The collective future of American agriculture

Pandemic-driven shortages gave fresh relevance to co-ops, hubs and other forms of collective agriculture. Now, with a trust-buster in the White House and a current of defiance coursing through the workforce, this patchwork has a shot at becoming a viable alternative to Big Ag.

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The Nation

Many of today's collective agricultural operations, like the Black Farmers Collective in downtown Seattle, pictured here, are building on the tradition of cooperative ventures that Black farmers were forced to rely on when they were systemically shut out of mainstream agriculture over the course of the 20th century. Photo by Raphael Gaultier (@RaphGaultier; RaphaelGaultier.com)

Starting any farm is a crapshoot, but Reginaldo and Amy Haslett-Marroquin went the hard way right from the start. In the fall of 2020, they bought 75 acres south of Minneapolis to expand their chicken-farming operation. Rather than take a guaranteed contract with one of the corporate brands, like Tyson or Pilgrim’s Pride, they’re raising organic broilers in an agroforestry system and marketing under their own label, Tree-Range.

It seemed a foolhardy move. In the tightly concentrated U.S. chicken industry, where just four companies account for about 55 percent of all the meat sold in the country, it’s tough for a solo farm to get its products into grocery stores. Most commercial chicken farmers raise birds under a contract with one of the big brands, which supply the chicks, feed, pharmaceuticals, and other necessities and then pay a set price to the producer. Farmers assume all the risk of raising the birds, but if things go well, they get a guaranteed paycheck.

But Reginaldo (known as Regi), a trained agronomist who emigrated from Guatemala when he was 25, wasn’t going solo. Before he and Amy decided to expand, he had spent 13 years working a smaller chicken farm and building a regional network of farmers who were drawn to his agroforestry approach. That group now comprises seven committed chicken and grain producers representing more than 950 acres in southeastern Minnesota, plus a processing plant, a grain elevator, and support staff, and more farmers are lining up to join. The chicken business runs as a cooperative, and the larger group includes a nonprofit that owns infrastructure and leads legislative, advocacy, and training initiatives, as well as several other affiliated businesses not part of the co-op. Regi calls this extensive system a “collective.” Together, they might make it.

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin spent 13 years building a regional network of farmers who were drawn to his agroforestry approach. That group now comprises seven chicken and grain producers, a processing plant, a grain elevator and support staff, with more farmers lining up to join. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber.

Covid-19 was tough on Regi’s group, like it was on everyone, but it also helped prove that the collective’s business structure works: While big meatpackers struggled to keep their vertically integrated supply chains running in 2020, Tree-Range was able to rely on its own processing, transport, and marketing to sell to stores in Minneapolis and online meat-delivery services. This short-chain approach proved resilient. Despite selling birds at premium prices—drumsticks commonly retail for $1 a pound, whereas Tree-Range drumsticks cost $3.99 a pound at Seward Community Co-op, which has three stores in Minneapolis—the collective did okay. Regi reports that by August of this year the brand had netted $250,000, a small number in the poultry world but a great start for a collective that is not yet in full production. And frankly, it’s a rousing success in an American system where over half of all farms report making no income at all.

“You have small farmers who somehow get into this illusion that, individually, they are somebody in the larger system, but they’re making a mistake,” Regi said in a video interview from his home in Northfield, Minnesota. “Individually, we’re not viable. We can be critical to the future of agriculture in the world, but only if we organize into large-scale systems of small farms.”

Regi’s chickens, it turns out, are critical to the future of agriculture. At a moment when the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues report after dire report saying that conventional agriculture is a major source of greenhouse gases, Regi’s agroforestry system is increasingly seen as a sustainable alternative. The chickens get organic feed but also forage freely among hazelnut trees and elderberry bushes, eating a mix of bugs and worms and vegetation and leaving behind manure, building organic matter in the soil. The nuts and berries provide additional cash crops that require few inputs and store carbon as they grow. The entire operation uses fewer agrochemicals and fossil fuels than conventional agriculture. Regi’s farm is also part of an ecosystem of farmers, processors, truckers, marketers, and consumers that keeps money in the region. This helps reinvigorate a rural culture that’s been hollowed out by population loss, crumbling infrastructure, and the dominance of big chain stores and corporate agribusiness, which pull money out of the community and send it to shareholders.

