cooperative ownership, local food & food justice

No lords, no serfs

deer-on-the-cooperativeOne of the most disturbing social trends (and there are so many) unfolding beneath our feet here in the US is farmers being priced out of land ownership. Since former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz infamously demanded, “get big or get out!” millions of small farms foreclosed, went bankrupt, or got pushed out of the business. Agribusiness replaced agriculture: Wendell Berry sounded the alarm of the Unsettling of America. And now it’s getting worse.

Many middle-class hippies who went “back to the land” in the sixties and seventies could  afford to buy a little farm, but not necessarily to make a living at farming. Today, most US farms lose money. An unbelievable 95%, according to Agricultural Justice Project. Most small farmers are subsidizing the local organic food movement with second or third jobs. Milking the goat or weeding the garden is our third shift. Meanwhile, agriculture brings in almost $60-70 billion a year. What’s wrong with this picture?

Everything. The price of food has almost nothing to do with its value or the cost of growing it–labor, land, inputs, or environmental externalities. Food that kills you is cheaper than food that nourishes. The entire economy is so twisted, that the land we need to grow the food we need to live is valued orders of magnitude higher for building new houses or box stores, even in a state like Rhode Island, where there is enough housing for the people who are here and malls are empty.

But most concerning is the trend toward tenant farming, and even worse, young farmers commuting to their rented farmland. Rhode Island’s young farmers not only can’t afford a down payment on their farm, they can’t even rent a farm with a farmhouse. Besides the unsustainability of the driving, there’s the psychological disconnect from the rhythms of the land they steward, and the disincentive to take care of the soil for the long term.

Soil is the–shall we say–bedrock of organic farming. Healthy soil feeds healthy plants  that can resist insects, disease, drought–all kinds of trouble. But building healthy farm soil is a multiyear project, and if a farmer doesn’t have land tenure–know they can stay on their land as long as they like–there’s always the threat that their investment in soil could be taken away from them when comes time to renew a lease.

When we were looking for the land that became Listening Tree, aware of these issues, we consulted with Equity Trust, the Cooperative Development Institute, and other food movement groups to develop our structure as a limited-equity cooperative, with 10 share holders, each able to negotiate an agreement with the group regarding stewarding a part of the land for their own farm or other land-based business. Those agreements will ensure land tenure, after a trial period of one growing season, while both farmer and household can ensure they are ready to commit to stewarding this beautiful land.

The co-op owner-members use a kind of consensus process to ensure decision making is collaborative and fair. Together, we’ll adopt agreements with interested members for “farm shares”–ownership shares that include living here plus a commitment to use and take care of specific fields of the farmland. Farmer owner members will be responsible to the community, but will be able to run their own business without fear of losing their land.

cooperative ownership

Springing forward

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Jim finished building the chicken tractor, a coop on wheels, that spreads the fertilizer wealth around

Winter was supposed to be a time of planning and looking inward, but weather kept calling us outdoors and we spent a lot of it in spring chores–expanding the garden, getting the fence started, finishing the chicken tractor, and weatherizing and putting up walls in another tiny cabin.

Then the seeds arrived, and the hens, and the chicks! It’s a chirp-fest over here, and seedlings are reaching for the light already.

I (Karina) have grabbed this rainy day to research some more about financing cooperative shares–for people who can’t afford to buy a share outright but want to become a full member. One option is for the coop to borrow and lend to its members, who would pay the co-op back over time, such as through a home equity line of credit through the Cooperative Fund of New England, and another is to find lenders willing to loan directly to members, such as National Cooperative Bank. While on their website, we found this cool guide to buying a housing cooperative unit or share.

 

cooperative ownership, transition

A Happily Solar Solstice!

IMG_0712Winter solstice might have seen the Listening Tree shop roof covered in snow, but instead solar installers were up there installing photovoltaic (PV) panels! To add to the excitement, the crew was a RI-based co-op startup, Sol Power. One of the cooperative movement principles is for co-ops to cooperate with other co-ops, so we’re happy to support each others’ success.

The system is grid interconnected, meaning when we produce more than we need, it will feed back into the electric grid and power our neighbors, and our meter will spin backwards. When we need electricity, instead of relying on batteries, we’ll use green power coming through the grid, through People’s Power & Light, the local nonprofit green power provider.

