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Small Scale Farming Co-ops Can Create Jobs While Preventing Misery

by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.

Unless something is done to increase food production substantially, food availability per citizen worldwide will drop almost in half over the next 35 years.[1]  This is because the population of the world is increasing, while historic farm areas are having production reduced by changing climate.   

The increasing drought in the west and flooding in Texas point to an opportunity for North Carolina, which may not be factored into our economic development plans yet.

If we seize this opportunity, we can help prevent even more misery being piled on top of the one in nine world citizens who are currently malnourished and without adequate food.[2]

The first impact is that the east coast will be losing a lot of the food supply that comes from California and other western and “breadbasket” states.  Not only is it harder for California farmers to produce food in a drought or huge gully washer rainstorm, competition for the water supply is growing worse.  In May of 2015, California farmers (who use the majority of all California’s water supply)[3] had a quarter of that shunted to California Cities, which were close to running out. [4] The farmers are going to have to plant 25% less food, they said.

When things get scarce, their prices rise.  Climate change puts even your morning cup of coffee is at risk both due to changes in rainfall patterns and associated disease and insect activity.  In the coffee producing regions of East Africa now being impacted by climate change, production is down 46%.[5] Closer to home, prices for Brazil’s coffee output (1/3rd of the worlds production) have risen 94%.[6]

So how does this guide us to create a better future? 

We can bring back smaller scale farming.

In the parts of the United States where food production is being hit hard by climate change, farms range around 2,000 acres in size[7].   Farms in North Carolina average 183 acres - hard to make profitable. But it can be done.

One of the challenges of being a small-scale farmer is not the growing - it is the cleaning, packaging and selling of the crop in today’s world where “middlemen” selling to supermarket chains want to buy assured long-term supply in large amounts.  Small farmers have to have the ability to participate in large volume transactions. 

A good example of this new kind of agricultural economy is Eastern Carolina Organics, a co-op located in Durham, North Carolina.  Started with a small grant in 2004, it became a member-owned private for-profit in 2005.   They now coordinate the work of 40 farmers, and more than 100 customers.[8]

Customers are told about what is growing and near harvest, and place their orders with the co-op, which passes them on to the appropriate member farmers who are instructed as to needed harvest date.  The farmer transfers the product to Eastern Carolina Organics, who quality check it, bundle with other farmers’ contributions, package it, and refrigerate it until delivery. [9]

One of the ways the pooling of information has paid off is that planting has been tailored to local market demand.  This happens in two ways - the co-op educates the large-scale buyers as to possible crops they could market, and the farmers are educated as to trends in the supermarkets that result in a more “on target” supply of crops.

Think about the ways this organization confronted the stereotypes found in today’s political discussions.  They started as a non-profit, with a grant.  Then they became a member owned for- profit.  In a world where climate change is already at work, they help increase the supply of food while others stand about and manipulate public dialog.  By causing a two-way flow of educational information, they create profit, and jobs.

As a society we have great challenges, and some solutions, right before us.   They can be seized if we set aside the shouting and use common sense.

 


[1] Take 100% = current food availability per capita, cut production 18% = 82% available, increase population by 35% = 61%

[2] The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 805 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, were suffering from chronic undernourishment in 2012-2014. http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm

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