Hazelnut trees grow on the paddocks where Regi’s chickens forage. The birds’ manure fertilizes the trees and the nuts provide a secondary cash crop. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber.

The pandemic has given the idea of agricultural collectives a boost—in some instances, a gigantic boost. In 2020, when the coronavirus disrupted industrial food systems, causing widespread backlogs and shortages, local co-ops, farm collectives, food hubs, and other distribution projects found fresh relevance. Consumers facing empty grocery store shelves or worried about food safety turned to local options for everything from fresh meat and produce to milk, flour, and other staples. As people cooked at home more often, revenues in the grocery industry jumped as much as 12 percent. But some food hubs, which aggregate food from local producers and sell it to consumers and institutions, giving small farmers access to bigger markets, reported revenue increases as high as 500 percent, according to a May 2021 report from the Wallace Center, a nonprofit that supports community food and farming solutions.

It was a moment that crystallized both the weaknesses of the industrial food system and the strengths of local alternatives in a way that 20 years of proselytizing by food reformers never could.

This year, even as restaurants reopened and grocery stores returned to something more akin to normal, the interest in collective agricultural projects has not faded. “I helped incorporate more co-ops in the past year in the food system than I have in previous years,” said Kelly Maynard, a development specialist at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Cooperatives. “I think people saw gaps that already existed, that were exacerbated during Covid, and they said, ‘Okay, we’ve been talking about this for a while, but now we really have to get something to happen.’”

The myth of the lone farmer on his tractor feeding the world—which has dominated our perception of American agriculture for 70-plus years—suddenly feels like a narrative of vulnerability. Our “rugged individualism” was tested during the pandemic: Isolated, stuck at home, we found a new appreciation for family and community—and for a shared world that had already begun to bloom, even if most of us weren’t paying attention.

Co-ops account for a tiny slice of U.S. businesses, but their numbers are up 36 percent since 2013, and hundreds more are in the startup phase. With historic levels of income inequality and the proliferation of unstable jobs with low wages, uncertain hours, and few benefits, workers in industries ranging from delivery and health care to textiles and auto service are looking for ways to reclaim some control over their livelihoods. The pandemic sharpened—and broadened—this sense of precarity.

Nowhere was this more true than in the food supply, which led to local restaurants banding together to form delivery co-ops, workers at a defunct restaurant in Wisconsin joining farmers to open a meal service they all own equally, meat producers creating co-ops as a way to control their own processing, and much more.

Even so, what Regi and Amy have built is rare—an operation big enough to gain a toehold in their regional market and compete with established brands. It’s far from certain that this “collective moment” will continue to evolve, let alone offer a broad-based alternative to the industrial paradigm. The obstacles are enormous. Beyond the amount of work and money it takes to do what Regi and Amy did, the entire structure of the food system—from subsidies and other incentives to the availability of land and the unwavering consumer demand for cheap food—is tailored to the industrial operations that constitute Big Ag. “It’s overwhelming and intimidating,” said Dawn Thilmany, an agricultural economist at Colorado State University. “You look at the hours and the sweat and tears people put in, trying to rebuild this from scratch, when the other system runs so efficiently and so effectively. It’s hard.”

Covid-19 made me and my wife, Lauri, a part of this collective story. We had just taken over a small urban farm in Los Angeles when the city shut down and clients of Lauri’s gardening business started asking us for farm box deliveries. After talking to some organic growers who lost 60 to 70 percent of their business when restaurants and farmers’ markets closed, we bought a van, hired a driver, and started a delivery business. We were a version of a food hub, picking up the wares of about a dozen farmers, a baker, a fishmonger, and other producers and driving them straight to people’s homes.

