by Agnès Papone from Ferme Lavancia in France
Our efforts at organizing a coop of farmers in the Southern French Alps (Nice back-country) began with a tightly-knit organic group in response to local consumers wanting to find produce and farm products without having to drive all over the countryside nor down to the coast. So we had the unusual luxury of being a consumer-driven farmer’s coop.
After a few years as a smallish and exclusively organic group, we decided to broaden our rules a bit to allow some free-range poultry family-farmers so that we could offer more meat options. There is very little in the way of organic poultry (or poultry generally) in our part of the world. Our farm, Ferme Lavancia, produces organic vegetables, fruit and free range organic eggs, among the other farmers we have goat, cow and ewe’s milk cheeses, yoghurts and dairy, honeys from organic lavender and Provence flowers, olive oil and olives, lamb, beef and veal, as well as organic craft beer, spelt flour and grains, duck eggs, jams, jellies and chutneys, pickled quail eggs... I could go on and on!
The governance model we came to by trial and error — after a few false starts, it was itself an innovation. We don’t have a hierarchy nor a president, secretaries, treasurers and so forth.
We had decided we wanted everyone elected to be on the governance board to be on equal footing and equally responsible. So we have 9 co-presidents, and as it happens we’re all women. A few husbands and male partners work together with us on the farms but as far as running the coop, it seems to make more sense this way. It is also a great selling point and surprises people that we’re a women’s farming coop.
In France we can’t actually be called a cooperative (even though we initially started out as one) because the administrative burdens related to cooperatives are too difficult for a very small group like ours. So we gave up our coop status and relaunched ourselves as a non-profit organisation, since we don’t make any and since we return all our earnings to the farmer-members. We’re called Montagnes Paysannes and we’re growing about 30% yearly, but not without some growing pains. This year, to improve on our teamwork and communication, we’re going to start workshops to address conflicts and overcome difficulties with allocating tasks, workloads and responsibilities. The whole undertaking has taught us many lessons and we are constantly learning. Non-violent communication, zero-waste, grant-writing and reporting, managing human ressources.. the list of skills we’re acquiring and need to sharpen seems to be never-ending. But nothing a group of fearless farmers can’t face.