers’ co-op was already innovative, Farmer Direct Cooperative made the decision over the last few years to continue their leadership in the field by certifying all their farmers Domestic Fair Trade. Farmer Direct Cooperative was the first business in North America to receive that certification, which ensures that business in North America are treating workers fairly and farmers are paid a fair price.

Jason said that change in any co-op can often cause members to split off. Despite the high reporting and auditing requirements that come with Domestic Fair Trade Certification, only two farmers left the co-op when the decision was made to bring the label on board. The overwhelming majority of FDC farmers saw this new certification as an important way they could push the industry in a fairer direction.

Another change for Farmer Direct Cooperative is their recent decision to expand into the US market. Joining P6 as the first international member was one step in their process to get connected to the players in the US market. Katherine, who serves as the primary liaison to P6, shared that building relationships with co-ops around the US and learning about the landscape and distribution here has been a huge advantage.

Farmer Direct Cooperative products on the shelf at Viroqua Food Co-opThrough their membership in P6 and the advocacy of our members, Farmer Direct Cooperative was able to get their products into the Co-op Partners Warehouse, which serves co-ops and other grocery stores all over the Upper Midwest. This type of distribution, which goes from a farmer co-op to a warehousing co-op to a grocery co-op, begins to build the co-op to co-op supply chain that’s at the heart of P6’s vision and a big part of the world Farmer Direct Cooperative is trying to build.

Jason and Katherine shared their visions for a more P6 world. Jason emphasized that co-ops may never fully replace conventional businesses, but that they serve as a crucial foil for the current system. In a P6 world, democratically owned businesses will drive corporations to better behavior through competition as the public gets more experience with cooperatives. There has to be an alternative to the rampant greed that leads to exploitation along the supply chain. Katherine foresees a world where co-op made is the preference and customers are knowledgeable and excited about cooperatives.

Jason and Katherine are optimistic about the long-term impacts of P6 on their co-op. We are extremely excited to continue to grow with them. You can learn more about Farmer Direct Cooperative at their website.

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