But there are 10 million people in Los Angeles County, and we could reach only a sliver of them with our modest operation. Indeed, most collectives are small: church or urban gardens, farmers’ markets, or community supported agriculture services that deliver weekly boxes of seasonal produce and other foods to subscribers. Many are in communities of color and are designed to get fresh, healthy, and culturally appropriate food into places where it has long been scarce and to create opportunities for farmers who have historically been shut out of mainstream agriculture.

Black farmers, for instance, whose numbers fell from 925,000 in the early 20th century to about 36,000 today, were forced off their land by policies that denied them operating loans or fair processing prices. With no other options, they formed co-ops and “packing sheds”—effectively hubs—in the South, and the potential political power in those associations has been harnessed by Black-led farm groups such as the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which emerged from of the civil rights movement in 1967.

That history informs current efforts, like the Black Farmers Collective, founded in 2016 on 1.5 acres of city land next to a freeway in downtown Seattle. It recently leased another four acres and hopes that sales from that plot will eventually replace grant funding. “Any notion of Black liberation involves owning land,” said Ray Williams, a cofounder. Or the Island CultureZ project in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where Marcus Hill and his team are building infrastructure to support a producer co-op that will include suppliers, financing, transportation, and markets. Hill called the underserved neighborhoods where the project is taking shape “islands of potential” in an old-money town.

The Black Farmers Collective was founded on 1.5 acres of city land next to a freeway in downtown Seattle. It recently leased another four acres and hopes that sales from that plot will eventually replace grant funding. Photo by Raphael Gaultier.

The quest for racial justice and equity in our food system is a key part of the appeal of these collective projects. It certainly is for Regi, who describes his mission as “decolonizing” agriculture—giving power back to farmers and consumers and cutting out the corporate middlemen. But he also understands that to be successful, efforts like his need to be big enough to compete

This got me thinking about equity, and whether there might be common ground between farmers like Regi and the mostly white farmers who take those contracts with the big chicken companies—and who toil at the bottom of the industrial chain.

In June 2020, after the meat-processing plants owned by JBS, Cargill, Smithfield, and a few other big companies had shut down because of coronavirus outbreaks, I spoke to Blake Hurst, then the president of the Missouri Farm Bureau. (He has since retired.) He said that “cowboys” in his state, who run maybe 40 to 100 feeder cattle, were “madder ’n hops” at the big processors for forcing them to take the loss on market-ready cattle they couldn’t sell. In an op-ed in Agri-Pulse, a popular trade magazine, Hurst wrote that it was time to try a more local and distributed system of small farms and processing, even if it meant using government money to build facilities.

“What I’d love to see,” Hurst told me, “is 50 guys in Missouri, and they got 100 cows apiece, each agreeing to feed out 10 calves every year and sell ’em to a processor or even build their own processor and sell ’em to local consumers. That may not make much difference to the overall market, but it would be a good thing for the local economy, for local consumers, and for the farmers.”

The Missouri Farm Bureau is a member of the American Farm Bureau Federation, which describes itself as “the Voice of Agriculture” and is the principal lobbying group for the industry. It doesn’t get any more establishment than that.

The problem that Hurst was raging about is one that affects every small farmer in the country, from Regi to those Missouri cowboys: consolidation, the ever-shrinking number of huge companies that control every aspect of our food and agricultural system, from seeds and fertilizers to processing, marketing, and transport. In 1977, four meatpacking companies—Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef Packing Co.—controlled 25 percent of the beef sold in the United States. Today they control 85 percent. And it isn’t just meat. An investigation earlier this year by The Guardian and the nonprofit Food and Water Watch found that about 80 percent of the groceries we buy are controlled by a handful of companies. In the past 25 years, the number of grocery stores nationwide has dropped by a third, and four chains control 65 percent of the market.

