Why the surge of co-ops and other ag collectives during the pandemic could continue

“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,” writes Dean Kuipers in FERN’s latest story, published with The Nation. “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 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’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,” Kuipers notes, “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.'”

“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.”