September 2015

Pathway to a More Vital Local Food System

The Natural Evolution of New Mexico’s Acequia Culture


B.J. Pheiffer


As most New Mexicans know, acequias—centuries-old cooperative irrigation systems found throughout New Mexico’s Hispanic communities—refer to both irrigation ditches and the community of farmers organized around them. Acequias, farm cooperatives and rural electric co-ops have long populated New Mexico’s landscape for many reasons.

Cooperatives help small agricultural producers solve numerous challenges related to their remoteness, lack of access to pricing information for inputs and food in national and international markets, access to loans, lack of transport and other infrastructure. Agricultural cooperatives can help farmers by offering group purchasing and by helping them innovate and adapt to changing markets. Importantly, cooperatives facilitate farmers’ participation in decision-making processes and help small producers increase their negotiating power to influence policy-making.

New Mexico’s agricultural sector is an important employment creator. The Cooperative Development Center of New Mexico (CODECE) works closely with communities “to form business cooperatives that provide long-term economic security and increase quality of life,” specifically in Indigenous, Mexicano and Chicano communities.

As evidenced with the recent successes of sustainable agriculture in Virginia and Tennessee, a strong grower’s network can strengthen profitability, increase local food security and build community. An increased number of farmers’ cooperatives in New Mexico, accompanied by an increase in rural and urban cooperative markets, would provide strength and resilience to New Mexico farmers. Shared resources—farm equipment, refrigerated trucks, cold storage, processing facilities and labor—could leverage resources, facilitate the cross-pollination of business and agricultural skills and provide a boon to farmers’ efficiency. Marketing cooperatives, supply cooperatives, construction cooperatives and others could provide additional, much-needed resources.


Cooperative Culture Worldwide
Cooperatives emerged as a historic response by ordinary people to meet their own basic needs. In the wake of industrialization, cooperative principles were codified in the Rochdale Principles in 1844. In addition to the oft-quoted Seven Cooperative Principles, cooperatives share values that give them their distinctive character. In the tradition of their founders, cooperatives believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.

Co-ops were, and continue to be, sustainable social and financial institutions. People join because being with others in community, staying active and, above all, having a sense of one’s value in society, are important to them. For many, cooperatives are an extension of the responsibilities of citizenship.

Globally, cooperative culture has been one of collaborative, economically interdependent enterprises that interweave consumers, producers and services. Guided by an earnest solidarity for members and fellow organizations, cooperative regions create prosperity during good times and resilience during difficult ones. Governed by binding democratic values for management, ownership and operations, cooperatives and their members are philosophically attuned to working together. Often heard among the more than 300 cooperative groceries in the U.S is the motto, “Stronger Together.”


The Rise of the Farmers’ Cooperatives
At the turn of the 20th century, facing the growth of corporate agribusiness and increasing monopolization of agricultural markets, family farmers and ranchers recognized cooperatives as an effective tool to help them remain economically viable.

During the decades following the Civil War, corporate interests established sometimes ruthless control over large segments of American commerce: banking interests, the railroads, the meat trust, the sugar trust, giant urban life insurance companies. Competing with these giants was vital to family farm survival.

Many corporations had created buying and selling combines, with arms-length transactions among their own holdings, to eliminate competition, corner and depress markets for raw materials and maintain high prices for manufactured and processed products. President Theodore Roosevelt described this era in his autobiography: “A riot for individualistic freedom for the individual… turned out in practice to mean perfect freedom for the strong to wrong the weak.” Laws to control the power of the giant corporations were archaic and impotent to help the agricultural producer.


Rocky Mountain Farmers Union
In this historical setting, Farmers Union leaders began creating strong working relationships. That cooperative spirit remains a cornerstone of Rocky Mountain Farmers Union today. Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is a cooperative that helps organize Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico cooperatives to support family farms.

Cooperatives allowed independent farms to gain equity in the marketplace. They enhanced farm bargaining power with the giants of industry, helped reduce exploitation of farm producers and prevented price-gouging.

The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative and Development Center’s Co-op Center has worked with and facilitated the growth of over 80 cooperatives, LLCs, and other associations and partnerships. Their successes include the Colorado Farm and Art Market, Family Farmers Seed Cooperative, Organic Seed Alliance, Mountain States Lamb Cooperative, La Montañita Food Cooperative and the High Plains Food Cooperative.


The Southwest Cooperative Development Center
Yet another regional institution, The Southwest Cooperative Development Center, works to improve economic conditions for New Mexico’s rural communities through cooperative and mutually owned businesses, particularly related to healthy food access, and local and regional food systems.


