Fairness in farming: seed money sought for starting co-ops

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Farmer cooperatives allow producers to pool resources together to get a better bang for their buck. While they have been around for generations, there is a Minnesota effort to expand the movement by creating a new grant program.

Farmer-owned co-ops are designed to boost processing capacity and build markets for members and the food they grow. The Minnesota proposal would allow startup grants for up to $50,000.

Angela Dawson, co-founder of the 40 Acre Co-op, which was created in 2019 to elevate socially disadvantaged farmers, said while her model already is thriving, she sees value in helping other local networks get off the ground.

“Cooperative funding to rural communities, I think, should be a real top priority because our rural communities have really suffered from business shutdowns during the pandemic,” Dawson explained. “And a lot of us have not really had the proper resources to recover.”

The provision is included in the House agriculture omnibus bill. It is unclear if it will remain during negotiations with the Senate.

The proposed program would not rely on state funding, with sponsors noting it could be established through the use of federal recovery dollars. Groups such as the Minnesota Farmers Union are asking lawmakers to approve the plan.

Dawson, who farms in northern Minnesota, said 40 Acre is the first national Black farmer co-op since the Reconstruction era. She said combining resources can help smaller-level producers feel like they have a chance to gain an edge in today’s market.

“And when we’re talking about the crises that we’re having in agriculture and equity and farmers — who really want to be on the land and want to feed our communities but can’t get the access to resources — we need to think about some of those barriers and hurdles,” Dawson contended.

She added there is a range of systemic issues within long-standing government programs, while adding the grants are too competitive. In the U.S., roughly two million farmers are members of more than 2,000 cooperatives.

Mike Moen is a writer for Minnesota News Connection.