The Future of Food is in Cooperatives

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Narendra Varma, founder of Our Table Cooperative, a multi-stakeholder cooperative located in Sherwood, Oregon. Our Table has 58 acres of farmland, a grocery, and numerous farm-based educational opportunities, and the organization incorporates the interests of its farm workers, regional producers, and consumers around the Portland area. 

Food Tank (FT): How did you become interested and involved in farming and sustainable food systems? 

Narendra Varma (NV): Part of it was personal. We had children, and we became more interested in what we were putting in their bodies. I think that’s a natural thing all parents go through. It’s very easy, especially when you’re young, to not really worry about these things. You think of food as more of a fuel, but when you are responsible for another human, being you start to pay more attention. 

Also, I think for me anyway, I see the food system as being at the center of a lot of society-scale issues that we face today. Whether we are talking about climate change or any kind of environmental degradation or we are talking about economics, poverty, or rural communities. I see food at the center of all these things. To me, it’s the crossroads of all of these issues and it’s also something that we do generally three times a day if we can afford to. I think there’s this element that this is a necessity and not a luxury that makes it really important to me. Everybody deserves to have the best food that is available in his or her community; it’s a keystone system in our society. 

FT: What sets Our Table apart as a cooperative? 

NV: We are probably the only multi-stakeholder coop in the nation that includes consumers and farmers in the same coop. And I’m not saying that it’s successful, time will tell. The thing that sets us apart is that we are trying to engage the entire community, not just in a conversation, which I think any successful farm is doing with its customer community, but in figuring out together what it really means to be a community-owned farm. The community feeds the farm, and the farm feeds the community. So I think that’s what sets us apart—in potential, anyway. It’s not an end destination, it’s a journey, and who knows how long it will take. It will evolve slowly and organically over time, and I think that over-arching and evolving experience is what sets us apart as an organization.

FT: How much do your personal values play a role in Our Table’s mission and practices? Do they echo the communities? 

NV: Initially, my personal values were the starting point, but very quickly the creative energy of all the people involved far outstripped my own creative prowess. Now I think it is very much a collaborative and collective effort; the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Our Table is a reflection of that shared value system. It’s embodied in not just some written documents, but in actions, as well. Nobody working here feels, ‘this isn’t my place, I don’t have a say;’ everyone has a say, an equal say. As a result, if anyone feels strongly about something, they can bring it up and we collectively think about it and talk about it and then decide our further action. 

Most of our country has experienced such a uni-dimensional monoculture of what food is and how you interact with it, how you purchase it, how you grow it, that I think it is very difficult to expect a group of people from a community to have ideas that are completely out of the box because the box has been defined since birth. Most peoples’ experience with food in America is extremely limited, as people can only know what they see and what they have experienced. It’s very difficult for most people because they don’t sit around all day obsessing about this stuff, to imagine something different. On some level, I think you have to get together with a group of people that does sit around obsessing over it and are nerdy about it to imagine something different, present it to the community, and sort of build it over time with the community’s feedback. And it’s not just, ‘we do a focus group and get feedback,’ but true ownership so that the community starts to take ownership of it and helps drive it forward and evolve it in new and interesting ways. You’ve got to start somewhere and then be willing to let the community take it where it wants to take it.

FT: In your experience, has the community been active in taking that direction? 

NV: I think the community so far has been active when people come and interact with us even if it is just buying food. At Our Table, I think people feel more empowered. They feel a greater sense of connection, so I think we get more feedback. By getting people more interested in the nuances, I think the conversation is starting to change. For some of our more regular, more involved people, they have a much bigger say because they are there and they are talking about it. 

 FT: Have you seen a change in the spectrum of your clientele and supporters? 

NV: Yes. I think initially, the people self-select. They are the people who are most philosophically aligned—although even they are essentially reading into our marketing materials and the spiels on our website through their own lens and what they want to read into it, so it’s not necessarily the reality—we all bring our own lens to the thing. So certainly, yes, initially it’s the kind of people who would support that kind of endeavor because they are interested in the issues. But over time, what has been exciting is to see is more and more local people who you would never normally think come out and support us.

We tend to stereotype and pigeonhole people. To conclude that those people don’t want fresh, locally grown food is bogus because the people don’t really decide what restaurant comes to town. If a better restaurant came to town they might be more than happy to support it, but first someone has to open it. And in most strip malls today the only people really opening things are chains, nationally franchised chains. This kind of creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I think these stereotypes are bogus. I think people care about good food and nutrition, people care about the local economy, they care about supporting their neighbors, and they care about the health of the land. They see these things every single day, and I think people in urban areas care just as much as people in suburban areas or rural areas about these issues. We just kind of get stuck in political stereotyping as well which then closes us off from engaging with people. 

 Most people in America today buy into that agribusiness argument that without biotechnology you can’t feed a growing population. Nobody knows that only 30 percent of the food grown on the planet comes from industrialized agriculture. Industrial agriculture doesn’t feed the planet today so why do we think that it can feed the planet tomorrow? That kind of mythology that the prevailing system really promotes with a very large advertising budget and a compliant policy framework makes it very easy for people to have the wrong facts. As a result, we think that these people care and these people don’t, but that’s not true, everybody cares about food system issues. They just don’t know about them. 

