A rainy day affords me time to catch up on bills, bookkeeping, and news articles and not just headlines. I noticed a pattern of responses to various items in the White House budget, so I figured I may as well read the budget itself. Closing off one section is a simple bullet point:
Reduces duplicative and underperforming programs by eliminating discretionary activities of the
Rural Business and Cooperative Service, a savings of $95 million from the 2017 annualized CR
This is concerning for three reasons:
- Rural cooperatives are the foundation and remain integral to the US agricultural economy.
- Cooperatives provide services and job opportunities in remote areas and among marginalized populations.
- The Rural Cooperative Service houses the only federal grant for people of color, the Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant.
Let’s take a look at our history. African and African-American slaves who built American agriculture cooperatively pooled money to buy each others’ freedom. With the abolition of slavery, former slaves created cooperatives to own farm land, access credit, and engage in a democratic process to create livelihoods for themselves with lasting impacts until today. The Grange movement in the late 1800s mobilized rural Americans, mostly farmers, to create cooperatives that aggregated food and supplies, while distributing profits equitably. This model enabled people to acquire needs and sell goods, and created the foundation for rural and farming economies. As the need for electricity, banking, and housing increased in rural areas, where developers and investors did not see reason to invest, people formed cooperatives to meet these demands. Cooperatives permeated many aspects of rural life to meet necessary services.
The formation of cooperatives to meet needs in rural America translated into serving the rest of the country. We enjoy the rural cooperative efforts of TreeTop and Organic Valley when we enjoy a glass of apple juice or milk. In California, our Sunkist and Sunmaid cooperatives provide people with a taste of our sunshine in orange juice and raisins. Co-op farmers provide more than 190,000 jobs and annual wages of $8 billion.
These jobs that uphold rural lives and businesses that affect all of us are under threat in the White House budget. The Rural Business and Cooperative Services programs provide assistance to beginning and existing cooperatives, from writing incorporation documents, understanding tax and financial management, and navigating group decision-making. This kind of support enables people to create jobs, gain financing, and secure housing.
In my case, I gained affordable housing in the Bay Area during school thanks to cooperative housing. This meant I could eat and sleep somewhere secure and comfortable while also gaining an incredibly valuable world-class education. As a grain farmer, cooperative ownership of necessary harvesting and cleaning equipment enables me to get grain to market. Not only me, but my fellow co-operators, so we can collectively bolster regional food supply.
Us small scale grain farmers a minority in the agricultural system. Cooperatives are a means for minorities to gain strength in numbers to address common needs, pursue shared dreams. Take the Hi Desert Jujube Cooperative.
Amidst the stretch of the sandy hard-pan flatlands of California’s high desert, star-shaped flowers of lemondrop yellow can be seen annually. These aren’t part of the widely anticipated wildflower super bloom, but it’s a moment awaited by the farmers who read these flowers for signs of their harvest. These are the jujube farmers. The arid conditions lead to exceptionally sweet and flavorful jujubes with a crisp crunch when ripe, and give way to a subtle smoky and raisin flavor when sun-dried and transformed into a marshmallow-like texture.
Jujubes are enjoyed and cherished in many cultures from the Mediterranean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. They may not be part of the Anglo-American mainstream, but are in high demand. Beginning about fifteen years ago, farmers of Korean descent began growing them in Lucerne Valley, California. At first there were a few farmers, then more came and learned to plant, nurture, and harvest these fruits. They shared growing practices, introduced each other to customers, and eventually turned their cooperation into an official agricultural cooperative business. Through this cooperative, farmers have increased their market power, skill base, and farm viability and collectively produce on nearly 1,000 acres to serve an ever increasing market demand.
Being rural and selling fruit that mainstream markets and their associated distributors and brokers are unfamiliar with necessitates cooperation. Collaboration among farmers helped them create solutions to shared problems, and cooperatives provided a structure to anchor their connection.
I get to work with many cooperatives across the state. One of the businesses I’m very excited about is Yolo Eco-Clean Cooperative, which is a group of Latinas who run a home and business cleaning business. They make all their own products from scratch for the sake of personal, client, and environmental health. They determine their schedules so they can be with their children, they decide about wages and business investment, and this is a job they have full ownership of. Isn’t that what we all want — self-determination and time with those we love?
The White House budget is being negotiated and must be approved by April 28th, 2017 for this fiscal year. We ask Congress and readers who will contact their representatives to keep in mind that cooperatives employ over 2.1 million people in the US and generated over $220 billion in revenue in 2015. Cooperatives create rural jobs and sustain a vibrant food economy. Let’s cooperate to keep them.