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Feeding the World through Agricultural Cooperatives

coop-dairies-future-of-agricultureOne of the things that I loved most about growing up in the country was picking peppers in the garden, still warm from the sun, and crunching into them like apples. These are memories that will stay with me for life. As my kids and I finish planting our winter garden, I realize that raising food like this is a tradition that can continue for future generations. And I am grateful.

I was reminded of how important this tradition is by World Food Day last week. Held annually on October 16 to commemorate the founding of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), this year’s World Food Day carried the theme: “Agricultural cooperatives: key to feeding the world.”

Did you know that 80 percent of the food supply in developing countries is provided by low-income family farms which operate with fewer resources than their larger, better-endowed neighbor farms? These are known as smallholder farms and they number half a billion worldwide.

To me, these are not faceless statistics. I spent part of my life growing up on my stepfather’s 350-acre Holstein dairy farm in Glastonbury, Connecticut. That experience helped to shape the way I live today, specifically by choosing to raise my family in the sustainable community of Serenbe, just south of Atlanta. Here we have our own organic farms, LEED-certified retail spaces, EarthCraft homes, and 1,000 acres of trails. In addition, my entire professional career has been dedicated to the advancement of sustainability. With World Food Day’s recent emphasis on cooperative agriculture, I wanted to recognize one of my heroes: my stepfather, Louis P. Longo.

During his 35-year career, Lou Longo served as a tireless and vigilant supporter of dairy farm families. He led the consolidation of regional dairy cooperatives into valuable companies, such as Agri-Mark, entirely owned and controlled by the farmers themselves. By banding together, these small family farms had more clout to better control prices, allowing them to remain competitive with larger operations. This helped keep their farms active, bucking a trend of families selling their farms (which often became housing developments) in order to move into non food-producing industries.

And why are food-producing families so important? According to the UN, 2 billion people will be joining us on this planet over the next 40 years. That means a total of 9 billion people— and a demand for food that will double in that time. We will produce more food in the next half-century than we have produced in the last 10,000 years. Using developing countries as a template, remember that 80 percent of their food currently comes from smallholder farms.

So Lou’s lifelong work to champion agricultural cooperatives is right at the heart of the future of sustainable agriculture. During his career, Lou served as president and chairman of the Dairy Cooperatives in New England, Chairman of the National Dairy Council, and advisor to the US Department of Agriculture. Lou was honored in 1988 at the Eastern States Exposition as an Agricultural Adventurer and in 2005 was admitted to the National Dairy Shrine. Thanks to the work of people like Lou, the movement for cooperative agriculture is garnering increasing support and acceptance.

Lou turned 90 this year, still writing articles and coaching businesses. He also still plants his garden every year. For me and the family I’m raising, that is a tradition I know we can sustain for generations to come.

A sustainable family tradition

Photos by E. Dronkert (Holstein) and Karen Flanders (Winter Garden)

Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • Erin says:

    Simply lovely. So nice to be reminded that time in the garden is not time wasted!

  • Elizabeth says:

    Very nice. The garden is going to be fantastic.

  • Lisa says:

    What a great article. It’s so nice that you talked about Lou and what a great impact he had on helping other farmers. He was so proud to tell me you wrote about him!!

  • Derek says:

    Though I have never met Mr. Longo, through his writing in Hoard’s Dairyman he has been one of the influences in my life that has helped to encourage and inspire me in my so-far 20 year career as a first-generation dairy farmer and more recently as a director on the board of the largest farmer-owned cooperative fluid milk processor in the U.S. A couple years ago I ran across and read his book, “The Pursuit of Profit.” My only regret was that I had not found this book twenty years earlier. I found that I had reached many of the same conclusions and ideas about dairy farming that he pointed out in the book. I continue to be inspired by his work with cooperatives and have shared some of his articles from several years ago with fellow directors. I am happy to have found your post and to hear he is doing well. Please pass along my thanks and best wishes!

    • Renee Moorefield says:

      It sounds like you are doing great work to incorporate sustainability ideas into dairy farming. Nice job! What 1 or 2 tips to you have for others who want to embark on a similar path?

      • Derek says:

        I was reminded to check in here today after seeing an article by Mr. Longo in the current issue of Hoard’s! Thank you for your reply. To my mind, dairy farming offers the perfect vehicle for a family to live a sustainable life on the land. Crops are grown on the land to feed the cows, and manure from the cows feeds the land. Row crops and forages can be utilized in rotation, allowing both productivity and improvement of the soil through the building of organic matter. This interrelationship adds value beyond simply selling crops, grazing beef cattle, or buying feed and selling milk. The opportunity to improve genetics and build equity from breeding stock is icing on the cake.

        One idea we started last year was planting oats after the chopping of corn silage. Last year we harvested the oat forage the week of Thanksgiving, and it was the highest quality forage of the year. This spring, no weeds emerged on that field, and the tilth of the soil was perfect, allowing a good stand of soybeans while many of the neighbors had to replant beans planted at that time. This year we added tillage radishes to the mix. The oats may not produce enough forage to harvest this year, but the benefits to the soil through organic matter and erosion control will still make it worthwhile.