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Co-ops Gain Foothold in Farm Crisis
By Tim Post
July 20, 1999
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Tired of low prices in agriculture, Minnesota farmers are forming co-ops in increasing numbers. Lately it's become a popular and successful undertaking for farmers selling everything from dairy products to fresh produce. Co-ops allow family farmers to combine their efforts, avoid the retail market and earn more money for their products by selling directly to consumers. One central Minnesota co-op has found a loyal customer base in some Twin Cities congregations, and in the process, developed a friendship between farmers and the people who buy their food.

WHOLE FARM CO-OP got its start about three years ago in the central Minnesota town of Long Prairie. A group of local farmers was fed up with falling prices in agriculture and decided to go out on their own.

Tim King is one of the co-op's founders. King grows fruit and vegetables on a farm west of Long Prairie. He walks a path through the woods behind his house, down a hill and into a clearing to a garden that's tiny by farming standards - only two acres.
King: Over here we have muskmelon that got a really good start this year.
He says the idea behind the Whole Farm co-op harkens back to a traditional system of farming.
King: We are trying to develop a friendship between urban people who normally don't know where there food comes from, and rural people who normally don't know where they send their food, so we're trying to recreate that connection between the farmers and the eater.
Once the Whole Farm Co-op got off the ground, it needed a customer base. People who would appreciate the co-op's theory of farming, their product and their wish to operate independently.

The group worked with the Catholic Archdiocese in St. Paul to get area churches involved. Dale Hennen is head of the rural-affairs office for the Archdiocese.
Hennen: Many people in our parishes were quite excited about it because they see it as a way they can use their food-purchasing dollars to support and sustain family farmers on the land, and they realize it also has an impact on the health and welfare on the health of our rural communities.
Parishioners buy meat, cheese, eggs and vegetables from the co-op with an order form. The co-op 's volunteers fill the orders and make weekly deliveries to the churches.

Colleen Ciacio is a parishioner at Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Roseville. She buys food from the co-op because it's fresh from the farm, but she also sees it as a way to support struggling farmers.
Ciacio: I see it as a win-win situation. When you donate money to a charity you don't know how much money is going to that cause and how much is going to fundraise and whatnot. I know that the money is going back to farmer 100 percent. That's a good feeling, and I'm benefiting and my family is benefiting by the wonderful products they are providing us with.
Thirty farmers sell their goods through the Whole Farm Co-op, delivering to five Twin Cities-area churches.

The interest in Whole Farm Co-op is keeping everyone at the head office busy. The co-ops headquarters are in an unfinished basement tucked below a building in downtown Long Prairie.

In a room filled with boxes of frozen beef and fresh vegetables, a few volunteers work to fill orders for an upcoming delivery. Phil Arnold, the co-op's treasurer, says selling direct to customers is a way for farmers to take control of their role in the agriculture industry.
Arnold: I guess we don't like to look like a charity, we want to pay our own way, but there is an issue here. Somebody's got to get in there and pitch a little bit or we are all going to go the corporate way, and I don't think people really want to see that.
While farmers in co-ops take control of their business, they need to do more, like market their products, and establish a delivery system. These extras cost money. That means customers pay more than they would at the grocery store.

Co-op founder Tim King says that will test the co-op system, and ultimately determine the future of the Whole Farm Co-op.
King: Will a system like this work economically? I'm not sure yet. So maybe it'll work. It's still an experiment. But, it's exciting to see that there is a need for something like this.
The Whole Farm Co-op is finding it hard to keep up with customer demand for its products right now. The group will start delivery to a sixth church this fall, but says it'll need to bring more farmers on board to continue selling directly to customers.