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We Begin to Develop Real Community

Tom Frantzen, Alta Vista

Are farms just separate enterprises run by farmers who at times socialize with each other?

The social dimension of sustainable agriculture is a sensitive and often difficult aspect for many people to understand. What does it mean to build rural communities? Should more people just live in the country? Are farms just separate enterprises run by farmers who at times socialize with each other? Do these farms compete for markets, or can they cooperate with each other at marketing? I want to share some experiences that I have had with cooperative marketing that is having a real effect on our local community.

In February of 1998 I was asked to provide some market hogs to the Niman Ranch Pork Company. Later that spring I took Paul Willis, who manages this company, on a tour of local hog farmers who live near Alta Vista. Soon the demand for non-confinement hogs grew to the level where six local farmers were sending hogs to Niman Ranch. We could see the advantages of cooperation among us when it was time to ship. We began to meet at the Howard County Equity, our cooperative local elevator. The management of this coop has refused to imitate the other coops that financed large-scale confinement with patron-retained dividends. The Equity decided to sell and actively promote hoop buildings as a way of keeping their independent hog farmers in business. We met in an office provided by this coop and felt at home! They offered the assistance of one staff person. In time this would prove to be a crucial assistance.

Dr. Laura Jackson and Dr. Mark Grey from the University of Northern Iowa were participants in an EPA study on the social and ecological ramifications of concentrated hog production. I suggested that they compare the hog farmers in the Alta Vista area to an area that has intense concentration of pork production. They became familiar with all of the farmers in our group and offered assistance. Dr. Grey was very active in the details of putting our group together as a cooperative. We developed bylaws and formally organized in January of 1999. We selected the name F.R.E.S.H. AIR PORK CIRCLE. The FRESH is an acronym for Family Raised Environmentally Sound Hogs. We had this name copyrighted a month later.

Our group meets twice a month. Most of our business is in providing a steady supply of hogs for the Niman program. Linda Gesell, an employee of the Equity, coordinates our group. When Niman needs hogs they call her. She has the list of farmers who have available hogs. She also arranges the transportation. A major advantage of our circle is that we have a business office with someone answering the phone 40 hours a week. Having a fax number, an answering machine, and a toll free number are all in the assistance we get from this coop. In time we will have an email address at this office too.

In March of last year we began to process some of our hogs in a state inspected locker and sell pork under our own name. This has been a real education for all of us! Many of our members believe that they now have a degree from the college of hard knocks –with a meat marketing major! I could easily fill up this article with stories we have experienced. I may do those stories in another column. We have succeeded in building a satisfied customer base. In fact one of the reasons we keep going is that some people would get really angry at us if we quit! Not the bankers! We have an outstanding weiner, bratwurst, and luncheon meat. Our tasting demos have been very well received.

Allan Nation once said in the Stockman Grass Farmer that “we need to learn to need each other.” Here we do. The dependence goes well beyond just shipping.

What does this have to do with community? We are making progress in developing true economic community. The most significant impact is in the transportation logistics. We are 225 miles east of Sioux Center. That is where Niman kills most of their hogs. To arrange for economical transportation we need to fill up a semi load. None of us are large enough producers to do that alone. Here we are totally dependent on the viability of each other to make this work. I cannot get my hogs to market unless you stay in business and need to get your hogs to the same place. Allan Nation once said in the Stockman Grass Farmer that “we need to learn to need each other.” Here we do. The dependence goes well beyond just shipping. We meet to share production ideas and to solve problems. It is easier to get an animal health specialist to come and offer assistance when he can visit many farms instead of a few. The effect of using alternative practices can be weighted across several farms. This makes observations more valuable.

Niman Ranch is moving to require their producers to have the genetically engineered feed ingredients removed from the hog diets. This is another example of where cooperative community takes hold. How could single, isolated producers go about locating all the necessary grains to make this switch? Who would supervise this process of segregation? Here we will depend upon close communication with our elevator in securing supplies and processing of non-GMO feedstuffs. They need us and we need them.

Last year alone over 1000 meat lockers went out of business in the U.S. These small businesses need local support to stay in business. Our circle does extensive business with three lockers. Keeping these lockers busy helps other people in our community who want and need this service as well. Even if they do not buy any of our products, they see where we each can benefit from having local business economy. The customers know where their food comes from, people have more options to choose from, and everyone is better off because of this cooperation.

What we are experiencing here is a totally different trend than the existing movement within the pork industry. The drive to industrialize and concentrate swine production has eliminated thousands of independent producers and fragmented rural communities. Our alternative marketing has opened new doors for business growth, stabilized the economy and opened our eyes to how much we really do need each other. I like this path much better!!