The last successful farmers cooperative in the territory, the Virgin Islands Farmers Cooperative, disbanded in 2012, but some farmers are eager to restart one after a visit to the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative, a successful cooperative in operation for 53 years.
For two weeks, farmers from the V.I. traveled around Georgia and Alabama talking to different members of the Georgia group and were able to see firsthand just how beneficial a cooperative can be.
The farmers that traveled were Lynda Muhammad, Sherron Carlos, Frederick Miller, Anna Wallace Francis, Justin Francis, Dean Leonard, Vanessa Forbes, and Dr. Louis Petersen.
On Wednesday night, in a session lead by Petersen, those farmers reflected on the lessons learned.
According to Petersen, the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of the Virgin Islands played an important role in organizing the trip.
“The UVI CES staff were responsible for the preparation and submission of a grant proposal to the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program which provided all funding for the two-week training program in Georgia,” he said. “The funds received covered airfare, hotel accommodations, ground transportation, meals, and a consultation fee to the host training organization — The West Georgia Farmers’ Cooperative. The CES also worked with the host organization to develop the training schedule for the two-week program.”
Petersen said one of the reasons previous attempts at farmers cooperatives failed in the V.I. was “lack of information and education,” and this trip was an opportunity to change that.
The main benefit of a cooperative, he said, is that with proper organization a group can get more done than individuals.
The stateside farmers that the V.I. group met with did not hold back, letting them know the bad along with the good, and inspiring them to “learn from mistakes and try again,” Petersen said.
The cooperative in Georgia has multiple accounts with multiple businesses and distributes the demand of the businesses to the farmers that have adequate supply. This ensures that the farmers in the cooperative are able to move their product quickly and the businesses are able to keep their shelves stocked.
This is an example of the “marketing support” a cooperative can offer, a critical benefit of being a member of one according to Petersen.
Another of the benefits discussed in the session is the ability of a cooperative to buy supplies in bulk and lower costs for members of the group.
A successful cooperative runs on seven core principles: voluntary and open membership; democratic member control; member economic participation; autonomy and independence; education, training and information; cooperation among co-cooperatives and concern for the community.
Cooperatives are designed to satisfy the needs of the group and need complete transparency to ensure that they are truly democratic. Most cooperatives are formed for one of three reasons: common needs, limited resources or disenfranchisement.
On the subject of limited resources, Petersen said “you may have a little, I may have a little, but together we have more than a little.”
“We are stronger together than we are individually,” he added.
Petersen said he has a plan to re-start a cooperative in the Virgin Islands and is looking to put it in action in the near future.
Petersen said that the Cooperative Extension Service plans to start a cooperative (or more than one) in the Virgin Islands in the near future.
“We are planning to have a training event in the month of September 2019 that will focus on how to conduct feasibility studies for cooperative business development,” he said. “In the month of October 2019 members of the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative, and the AgFirst Cooperative will visit the territory to celebrate National Cooperative Month with us. They will be delivering public presentations and working with groups of cooperative minded persons who are considering forming cooperative business ventures. Having completed the feasibility training by that time, part of the training focus in October will be putting the feasibility lessons into practice and follow up steps in starting a cooperative.”