Santa Fe’s New Democratic Food Cooperative
Greenhouse Grocery, a traditional food cooperative about to take root on Rufina Street in mid-Santa Fe, is inspired by successful historical examples that provide a useful model for economic transition and sustainability. Traditional food co-ops, like those that proliferated in the 70s, have working members. They sell food at significantly lower prices than natural food markets like Whole Foods and most of the United States’ new-style food cooperatives. The Park Slope Food Co-op in Brooklyn, New York, founded in 1973, is a traditional co-op with 17,000 working members; it saves members 20 to 40 percent on food. The Greenhouse Grocery is modeled on the Park Slope Food Co-op.

Largely ignored by mainstream U.S. economists, cooperatives are a distinctive form of social organization that is not capitalist, socialist or communist. Cooperatives are neither for-profit nor not-for-profit. They are actively democratic. Members participate on a one-member-one-vote basis and earn equity based on participation: either profits in a worker cooperative or purchases in a consumer cooperative. While investment earns a return, it doesn’t necessarily imply ownership. Thus, cooperatives are highly participatory, driven by engagement rather than capital. Cooperatives contribute to resilient employment, a sustainable economy and the well-being of people at work.

While the two most famous cooperative regions are in Spain and Italy, U.S. agriculture is also a significant contributor to the global cooperative economy. There are estimated to be over 40,000 cooperatives of various kinds in the United States, whose member-owners include over 100 million Americans—nearly one out of three. Besides the nation’s 3,000 agricultural cooperatives, there are childcare, credit, healthcare, housing, insurance, telephone and electric cooperatives, to name a few.

According to the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, farmers’ cooperatives in the U.S. generate $191 billion annually. On average, farmers who belong to supply cooperatives—those engaged in the manufacture, sale and/or distribution of farm supplies and inputs, as well as energy-related products like ethanol and biodiesel—earn approximately $5,500 more per year than those who do not belong to cooperatives. Total assets of U.S. cooperatives in 2008 was $57 billion; estimated total employment was over 250,000 and total payroll was in excess of $8 billion.


Beyond Local Cooperatives—Regional Cooperative Economies
Some cooperative regions around the world are characterized by very high cooperative employment. A lower wage gap between the average worker and top executives, highly secure employment, a well-balanced distribution of employment between urban and rural areas and a people-centered vision are some of the characteristics that explain the lure of cooperative employment. “The phenomenon of cooperative employment is sufficiently significant, both quantitatively and qualitatively, for public policies to take stock of this long-lasting experience in terms of creating and strengthening employment,” states Bruno Roelants, secretary general of the International Organization of Industrial, Artisanal and Service Producers’ Cooperatives and co-author of a recent study.

The two major cooperative economies in the EU are regional—Modragón in the Basque region of Northern Spain and COOP in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. France, the UK, South Korea and Japan also boast robust cooperative economies. New Mexico might do well to emulate their practices, using their governance, organization and cooperative principles to grow its own agricultural economy.

Some U.S. food cooperatives, like the new Greenhouse Grocery in Santa Fe, are structured much like Modragón. In the Greenhouse Grocery, each member has the opportunity to participate in governance; each member has one vote. Actual benefits, savings derived from purchases at the co-op, depend on how much a member purchases. The more a member purchases, the more a member will save. Equity is distributed to members proportional to the amount they purchase. While member investors—or impact investors—earn a reasonable return on their capital, they do not own the cooperative. The co-op members who actually shop at the co-op own it.

In the U.S, worker and marketing cooperatives work together closely. From the vantage of farmers, marketing cooperatives are functional components of their farm cooperatives. In fact, they handle, process and market virtually every commodity grown and produced in the United States.

Greg Nussbaum, of Camino de Paz, envisions a marketing cooperative, a retailer, as a much-needed outgrowth of his Montessori school and farm. He recognizes that Greenhouse Grocery is an independent manifestation of this precept. Greenhouse Grocery is simply an independent retail consumer cooperative that brings farmers’ goods to market, benefiting both farmers and consumers. Across food cooperatives in the United States, co-ops on average sell 22 percent local products, compared with supermarkets, where only 7 percent of their products are local.


The Potential of Cooperatives to Foster Food Security
Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. By 2050, the population of the Earth will reach nine billion. To feed all of these people, agricultural production will have to increase by at least 60 percent. Farming and agricultural cooperatives, with an estimated 32 percent of the global market, are an important part of the solution.


B.J. Pheiffer is founder and president of the Greenhouse Grocery, whose mission is to provide healthy, nutritious food at affordable prices while fostering economic resilience, food equity, food security and community empowerment. The grocery is slated to open in July 2016 on the site of the former Santa Fe Greenhouses. For more information, email bj@greenhousegrocery or visit




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