When Farms Co-Op, Everyone Wins

Small businesses need support to thrive, and that is particularly true in the world of farming where the learning curve is steep, the risk is high, and if that wasn’t enough, farmers also must to do their own marketing, distribution and administrative tasks to survive.

Through its work at home and abroad, Heifer International realized when farmers organize into cooperatives it eases the demands of growing and operating a small business. Heifer’s mission is to end hunger and poverty in the world, and to do that, they’re creating and expanding farming and livestock businesses. Though it’s a large nonprofit providing support in multiple countries, Heifer also implements this mission in its home state of Arkansas. In the spring of 2014, the Grass Roots Farmers Cooperative was created to help the state’s meat producers combine resources and grow their businesses, allowing farmers to share production, infrastructure, distribution and marketing abilities.

Grass Roots communication manager Elizabeth Quinn said, “The folks at Heifer helped to break down the barriers to beginning that young and small-scale farmers face. They facilitated access to markets and distribution. And though Heifer orchestrated some of the conversations between farmers, the original conception came from our general manager Cody Hopkins of Falling Sky Farm and other farmers in the co-op,” Quinn said.

Falling Sky Farm's Cody Hopkins with his hogs.
Falling Sky Farm’s Cody Hopkins with his hogs.

Cody traveled to Nepal with Heifer and saw some of the nonprofit’s projects in that country. He brought back a deeper appreciation for how the farmers in Nepal were cooperating and wanted to implement some of their tactics in his home state.

“The cooperative assists with things like accounting, distribution, access to markets, and when you share those resources you can really focus on farming, rather than worrying so much about finding a market and getting your product there,” Quinn said.

The Grass Roots Farmers' Cooperative is an Arkansas-based, member-owned livestock producer's cooperative operating by the highest principles and standards of pasture-based production methods.
The Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative is an Arkansas-based, member-owned livestock producer’s cooperative operating by the highest principles and standards of pasture-based production methods.

To streamline the process, farmers in the cooperative share the same approach to raising livestock, she said.
“To be a member, there’s an application process and certainly a pretty strict vetting process,” she said. “The farmers operate under the same animal husbandry processes, as is the land and so the final product is as high a quality as we can provide. It’s pretty stringent so we make sure everyone is doing the best they can for the animals.”

Once those standards are in place and followed, all of the farmers can be marketed in the same way.

“The beef and lamb are grassfed, and not all of our farms have the same animals,” she said. “All of the chickens are pasture-raised using the same invention. We collaborated with the designer to create this portable chicken tractor with walls made of a sturdy wire, so they’re protected from predators. All the pork is raised the same way, in the forest, moved to fresh paddocks every day.”

A special schooner was designed to allow chickens to graze freely while also giving protection from predators. (photo by Bryan Clifton)
A special paddock was designed to allow chickens to graze freely while also giving protection from predators. (photo by Bryan Clifton)

As the cooperative grows, Quinn says it plans to include more farmers.

“We hope to get to a place where we’re adding more and more new farmers every year. Ideally as the business grows, our customer base grows,” she said. “We’ve had an e-commerce platform, and we’ve been doing online ordering for roughly 6 months or so. We recently changed our offering, and we’ve expanded our shipping areas. Until two weeks ago, we were only shipping in the state of Arkansas, but now we can deliver to 20 states.”

Heifer public relations manager Allison Stephens said, “Our international work predates Grass Roots, but it’s a model we would like to see replicated throughout the U.S. But, right now, it’s helping Arkansas farmers. People who want their meat sustainably raised can now get that in 20 states.

But it all starts with networking at home, she said.

“You have to have some kind of demand and supply locally first, and as that increases, as you get your feet wet, you can expand it. That’s the best part of Grass Roots, a really good established core consumer base in the neighboring area and maybe in Oklahoma. It’s exciting and encouraging.”

Click to learn more about the Grass Roots Farmers’ Cooperative and its distribution area.