It happened last fall during a conference at the Université Laval as I was recalling the challenges that La Coop will have to face over the next few years. In fact, I was explaining that in terms of its next generation, agricultural cooperation was feeling double the pressure. First, in agriculture just like in society as a whole, the demographic curve shows a clear imbalance between a population that continues to grow older and fewer and fewer young people. Furthermore, agriculture is heavily affected by consolidation: according to Mario Handfield (ARUC 2011), rural areas have seen 77% of their farms disappear from 1951 to 2001. Farms are larger, therefore more difficult to access young people, especially when they haven't grown up in the farming world.
During the question period, one student's question struck me: "If it's so hard to find people to take over farms, why doesn't La Coop fédérée support initiatives to help form cooperatives to ensure a next generation?" I noted that our network is successfully positioned in upstream and downstream farm operations and this is in fact part of La Coop fédérée's mission. But I had to admit that we had never really explored and promoted cooperation on the farm.
And yet I know quite a few cooperative farms. The one I hear about the most, probably because it's located near my home, is Ferme coopérative Tourne-Sol, in Les Cèdres. It is established as a worker cooperative with five members who have discovered that this model provides several benefits: smaller individual investment burden, better quality of life thanks to more flexible schedules, and a framework that fosters the business' sustainability.
There is no doubt that the worker cooperative model deserves greater attention. A few years ago I had the pleasure of talking with Henry Mintzberg, a renowned academic and author on business and management, and he showed a distinct interest in worker cooperatives. In his opinion, they provided the greatest potential from an organizational angle, and because workers are also owners, their interest in making the business a success is completely natural and this is a great motivator.
There are other models for cooperative farms: the multi-stakeholder cooperative, which allows other types of supporting partners to be included; the worker-shareholder cooperative, which facilitates the transfer of property of one portion of the business to its workers; there is also the cooperative backed by an agricultural land trust, which is a very interesting option when protecting hereditament from speculation. Providing examples of this model are Ferme Cadet-Roussel, on the South Shore, and Ferme de la Colline du chêne, in Bromont.
To summarize, there are different cooperative farm models in existence and support resources may help guide interested parties: Groupe Coop Relève (GCR), du Conseil québécois de la coopération et de la mutualité, as well as regional development cooperatives. However, one real question remains, beyond the choice of structure, what is the appeal of cooperation for the next generation? Do cooperative values resonate with young people? Suppose the next generation is a reflection of Quebec's youth as a whole, it would be quite interesting to familiarize ourselves with work completed in 2011 by Chantal Royer, professor at UQTR, on the values espoused by our youth. According to her findings, when young people reach 19, 20 years of age, they place a lot of importance on mutual help, respect and solidarity. These are certainly cooperative values. On the whole, even if Quebec doesn't have a long tradition of cooperative farms, this model should be given its proper place in our tool box. Times change, but so do needs.