Cooperatives create opportunity for small farms to thrive

Farm and Food

Justin Carter contributed to this blog.

Due to the rising prices in supermarkets and global supply chain interruptions, many consumers are seeking local food outlets. While this is great news for producers who rely on these markets and wish to see them grow, producing local food is not an easy job.

Justin Carter, senior project associate with the Center for Rural Affairs, says producing local food is vital to our communities.

“Farmers and ranchers must put in long work hours and often have to market their goods, negotiate with buyers, and transport their harvests to market,” said Justin. “This intense workload often makes diverse farming with many different products seem unrealistic.”

One thing farmers and ranchers could do to lighten the load may be to take part in cooperatives.

In 2021, the Center set out to learn more about cooperatives, specifically those run by groups that have been underserved in the traditional agriculture system, including women, Native Americans, and Latinos.

Center staff were introduced to two farmers in rural Wisconsin and Minnesota—Rodrigo Cala of Cala Farms and Javier Garcia of Agua Gorda.

“Co-ops come in all shapes and sizes, but generally they involve a group of individuals working together to achieve a common goal,” said Justin. “Rodrigo and Javier are similar in many ways, each growing a diverse amount of products, and each spending lots of time to market them.”

Agua Gorda is a small, worker-owned cooperative farm in Long Prairie, Minnesota, where Javier has been farming since 2012. He produces a wide variety of fruits and vegetables including watermelon, Roma tomatoes, different types of peppers, okra, tomatillos, zucchini, and Brussels sprouts. Javier is joined in this operation by three other farmers, including his son and brother.

Rodridgo runs Cala Farm in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin. He grows certified organic vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, heirloom tomatoes, and garlic. Cala Farm is also home to goats, chickens, flowers, and corn native to Central America.

While both Rodrigo and Javier made strides in their operations, they see marketing and selling their harvests as a top concern.

“We have the ability to buy land, tractors, machinery, and hire labor,” said Rodrigo. “But the biggest problem is markets; people don’t understand how difficult it is to sell some products from just one farm.”

This is where cooperatives have come in to make a big difference in how these products are distributed.

Cala Farms and Agua Gorda are two of five Latino-led farms that have participated in Shared Ground Cooperative. Shared Ground, which operated out of the Twin Cities, assisted Rodrigo and Javier in finding some of their first markets by aggregating their products to sell larger quantities and a wider variety of products through different market streams such as retail and wholesale customers, local schools, and a community supported agriculture (CSA) subscription.

“Unfortunately, Shared Ground closed at the end of 2021,” Justin said. “However, their farmers continue to thrive from the networks and markets they helped to establish, many continuing to sell as a group to the same wholesale customers.”

Working with others as a member of a cooperative is not always simple, Justin says.

“Cooperatives are made up of many different members, each with different views,” said Justin. “It can be difficult to come together to establish a common objective.”

Said Rodrigo, “If you can establish a transparent system where everyone’s ideas and complaints are heard, you can be successful.”

To learn more about Rodrigo and Javier, watch their video case study on the Center for Rural Affairs YouTube channel at

To look further into the Center’s work with cooperatives, see the series Models of Native Cooperative Ownership and Cooperatives: Building a Base for the Future.

Feature photo: Cala Farms in 2021  |  Center file photo