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~Farmer Cooperation Growing in North Central Florida~

By: Mary Hathaway, Farmer Education Coordinator

The first thing anyone will tell you about cooperatives is that forming a cooperative is different from forming any other business entity.

To start up, a group of potential members must agree on a common need and a strategy on how to meet that need. Growers face unique challenges in every state, and while Florida’s farmers boast fresh produce production second only to California, the “Fresh from Florida” label is better recognized nationally and internationally than on the Florida dinner table.

Responding to interest and demand from local farmers to increase the local consumption of Florida produce, Florida Organic Growers (FOG) engaged local partners in applying for the USDA AMS – Local Food Promotion Program (LFPP) planning grant. This grant would allow FOG to help facilitate the conversation and assist with any technical planning in concert with state and regional partners, including SSAWG, RAFI, FDACS, Healthy Jacksonville, SBDC, Local Roots Distribution and farmers in the North Central Florida area.

In October, the LFPP grant was awarded and, in January 2015, three North Central Florida farmers interested in the Cooperative attended the Southern SAWG conference and were able to meet with managers of cooperatives and food networks: Robin Robbins of Virginia and Frank Taylor of Mississippi, respectively. In addition to the informative workshops at the conference, these meetings brought out the different logistic, labor and infrastructure issues that the leaders of the cooperative will need to organize, as well as what capacities should be understood before formulating a business structure.

In the following months, FOG has worked with growers to organize meetings in Jacksonville, Live Oak, and Gainesville to focus on the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for farmers and Jacksonville co-op meetingarea food system. As the meetings progressed, participants tried to figure out what the most efficient way to organize area farmers, and the main ways that a cooperative could benefit all involved. Growers agreed that marketing and sales, including increasing the communication between farmers, buyers, and resource providers, collective purchasing, equipment sharing, education, and training, were some of the great possibilities that, by working together, may be able to increase the capacity of participating growers, while also benefiting their community.

While the focus is on the farmer, we know that we can’t operate in a vacuum, so information and feedback was also solicited from area purchasers and distributors. Overall, buyers want local food, but face many obstacles in consistently ordering from their local growers. Some of their issues were the lack of variety, inconsistency in availability, lack of certifications or insurance, price points and communication. Cognizant of all these issues, the meeting groups moved forward with what would help them increase their sales and resources, with the reality of their markets.

Work has continued throughout the region with the help of many partners, and much thought from farmers and local distributors. While the formation of the cooperative is still nascent, communication amongst producers has increased through face to face meetings, the formulation of the North Central Florida Farmer Cooperative group and the North East Florida Farmer Cooperative group on Facebook has allowed for quick and easy updates and communication on prices, collective buying needs, and event postings.

In May, growers met together with RAFI, FOG and Matson consulting to discuss the relative health of their own operations before delving into a collective business. Additionally the group discussed the resources that may currently be available to them both federally and within the state of Florida. Together, they wanted to make sure there was a possibility of sharing market prices, creating a local logo for their clean, local produce, and eventually building their capacity to sell to their community. The group decided they would research what it would take to become a 501c5 (Agricultural Organization), and what local universities or design centers would be interested in helping them create a logo. Plans for a following meeting left the attendees excited about the possibilities and motivated that they had action items to complete for upcoming meetings. While the business plan is yet to be written, the movement towards a more robust local food system starts in small steps like these!

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North East Florida Farmer Cooperative or North Central Florida Farmer Cooperative!

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