Category: Farmer Direct

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.

Farmer Direct Co-op on the shelves at Viroqua Food Co-op

This post by Bjorn Bergman originally appeared on the Viroqua Food Co-op website. A longer profile of Farmer Direct Co-op, the newest P6 member, is coming soon. 

A small, but revolutionary change took place in our bulk section this year. When it comes to bulk grains, beans, lentils and seeds, we have struggled to find reliable P6 producers to supply our Co-op. Needless to say, it was with great excitement this past spring when the National P6 Office set up a call to introduce P6 retail co-ops (including VFC) to Farmer Direct Co-op, a producer of organic bulk grains, beans, lentils and seeds. After a few more months of working out distribution logistics, this summer we got our first shipment of organic bulk steel cut oats, green lentils, French lentils, small red beans and golden flax seed from Farmer Direct Co-op.2016-Farmer-Direct-Co-op-Postcard.jpg
At the national level, this is a huge victory for Principle Six – as a movement! From the beginning of its creation, P6 had a vision of creating more “Producer Co-op-to-Food Co-op” trade relationships. This connection with Farmer Direct is the first time we have seen one of those “co-op to co-op” relationships evolve and result in new P6 products being stocked at the VFC. A big P6 Win!

With the introduction of Farmer Direct Co-op bulk foods at VFC, we wanted to take some time to share with you why we are so excited about carrying their products.

Farmer Direct Co-op started in 2002 when Jason Freeman (current General Manager) and three organic hempseed farmers formed the business as a way to create more crop price transparency for organic family farmers on the Canadian prairies. The Co-op quickly became popular and more farmers started to join.Today, the co-op is owned by 60 family farms located throughout Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada.

As Farmer Direct Co-op sales have grown, they became interested in establishing a process and certification for assuring fair crop prices to its farmer-owners. This led them to Domestic Fair Trade Certification (a.k.a. fairDeal). Domestic Fair Trade Certification assures that organic farmers receive fair prices for their crops and that farm workers receive a living wage. In 2010, they became the first food business in North America to receive Domestic Fair Trade Certification.

Farmer Direct Co-op is the only company in North America to combine all three attributes of farmer ownership, domestic fair trade, and organics – all under one brand. When you purchase Farmer Direct Co-op products from our bulk section, you are supporting 60 organic family farms, as well as 11 employees. To learn more about Farmer Direct Co-op, check out their website.

Next time you pass through our bulk section, look for and support Farmer Direct Co-op by purchasing their fantastic P6 grains, beans, lentils and seeds.

Farmer Direct Co-op bulk bins at Viroqua Food Co-op

 

Imagining Cooperative Supply Chains at the P6 Annual Meeting

P6 Group photo.jpg-largeLast week in Fayetteville, Arkansas, 20 representatives from our rapidly-growing ranks of P6 cooperatives met to discuss what the future of a cooperative supply chain will be. We were joined by the three new farmer co-ops that have joined P6 in 2015: Maple Valley, Organic Valley/Organic Prairie, and Farmer Direct. These farmers collaborated with folks from the 8 retail food co-op members of P6, including our two newest members, Menomonie Market Food Co-op and Roanoke Natural Foods, to get serious about what co-op to co-op to co-op trade will mean for our food system.

In addition to our co-op farmer members, we were able to talk with three farmers whose products get the P6 designation at Ozark Natural Foods, our host for the meeting. Farmers Mee, Tessa, and Genevieve told us how the P6 program has made a difference for their businesses. Genevieve and Pauline, the fresh manager at ONF, both told a story about how Genevieve was able to provide for her family without competing with other farmers in the area by asking Pauline what no one else was growing for the co-op. Genevieve’s farm then grew butternut squash, filling a niche the co-op hadn’t been able to supply before. Genevieve told us, “It was great to be a local farmer, but it’s been tremendous to be a P6 farmer and be a part of a national movement.”

Farmer Mee.jpg-largeMee is an employee at ONF as well as a P6 producer, so she has many different opportunities to interact with the program. Mee told her story, explaining how the P6 program gave her a clear venue to tell customers about the value of her wellness products. She said that she never got any interaction with her website until P6 launched, at which point she started hearing from people who wanted to know more about her business. Farmer Tessa runs the first cheese producing farm, and the only goat cheese producing farm, in Northwest Arkansas. She told us about how Ozark Natural Foods and the P6 program supported her farm through some difficult times, leading to growth in her business and sustained access to delicious local goat cheese for the region.

Jason presentation.jpg-largeOur facilitators led us in a conversation about how to support new co-ops in joining P6 and building cooperative supply chains. We heard presentations from Eric Newman of Organic Valley/Organic Prairie, who told us about the challenges and opportunities of being an 1,800 member organic farmer cooperative. Cecil Wright of Maple Valley shared his experience as a maple farmer and as the leader of an established, but smaller, multi-stakeholder cooperative of organic maple farmers and the people who support their efforts and buy their products. Finally Jason Freeman of Farmer Direct Co-op, an all-organic, all-domestic fair trade certified co-op in Canada that produces grains and beans and is just breaking into the American market with the help of P6.

We spent the rest of that day discussing how our cooperative trade LaDonna and Jan postits.jpg-largemovement can connect all the links in this chain. These conversations ranged from small ideas, like creating marketing packets for national farmer cooperatives that all our retail members can access, to huge ideas, like expanding cooperative distribution chains across the country, helping small farmers create co-ops, and expanding markets for small and cooperative farmers of color. We’re extremely excited to pick up these ideas and see where they take us next!

Our first board election took place in the days leading up to the Annual Meeting, and the results were announced at the meeting. This is the first time our leadership has been elected, following the great work of our founding Board. We’re taking the next steps in building a democratic organization! Our new board members are Loralyn Howard of Three Rivers Market, Bjorn Bergman of Viroqua Food Co-op, Cecil Wright of Maple Valley Co-op, Eric Newman of Organic Valley/Organic Prairie, Nick Seeberger of Seward Community Co-op, and Jeff Jewel of Bloomingfoods.

On Friday afternoon, the staff of Ozark Natural Foods took us on a tour of their store and told us aboSampling at ONF.jpg-largeut their P6 programming. As we walked in, staff members in P6 shirts offered us a new P6 kale salad with all P6 ingredients. We heard a presentation from Pauline, the ONF Fresh Manager, about the store’s efforts to bring the P6 program to life. Inspired by her experience working with Genevieve, Pauline developed a website for telling farmers about what fruits and vegetables are needed, so they can grow specifically for needs the co-op has. We heard about ONF’s P6 Tour de Farms, which is expanding this year to include producers, and to invite 500 community members, over the 250 who came last year. Thanks so much to Ozark Natural Foods to for hosting this event and helping all of us build the cooperative trade movement!

If you’d like to hear more about our Annual Meeting, check out our Twitter page, which has more detailed information and pictures.