Part of my work with MarketLINK includes research into new market models for farmers. If you read the newspapers you’ll recognize the trendiness of ‘niche’, ‘local,’ ‘specialty’, ‘direct’ and ‘alternative’ markets. What I’m curious about are the practical ways that farmers access these markets.

An agricultural marketing co-operative is one interesting and viable option. Basically, these co-ops arise from farmers who jointly market their products. It can be as simple as pooling money for an advertising campaign to collaborating on a product delivery system. Market cooperatives come in all shapes and sizes, and I’ll outline three here.

In Canada, the Co-op Atlantic is a big success. This co-op works as an umbrella organization for smaller member co-ops across the Maritimes. Originally founded by a group of farmers, the co-operative has established extensive retail and grocery outlets. This way, the co-op maintains control of the entire food supply chain: from supplying seeds, to purchasing produce, to selling through the retail stores. The co-op also has a great website that introduces the producers who are involved: http://www.coopatlantic.ca/.

On a slightly smaller scale, there is Ontario’s own Quinte Organic Co-op. This cooperative consists of thirteen farmers who live between Toronto and Ottawa. The farmers recognize there are ample markets in these urban centres, but delivery is costly and time-consuming. So, each spring the farmers meet to divvy up production, and throughout the season, one person delivers all the produce to local farm markets.

Farmers in America are also experimenting with marketing co-operatives. One interesting venture is the Oklahoma Food Cooperative. It links producers to consumers through an online order form, and offers a wide range of products. The orders are delivered monthly to different points across the state, via a strong network of members and volunteers. As of May 2007, the Oklahoma co-op boasts over 1000 consumer and producer members.

These co-op marketing initiatives take a lot of hard work, vision, coordination and commitment. Yet at the same time, the pay-off is amazing. Farmers access all kinds of markets that are otherwise impenetrable, and consumers learn who and where their food comes from!

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