FT: Do you believe cooperative farming can facilitate community change? Can you provide any examples from your experience with Our Table?

NV: Yes. I think cooperatives can facilitate change. In terms of examples, I think we see them every single day when people make a little extra effort to come to our farm first and then supplement with other grocery stores even if it’s a little less convenient. We are asking people to work harder about their food and to think a little bit more about their food. When people first become members, not all of them get very engage, but over time more of them become engaged. It’s different things for different people that hook them, but once they become engaged, they start to think more about food, and they start to think about health and nutrition a lot more. So I think there’s a lot of things that people do. Is that specific to cooperatives? Not necessarily, but I do feel that over time the cooperative model brings to the table the transparency. It’s very clear from day one that there isn’t someone else extracting value out of the food system in a cooperative model. The owners are the community and therefore any surplus value is distributed to the owners, whereas in most other business setups there’s always this invisible fat cat who’s extracting.

FT: With CSA shares becoming more available and more utilized by consumers do you think Our Table’s cooperative model will become more widely practiced by farms and agricultural communities? 

NV: I think the cooperative model, generally speaking in our society, is becoming more attractive to people because the excesses and ethical violations of the other model are becoming plainer and plainer for all to see. Cooperatives allow people to have a little more control over the organizations that they interact with whether they are working or buying or selling or whatever it is they are doing. So I think cooperative organizations are only going to continue to grow. Certainly, worldwide they are a huge phenomenon. 

CSAs in particular, I think, honestly are beginning to plateau. I think CSA as it was originally conceived with the consumer sharing the risk, reward, and abundance with the farmer has changed. I think most people today see CSA as more of a magazine subscription. ‘I’ve prepaid which is an advantage to me and the business, but then I expect my weekly delivery, and I’m not really interested in taking on that risk if something fails. I still want my food.’ So I think that model is changing, I think there are still some people who believe in the old model as customers, and that’s great, but for the vast majority of people that is changing. I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing, it is just a part of getting to scale. But I don’t think most people are going to get their food from a little box of something mysterious that gets delivered to them every week. Most people are going to still go shopping for food. Whether that’s in a giant grocery or a corner store, I have a preference, myself, and I think our communities could be far more vibrant if it wasn’t in some giant place that I had to drive to, but instead in my neighborhood. That, though, is at some level a cultural issue as well. I think local food has a long way to go and I think that there is a big danger in being coopted by the larger interests. I think organics have already been coopted to a large extent and there’s a lot of green washing that goes on so there are a lot of challenges ahead. Certainly CSAs are helpful because they tend to promote a more direct relationship between people and that’s always important. Relationships are always better than faceless transactions so in that sense they play a very important role, but I am not sure that they can really scale to feed our whole society.

FT: What’s in store for the future in terms of feeding our populations? 

NV: Big agriculture, industrial agriculture only produces about 30 percent of the world’s food today. I think the solutions are self-evident and obvious. I think we need a lot more agro-ecology based models, which are restorative to soil and really focus on soil health and on people health—whether you are talking about workers, farmers, delivery drivers, restaurant workers, and dishwashers, or whether you are talking about the people eating the food—everybody’s health and wellbeing need to be taken into account. I think the solution is simple. The problem is not that we don’t know what to do; the problem is that we don’t have the political economic kind of willpower to do it. The side effect of that kind of agro-ecological agriculture is that it mitigates a lot of climate change issues so it’s a win-win in 100 different ways. 

The other piece that I think a lot of people don’t realize is that everybody sort of tends to buy into this mythology that industrial agriculture is more efficient when in reality it is more efficient and more productive per unit of labor, but not more productive per unit of land. So if you think about the fact that one of the things that we have that has very low cost associated with it is people where substituting people with machines makes one person very quarter productive, but at the cost of huge amounts of fossil fuel and all sorts of other knock-on effects, many of which are quite negative, then I look at that and go, ‘great we’ve got people, we keep complaining about having more and more people and nine billion people, great we need them to farm.’

The word efficiency is all about what’s the output in terms of what input, so its very easy to say my 5,000-acre cornfield is very efficient because I can manage it alone with my giant tractor that is run by a GPS, yeah, but it’s efficient in terms of what? If you start counting efficiency in terms of fossil fuel input it’s horrible. If you’re only counting bushels of corn generated per unit of labor it’s very efficient, but don’t talk to me about edible bio mass generated per unit of land and it’s terribly inefficient, so it all depends on what you are measuring and it’s very easy to only quote a figure that paints your operation in a good light.

FT: Is there anything else you would like to share?

NV: At the end of the day it’s about community and food and love. Those are the things that we don’t really get to talk about very much, but I think those are the things that make these things worth it. Everybody has enjoyed food around community and everybody has enjoyed the feeling of abundance and love that comes with that and I think that ‘s what we’ve got to kind keep our eye on. When we get stuck on a sort of spreadsheet then our value systems get compromised.

Photo courtesy of Jamie Valdez, photographer at the Portland Tribune.

from Food Tank, the Think Tank for Food

by Alanna Wittet

Alanna Wittet is a sustainability enthusiast with a keen interest in sustainable food systems and community development. She studied Environmental Studies at Franklin & Marshall College and has most recently been furthering her education by experiencing the world through various nomadic travels. Feel free to follow her adventures on Instagram: ehwittet


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