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When it comes to local food, co-ops are on the map.

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Cooperative models are as diverse as is America's agricultural industry As consumer demand for locally produced foods has boomed, cooperatives have innovated to meet these demands in many different ways. Today, co-ops are engaged in every stage of the local-foods supply chain--from production to packing, processing, distribution, marketing and retail.

In late February, we launched an exciting new tool at USDA to support this work: the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass, an interactive map and accompanying guide to USDA resources that support local and regional food systems.

Cooperatives receive explicit mention in the infrastructure section of the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF) Compass, where the discussion focuses on how some cooperatives aggregate product from small and midsized producers and market them collectively. But really, cooperatives have a place in every one of the eight Compass sections. Likewise, many of the dots on the map are in some way connected to co-ops.

That's why we hope that cooperatives and others will use the KYF Compass as a tool to navigate USDA resources and learn about new business opportunities. Here are some of the ways it can help:

* The Farm to Institution Section of the KYF Compass highlights USDA's technical and financial resources to build strong relationships between farms and institutional buyers. Cooperatives are already engaged in developing these relationships. In Colorado, for example, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union Cooperative Development Center helped a group of lamb and beef producers start Local Brands Farm and Ranch Markets Co-op, which sells through local farm-to-school programs. With the tools outlined in the KYF Compass, other producer co-ops can leverage these institutional marketing opportunities.

* The Infrastructure Section discusses food hubs, aggregation centers that help small and midsized farms and ranches collectively market their products to reach larger buyers. Some food hubs are organized as cooperatives. They can aggregate product through brick-and-mortar facilities or online. For example, in Washington state, Tom Husmann of Olympia Local Foods developed an online food aggregation hub for 50 local farmers and is developing a shared kitchen cooperative venture as well. He's doing this with the help of a Value-Added Producer Grant (VAPG) from USDA Rural Development.

The Northwest Cooperative Development Center, which itself was supported by a Rural Cooperative Development Grant from USDA, helped Husmann secure the VAPG. These types of stories illustrate how different USDA grants can be pieced together to support many aspects of local food system development.

* The Local Meat and Poultry Section discusses USDA support for small-scale slaughter and processing facilities around the country to help local meat producers add value to their products. USDA supports other food processing activities as well. For example, Local Roots Market and Cafe in Wooster, Ohio, is using a USDA grant to develop a shared commercial kitchen. It expects 25 businesses to benefit from increased revenue and 10 new businesses to start up as a result of kitchen access. Local Roots began in 2009 as a year-round farmers market and has expanded rapidly since then, incorporating as a cooperative in 2010. Today, it has about 800 members and sells food from 150 local producers, who take home 90 percent of their gross sales.

* The Healthy Food Access Section discusses USDA support for the development of farmers markets and other retail alternatives to reach underserved communities. By coordinating the work of several USDA agencies on this issue, the Department has been able to expand the number of farmers markets that can accept electronic nutrition benefits such as SNAP (food stamps). The number of markets that accept these benefits grew by more than 50 percent between 2010 and 2011. Farmers markets that accept electronic nutrition benefits often see increased customer traffic and higher revenues as a result.

Cooperatives are again at the forefront of this work. Many farmers markets are organized under a cooperative structure and have ramped up their efforts to reach new customers in recent years. In Lexington, Ky., the Farm and Garden Market Cooperative Association began with fewer than a dozen farmer-members in the 1970s and now includes 75 members. In Indiana, the Indiana Cooperative Development Center is providing a series of "farmers market boot camps" to help market managers and vendors train and collaborate.

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Using USDA resources outlined in the KYF Compass, such as our guide for market managers on how to accept SNAP and other benefits, these markets can become even more successful.

This is just the beginning. Other sections of the KYF Compass will provide helpful resources as well--about environmental stewardship, career opportunities in farming and food entrepreneurship, and research and data to help cooperatives understand the market and develop successful businesses. There's even a section on how other federal agencies are supporting local and regional food systems--a great source of information for cooperatives interested in securing federal support for a variety of projects.

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Writing the KYF Compass was a cooperative venture here at USDA, so it's fitting that it contains so much of use to the cooperative community. The map and narrative will be continuously updated every few months, so be sure to check back regularly for new tools, resources, and dots on the map. Let us know if you re doing innovative work with USDA support that you'd like to be highlighted as a case study or blog--simply send us an e-mail at: knowyourfarmer@usda.gov.

Explore, share and use the KYF Compass: it's a valuable guide to help you navigate the ins and outs of USDA support for the work you're doing.

By Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary

U.S. Department of Agriculture
COPYRIGHT 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Business - Cooperative Service
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Author:Merrigan, Kathleen
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Date:May 1, 2012
Words:929
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