Some years ago during a cooperative mission in England our group was shocked to learn that the country’s largest agricultural business was in fact … The Co-op Group. But this group is not an agricultural cooperative. In fact, it’s a consumer cooperative. Consumers are now imposing their own farming methods … on agricultural workers carrying out a business strategy ironed out by and for consumers. Now that’s a complete turnaround in the value chain!
Last month, I was drawn to an ad posted on the Internet: “10,000 farmers wanted, no experience required.” For a contribution of 30£ (about $50 CA), consumers are given the opportunity of experiencing the virtual life of a farmer as they participate in making decisions about operating a real farm. The farm is spread over 1,000 hectares of pasture, crops, gardens and forest and it produces meat, eggs, wheat and canola, and it also features a recreational and tourism component. First and foremost, the financial contributions of virtual farmers does not afford them any type of property ownership, nor does it grant them access to the farm’s products, but as the organization clearly states, “because you’ll have the power, anything is possible in the future!”
This daring project, I read, pursues multiple objectives. One of its goals is obviously to ensure the farm’s permanence through additional capitalization as well as sustainable practices, but another one of its objectives is to reconnect consumers with the food chain and encourage public debate about their food and its production methods. Virtual farmers are promised extreme transparency with answers to all their questions. Discussion forums are at their disposal as well as online voting tools. Virtual farmers are given the opportunity to share their point of view: What should we sow? What will we feed our cattle? What kind of equipment should we invest in? And so much more… then they get to vote!
I admit that this model, which downgrades the farmer/producer to the status of worker and grants the consumer operational control, is somewhat disquieting. Does all the power need to be relinquished to establish a true partnership with consumers? I don’t think so. However, there is no doubt about the importance of rapidly adapting to market signs. Farmers need to view a dialogue with consumers as a practice that is critical to their success; otherwise their traditional role of owner and decision-maker may, in the long term, be at risk. In Quebec, there have been some interesting initiatives to help reconnect farmers to consumers: Portes ouvertes sur les fermes du Québec hosted by the UPA, the Ruralia event sponsored by Solidarité rurale or even the Community Farming program supported Equiterre. But are they sufficient? I doubt it since the chasm is so wide. But what more could be done?
In my opinion, meetings uniting stakeholders and lay the guidelines for any serious approach to sustainable development constitute a course of action that requires more study. I believe this to be a very effective practice to offset tipping the balance of power. Two of La Coop network’s cooperatives have already begun the first round of meetings, and having been fortunate enough to be a party to these get-togethers, I am convinced that an open, transparent and permanent dialogue with the many parties involved – including consumers –responds to everyone’s preoccupations and questions, before such concerns turn into overwhelming problems.
By making a habit of such meetings and opportunities for listening, discussing, and dialoguing with consumers, we are also developing a relationship based on mutual respect and empathy. Each party gains a better understanding of the other and both gain greater acceptance of their roles. Overall, this may be the best way to make sure that we remain the “masters of our domain.” As the saying goes, “You do your job, I’ll do mine.”