“There are things you can do together that you can’t do alone,” said Ben Maddox, manager of the New South Produce Cooperative in Little Rock, AR. This statement rings true for many Certified Naturally Grown producers, who value their independence as well as their strength in numbers. CNG farmers are sharing tools, ideas and some are even banding together to sell produce in cooperative models. We’ll focus on the New South co-op for the first of a series of blog posts about members who are finding ways to grow and thrive through collaboration.
The New South Produce Cooperative was formed, explained Maddox, to meet two needs in central Arkansas: (1) the need for more local, sustainably grown food to supply chefs and markets; and (2) a system for deliveries, invoicing and marketing; and an aggregation space that would enable local farmers to serve this demand.
To achieve these goals, local farmers needed to both scale-up and convince other growers to join them. Forming a growers’ cooperative seemed like an effective way to meet those needs. In 2015, four to five growers established Arkansas’ first food hub, The New South Produce Cooperative. They served 150 CSA shareholders in their first year.
Farmers of New South Co-op from left to right: Jill Forrester, Eddie Stuckey, Lonnie Clark, Joe Carr, Vilma Carr, Brandon Gordon, Fin Judkins, Tara Stainton, Josh Hardin, Spencer Crilow, Ben Maddox, Paul Chapracki, Ashley Dettelbach and Steve Dettelbach. Pictured in top and bottom photos: Brandon Gordon.
Although not all farmers were certified Organic or CNG at the time, CNG was “exploding” in popularity among central Arkansas growers. "We liked the CNG program because we were worried about the cost and complexity of USDA Organic certification, particularly for beginning farmers."
For growers who have recently transitioned to sustainable practices, and are looking to access larger markets, “CNG is a great bridge.” Maddox said. “We work with a lot of growers who are interested in organically growing, but maybe aren’t sure about the whole [USDA Organic] thing.” As the manager of the co-op, he shared that “CNG makes my job a lot easier.”
Over time, the growing membership voted on the need for production standards. Ben shared that “the majority decided on requiring some certification--CNG or organic--and non-certified members decided to stay in and conform to the standards. It was worth it for them.”
How does CNG make farmers’ lives easier? Armed with a set of standards, co-op growers can better communicate their growing practices and what makes their products stand out. In addition, CNG farmers within The New South Cooperative voted to make sure that all co-op farmers participate in the annual on-site CNG inspections, which Maddox says helps the farmers build relationships while protecting the integrity of their production practices. By taking part in each others’ certification, the farmers are better equipped to improve their standards and the quality of their products.
Since 2015, The New South Cooperative has grown to include 24 farmer-members, has established high growing standards, and created an efficient way to aggregate and distribute their produce. The number of CSA shareholders has more than doubled, and the co-op is receiving regular orders from wholesale grocers and restaurants.
This year, New South Cooperative aims to provide fresh produce all year-round by planting high-rotation crops (crops that you can plant and harvest in 60 days or less) as they expand.
When asked to share any advice for growers who want to start their own produce co-op, Maddox said, “The key is finding a good group of growers committed to growing standards, shared values, shared vision of scale.” He summed it up in three points: “Start small. Stick to their values. Listen to the market.”
“If you can be an example for people and lead the way, I think other growers will come to you and want to participate. Don’t underestimate the power of being a good example. Somebody has got to do it.”
At CNG, we feel the same way.
Let us know if you have a story of farmers collaborating to produce food for the community by emailing [email protected].
All photos by Bryan Clifton.