Farmers get squeezed from all directions. Just a few companies control which seeds, fertilizers, and other inputs they can use and how much those inputs cost. No matter what the farmers grow, they generally have a single buyer who is constantly trying to drive down the price. This forces them to be “price takers.” In the 1980s, 37 cents of each dollar American consumers spend on food went to the farmer. Today the farmer’s share is 15 cents. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack addressed this problem in July when he announced $500 million in funding for more competitive meat processing, saying, “The Covid-19 pandemic…exposed a food system that was rigid, consolidated, and fragile. Meanwhile, those growing, processing and preparing our food are earning less each year in a system that rewards size over all else.” The ever-narrowing supply chain is increasingly vulnerable to disruption—by a pandemic, but also by hackers and extreme weather.

If there is an equity issue that confronts all farmers, regardless of their color, it’s consolidation. “It’s a David-and-Goliath kind of moment,” said Susan Lightfoot Schempf, co-director of Food Systems Leadership at the Wallace Center, who’s been working on food issues for 20 years. “I think there’s more of an awareness right now in the American psyche of what the food system is than there has been in my lifetime.”

Chad Tentinger, a fourth-generation rancher in Iowa, is doing what Hurst envisioned—and then some. In 2019, before the pandemic hit, he and others started planning a co-op packing plant called the Cattlemen’s Heritage Beef Co. It is set to break ground in 2022 on a 1,500-head-a-day facility outside of Council Bluffs. He considers consolidation to be a food supply risk, a national security risk—over the summer, hackers took down JBS, so why couldn’t they do that to all four top meatpackers at once?— and just plain illogical, as it runs cowboys out of the business.

Forty percent of the 400,000 cattle processed annually at the plant will be supplied by a new producers’ co-op. Members will help fund the construction and have been guaranteed “shackle space”—meaning their animals get processed and they get fair prices. Tentinger said he expects “as many as 1,000” ranchers to join. The operation is an innovative mix of co-op and limited liability corporation designed to avoid a potential buyout by one of the big brands. Ranchers are often starved for cash, so if they owned 100 percent of the company, they might vote to take a buyout in a moment of crisis. The mixed structure makes that less likely.

James MacDonald, an agricultural economist at the University of Maryland, told me a bunch of co-ops have entered the meat-processing business in recent years, but he worries that some are simply too small to compete. “The ones [processing] hogs have actually been pretty successful, but these are people with a million hogs a year,” he said. “The beef stuff is interesting. A plant of 1,500 head a day looks awfully risky, because producers are putting real money in, but I think the plants may be still too small.”

Tentinger is clear-eyed about this. He sees long-term business success in smaller farms selling higher grades of beef, with plants and supply chains that are less susceptible to disruption. He hopes that idea spreads. “I don’t see sustainability in a business practice that requires me to break my producers to make the most money I can make,” he said. “My idea is I get these families profitable living on the farm; [then] their kids stay on the farm. We do this for generations. And then other smaller plants about this size can pop up, too. It just makes sense.”

From the very start, Regi was designing a chicken operation that could scale—not by making bigger farms, but by making more interconnected businesses. He grew up helping his father tend a farm of corn and beans in the jungles of Guatemala, ducking government soldiers during the bloody civil war. He earned an agronomy degree and dedicated himself to organic methods and community organizing. He and Amy met while they were both teaching in Guatemala, and by the time they emigrated to Minnesota, where she grew up, in 1992, he already had detailed plans for his agroforestry system. The land for that farm, however, kept eluding them.

As he and Amy tried several farming arrangements that didn’t work out, Regi taught his agroforestry methods to students, activists, and fellow farmers—planting the seeds for his collective. Finally, in 2007, they started their chicken farm on a 1.9-acre parcel in Northfield, just south of Minneapolis, where they still live. They have a small barn, some grass and trees, and about 700 chickens at a time, but with three flocks per year they made his system work. In 2016, Regi and two other farmers started a farm with two full production units of 1,500 birds each (yielding 9,000 birds per year) in Faribault, a short drive from Northfield. This evolved into Regeneration Farms LLC, the collective they’re now expanding.

