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CRAFT Field Day on Incubator and Cooperative Farming at Fondy Farm Project, Port Washington, WI

After sharing a meal and warm greetings, the 31 farmers and farmer enthusiasts that convened at Fondy Farm Project circled up and settled in for a conversation on cooperative agriculture models. Led by Stephen Petro of Fondy Farm Project and Jay Salinas of the Wormfarm, both men gave a summary of their experiences working at incubators and facilitating the sharing of information and resources among farmers. Before diving into the nuances of these models, “farm incubators” were defined by the presenters as a place for beginning farmers to get started and from which they eventually graduate and move on. Both incubators and cooperative farming models are characterized by access to shared resources like tractors, markets or facilities yet, cooperative farming can be thought of as a fostering perpetual professional relationships among farmers.

Benefits of incubator or cooperative farming, like improved access to markets and higher sale prices for farm goods, were considered next to the obstacles that confront them: the struggle to “graduate” farmers from incubators and transition them onto other land parcels, which often don’t have infrastructure. Additionally, the Field Day participants had a wealth of experiences to share in regard to the variety of models that exist for cooperative farming. From farmers that successfully started and transitioned through incubators to beginning farmers setting up their farms on-site and through one-on-one arrangements with established farmers, to long-term land tenure agreements found through land-linking organizations, it became evident that cooperative farming is still new enough to defy an easy definition or a rigid model.

After the roundtable discussion, we were led on a tour of the Fondy Farm Project’s farmland. Seven farmers rent a total of 40 acres through Fondy and are required to sell at least weekly at Fondy Market on Milwaukee’s north side, an area with few retail outlets for fresh produce. Once in the fields and among the rows of vegetables, topics of conversation focused on the operational aspects of managing a farm incubator. We had the chance to speak with two Fondy farmers, taste freshly harvested Hmong cucumbers and hear their stories and farming history.

For more information on cooperative farming or farm incubators, several organizations and resources were mentioned: The Farm Business Development Center at Prairie Crossing in Grayslake, IL; The Intervale Center in Vermont; ALBA of Salinas, CA; Minnesota Food Association; and Land for Good in New England.

This event was one of many field days organized by the Upper-Midwest CRAFT Network. If you would like to attend future CRAFT field days and receive weekly updates about farming in Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin, join CRAFT!