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Mentorship and Cooperation Recognized at 2013 Good Food Fest

Are farms strengthened by competition or cooperation? Upper Midwest CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) launched in 1997 with a spirit of support, shared resources and networking among the handful of founding farms, but is this cooperative context valid today, with nearly 100 small-scale, diversified farms serving each of our regional metropolitan markets?

If you attended the Good Food Fest on March 15th, you would have been touched by the goodwill and promise that was demonstrated in the working relationship between mentor farmers Matt and Peg Sheaffer of Sandhill Family Farms and beginning farmers Alex Needham and Alison Parker of Radical Root Farm. Recipients of Angelic Organics Learning Center and Upper Midwest CRAFT’s inaugural Beginning Farmer (and Mentor) of the Year award, this mentor-mentee dynamic defies conventional business sense in that the Sheaffers have invested considerable time and energy to hone Alex and Alison’s farming and business skills, as neighbors and competitors.

With dramatic barriers (land access, financial resources, equipment and infrastructure needs) confronting those committed to starting a farm business, mentorship becomes an imperative for new farmers. And Upper Midwest CRAFT is characterized by a wealth of experienced farmers actively engaged in consulting, leading and mentoring beginning farmers in our region. But why? The reasons may be more profound and personal than I may venture, yet the neologism “coopetition,” or cooperative competition, might give a clue. The upside of working together, of mentorships, can be a sharper understanding of the unique values and attributes of each farm. Perhaps farmers find new ideas, reduce costs, grow tastier carrots or simply have more fun through coopetition. As an eager locavore and foodie, I’m very glad that this can be so.

Alex and Alison of Radical Root Farm with mentor farmer Peg Sheaffer