A new water pump house being built on Regi’s farm in Northfield, Minnesota. His strategy for growth is to develop more businesses and, over time, foster a local agrarian culture where social justice goals can be realized. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

It wasn’t easy. Regeneration’s general manager, Tony Wells, lived mostly off of side jobs as an auto mechanic as they raised money and built the farm. Two years later they formed a nonprofit, the Regenerative Agricultural Alliance (RAA), to develop technical support for the farmers, to coordinate supply chains, and to scale the poultry system as a model for regenerative agriculture in general. The collective’s Tree-Range brand found a dedicated packing plant and went into a few grocery stores in 2019. Their breakthrough came in 2020, when five new producers joined, including a feed mill that’s transitioning to organic. Three of the families involved are immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador, reflecting the shifting demographics of farming in the Midwest. Growing quickly, RAA was able to buy a processing facility, which can handle 1 million birds a year and was certified organic this year. Regi is already projecting that the collective will need to expand processing to 10 million birds a year.

Significant challenges remain. Anne Redmond, RAA’s business development director, who along with Regi is one of the collective’s five staff members, said the biggest hurdle is financing new farms that require a few years before the perennial trees and bushes start to produce crops. “It has been difficult for farmers to access affordable loans that would get them through the first three or four years,” she said. Regi’s strategy for growth is to develop more businesses and, over time, foster a local agrarian culture where social justice goals can be realized. Empowering small and family businesses makes room for people underrepresented in food systems, such as Minnesota’s Black, Indigenous, and Hmong farmers. There is beauty in a single farm, but the real power is in a collective system.

“In that system, you’re not simply having a ‘conversation’ about justice,” Regi said. Rather, you are taking real steps to make justice a reality. “[It’s] about setting policies and standards and implementation strategies. It’s not about the issue; it’s about the solution.”

Not everyone can do what Regi and Amy have done. Achieving a solution in the broader sense—harnessing and building the momentum of this collective moment—will require a lot of help from policymakers. The Biden administration has made addressing the consolidation problem—in Big Tech but also in Big Ag—a priority, appointing trust-busters to the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Economic Council.

“The pendulum has swung so much toward big, and I think Covid has caused people perhaps to wake up,” said Jane Kolodinsky, the director of the Center for Rural Studies at the University of Vermont. She noted that in the past year, USDA money started flowing into research and implementation grants to develop new markets and make food systems friendlier to local collectives, “I’m not saying you’re going to go down the street to your farmer and buy milk. But I think we might see some more positive signals in the marketplace for shorter supply chains.”

In July, President Biden issued an executive order on “Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” which, among other things, revived an Obama-era rule that makes it easier for farmers to sue poultry and meatpacking companies for unfair practices. It also requires the USDA to submit a report on the effects of market concentration on the makers of agricultural inputs such as fertilizer and seeds. As Biden said when he announced the order, “Big Ag is putting a squeeze on farmers … They are seeing price hikes for seed, lopsided contracts, shrinking profits, and growing debt.”

An executive order, of course, can only do so much, and the policy environment could change dramatically depending on the results of the elections in 2022 and 2024. But food prices are rising, leading to charges of “pandemic profiteering”; anxiety about climate change is mounting; and there is more labor unrest than we’ve seen in decades. Now comes the so-called Great Resignation, in which millions of people are quitting their jobs and rethinking their roles in the economy. There is a sense that the status quo is shifting, and questions about our food supply are firmly in that mix. A few weeks ago, after nearly 18 months of delivering produce with hardly a day off, Lauri and I halted our service in order to reconfigure. Restaurants are busy again and farmers markets are back in operation, so it seemed like our mission to support farmers was over. But it’s not. Our tiny project managed to open up some new markets. Customers keep calling, and at least two of the farmers told us they had put crops in the ground specifically for us, asking, “When are you coming back?”

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