The PV system is rated at 12 kilowatts, meaning that at maximum capacity (sunny noon on the summer solstice) that is how much power it can produce. Sol Power expects the 42 panels to produce about as much electricity as we estimate Listening Tree residents and farmers will use, including irrigation, a well pump, a couple of electric cars and a heat pump water heater.

I would be loathe to waste good champagne on christening the array, but maybe we can raise a toast at our next potluck, Saturday, Jan. 2. at 4 pm.

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cooperative ownership

Application process, apple processing, and next potluck

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We’ve been processing apples, winterizing our first tiny cabin, and developing the process for people to become members of the coop.

We have recently completed an application process for prospective residents/farmers at Listening Tree. It is our intention to carefully build out our community in a way that helps to realize our vision and creates a diverse, balanced and compatible membership. Currently, we seek one or two residents, or perhaps a small family, as well as a market farmer. If you or someone you know are interested in exploring Listening Tree as a place to live, please contact us to get more details (we ask that you review our vision statement beforehand). We can send you the application questionnaire we have developed as well.

Thank you for your continued interest in and support for our cooperative.

Meanwhile, our neighbor’s apples keep flowing into the kitchen, and we’ve collected the astounding array of apple processing paraphernalia you see here.

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All of which is to say please don’t bring apples to the next potluck! Firming up to be Saturday, November 14 at 4 pm.

cooperative ownership

Why a Cooperative?

Listening Tree has decided to form as a cooperative because we resonate with the cooperative principles and see coops as the proven alternative to extractive economic structures. We will never need to “grow or die,” and our decisions will be made democratically, by consensus. We will be co-creating the restorative economy within the extractive one.

We’re finding a lot of people don’t really know what a housing coop is. It’s like a condo, only you don’t own the space of a separate home or unit. You are granted instead the right to use your private space (bedroom or office) and own the property in common.

We’ve also chosen this structure because we deeply believe in the cooperative principles, which you can find outlined here, especially  “concern for community: while focusing on their needs, cooperatives work for sustainable development of their communities…”

Limited equity coops are also a proven way to keep housing affordable. Here’s an example in New York. Burlington, Vermont also has had great success with them. That is the model we are leaning towards.

Sharing a kitchen and bathrooms–in contrast to the cohousing where everyone has their own house and the common house–means it will be affordable to buy a share in the coop now, too. It will also use less resources, and turn us towards each other as we share meals daily.

7 cooperative principles from NRECA
7 cooperative principles from NRECA
Community life, cooperative ownership

Turn it into an ecovillage?

won’t you be our neighbor?

We’ve heard over the years of planning the coop from people who like the idea of community, but for one reason or another, don’t like the idea of shared kitchen and bathrooms in the big house with satellite private bedrooms in cabins or sheds. That’s the model we chose and there are reasons why; yet other models are available, like cohousing and ecovillages. We have the opportunity to do both right now because there are two houses within eyesight of the house we bought, and both are for sale.

The reason we love our one-kitchen model for Listening Tree is because it:

  • draws people together everyday, at least for meals;
  • with private space in separate buildings, it gives each of us a chance to be together or alone as needed;
  • wanting to be more community focused, we like how this architecture will counter our cultural conditioning to turn back to the nuclear families or single life we are accustomed to;
  • it is far less expensive than cohousing;
  • the sleeping/living space doesn’t need to be heated when no one is in it, because it will not have plumbing pipes that can’t be allowed to freeze;
  • one washing machine, one kitchen, a couple bathrooms vs. one each saves a lot of other resources, including embedded energy;
  • reduce conflicts over sleep schedules compared to living in one big building;
  • no more “you like to sleep with the window open, I like to sleep with the window closed, so good bye, goodbye, goodbye”–as Paul Simon said. To each her own.

But if you value cooking alone, eating whenever you want, private meals with family or partner, yet still would like to be part of our larger community, living in the neighborhood might be the perfect solution. Right now, two houses are for sale literally a stone’s throw away.

You could be our neighbors, and would be the closest part of the co-op’s broader community.

Update, Sept 2018: these houses have been purchased, but there is another for sale through Long Realty just a few houses up the road.