Collaborative farming: New farmers thrive by working together
By Lindsay Rebhan, New Organic Stewards
New farmers are designing creative ways to work together, support each other, and accomplish more as a group. Whether they’re purchasing supplies, marketing, distributing, or accessing land, those new to farming are realizing the benefits of “sharing.”
A cooperative refers to the general act of working together for mutual benefit or an official member-owned business. Farming has a rich history of cooperatives, providing everything from credit for purchasing equipment and supplies to storage and distribution of production.
The Greenhorns have a fantastic handbook on cooperative farming, Cooperative Farming, Frameworks for Farming Together. It’s available free online at thegreenhorns.net under Guidebooks. Author Faith Gilbert writes “It’s clear that we face common challenges. It’s also clear that by working together, we get more than just a solution to a problem: we get solidarity. There is no one model for ‘cooperative farming.’ You can form separate businesses or one business. You can share land, or farm as neighbors, or farm together in a community or a region. We need a whole range of models and solutions for working together. We are learning to design our own tools and methods to match our scale and soil. In the same way, we need the knowledge to design our own business structures and agreements, to fit our unique circumstances of person and place.”
Eric Sannerud (left) and Libby London are two of the founding members of Sandbox Cooperative, a Community Consultancy in Ham Lake Minnesota that empowers young food entrepreneurs.
Sandbox Cooperative is an exciting collaborative model that emerged last year. It is located on 50 acres in Ham Lake, Minn. The Co-founders and Leadership Team include Libby London, Eric Sannerud, Josh Adrian, and Jeny Lai. These young entrepreneurs and new agrarians are blazing a path towards a resilient food system while making urban and rural connections. Sandbox’s goal is to incubate new businesses and empower young people to create businesses that match their values. The Sandbox name refers to the soils of the Anoka Sand Plain in Ham Lake and identifies the cooperative as a creative space to build new ventures.
Sandbox members have their own businesses and pay membership fees to the Sandbox LLC business for shared benefit. The member fees go towards infrastructure and services (land, buildings, equipment, electricity, water lines, marketing, event management, business consulting.) The 50-acre farm belongs to Eric’s family, and came into his hands since he was the only one left in the family interested in the farm, he explained.
“My great-grandpa bought this homestead in 1933, farming approximately 10-20 acres in diverse agriculture,” Eric said. “Then they rented out the land into conventional ag. The soil is now shot, and we have lots of corn.” Eric started growing hops last year on a quarter acre, and plans to expand his new business, Mighty Axe Hops.
“Libby was out there last year growing flax on a half-acre for her dye farm, Born & Dyed in MN. We realized other people might like this win-win situation,” Eric explained. He and Libby believe that being able to incubate businesses is important.
“We see so many new CSA farmers burn out,” he said. “A cooperative structure to share collaboratively could lessen this burnout, strengthen farmers to scale up sustainable food systems and mobilize networks. A network to share resources is very exciting!” Eric’s family has been very supportive of the new Sandbox Cooperative endeavor and has welcomed new energies onto the land.
Sandbox Cooperative is in its “beta season” and already has seven farming businesses with 12 total members. Businesses include South Paw Pickers and Racing Heart (two vegetable CSAs), Cherry Tree House Mushrooms, Chubby Bunny (meat rabbits), Mighty Axe Hops, Born & Dyed in MN (dye & herbs), and Beautiful Beards Grain Company (barley and buckwheat).
“The idea is to be a hub, incubating ideas, entrepreneurship like CoCo, but a rural model,” Eric explained. (CoCo is a co-working collaborative space in Minneapolis.) The group is mostly Millennials and Gen X (young), and everyone is based out of the Twin Cities.
“Land access, business decisions—mentorship has been huge,” Libby said. She added that she felt alone when she was trying to start her farm, but she feels supported now through the cooperative.
Sandbox offers the barn office as the co-working space with WiFi and desks, a board table for community consulting, and eventually cold storage. There are shared electronic documents spaces, and folders and file cabinets for business planning. The group shares tools, a tool shed, and access to tractors and water. Sandbox buys some materials in bulk and members can purchase them at cost. The cooperative also hosts events at the farm and provides workshop space for other groups.
Every two weeks, the community meets to consult, headed up by the Leadership Team. Libby said this is when they share what’s working, what isn’t, and the connections they’ve made for resources or markets.
This model is low-barrier, no experience needed. Eric explained the incubator philosophy of the group this way: “In the first year, there is a lot of learning what they can do better; second year focus on market niche, quality systems,” he explained. “Ultimately they leave knowing they want to continue to farm and how to do it better. If members want to stay longer, it could happen. But we just started and are feeling it out.”
The group is ready for new farming enterprises such as chickens, forage pigs or beekeeping. Others who feel interested in group cooperation and harbor dreams of starting a farm or food business are welcome to visit the farm. Members go through an application process, sharing their plans and ideas for their business and its land needs.
“It is important for our food systems, growing practices and values to align” Eric said. “Next year membership will be open to non-land-based projects, networking, co-market options. This model offers folks a seat in a farmhouse with community, but not necessarily farming. Our web designers, for example, went to coding school. They are interested in agriculture, economic development, and starting a code business.”
The farm is open sunrise to sunset. Growing practices are sustainable, following organic standards. “We are leaving the door open to organic certification,” Eric added. “We are transitioning conventional land right now.”
Throughout the summer, Sandbox has workshops and social gatherings like naturalist nature walks, weed dating, and other opportunities to engage their network. Sandbox is bravely building a new model for collaboration to improve the food system. For more information on Sandbox Cooperative, follow @sandboxcoop on Twitter or find Sandbox Coop on Facebook.
Lindsay Rebhan works with Renewing the Countryside in partnership with MOSES on the New Organic Stewards project.
From the July | August 2014 Issue