Cooperatives are business organizations that differ from sole proprietorships, partnerships, and investor-owned corporations along three distinct organizational lines: (1) democratic control by their members, (2) member ownership, and (3) benefits that include savings, profits, and patronage refunds for doing business with the cooperative. Community-based agricultural cooperatives represent a distinctive form of the cooperative business with a unique history.
Community-based agricultural cooperatives resemble traditional producer and consumer cooperatives but tend to be organized on more local and geographically specific levels. In addition, they typically have broader social agendas, given their roots in the civil rights movement, community organizing, and grassroots development. Across the southern United States this agenda often involves activism concerning the plight of black farmers. Operating on cooperative principles, some of these organizations are classified as nonprofits, given their mission of working for the survival and improved quality of life for farmers traditionally underserved by mainstream private businesses and government agencies.
Originally referred to as “poor people’s cooperatives,” community-based agricultural cooperatives started in the 1880s, when small-scale farmers and sharecroppers were marginalized by competition with larger producers, high costs for production inputs, depressed commodity prices, and the crop lien system, whereby farmers mortgaged their crops to merchants for supplies. Although many southern cooperatives (including some chapters of the populist-oriented Farmers’ Alliance) primarily served whites, the Colored Farmers’ Alliance and Cooperative Union promoted the interests of independent farmers, sharecroppers, and general farm laborers, black and white.
Social and economic concerns were even more central to the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, organized in Arkansas after laborers were pushed off the land in response to the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), a federal New Deal policy intended to limit overproduction. The Tenant Farmers’ Union was involved in establishment of Mississippi’s interracial Delta Community Farm in 1936. Cooperative organizers and progressive policymakers rallied for services, and one outcome was the 1937 creation of the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), which eventually helped displaced farmers by creating resettlement communities and developing cooperative businesses. The FSA assisted more than one hundred black families in chartering a cooperative in the community of Mileston by 1941, and over the years the Mileston Farmers’ Cooperative’s projects included affordable housing, a grocery store, an equipment repair shop, and a cotton gin.
The civil rights movement gave another great push to the development of community-based agricultural cooperatives, resulting in what Ray Marshall and Lamond Godwin have termed the “New Poor People’s Cooperatives.” Independent black landowning farmers proved crucial to the movement in rural areas because of their relative economic autonomy. Furthermore, as advances occurred in voting rights and public accommodations, many organizers turned their attention to issues of economic justice. Agricultural and consumer cooperatives as well as their financial counterparts, credit unions, sprung up across the South. A wide array of national and Mississippi civil rights organizations contributed to the movement, and well-known grassroots leaders were part of the effort. In Ruleville, Fannie Lou Hamer led the establishment of Freedom Farm, and the nearby North Bolivar County Farm Cooperative was established with the involvement of L. C. Dorsey. Many of the cooperative organizers were also instrumental in developing the Delta Health Center.
The movement gained ground in the mid- to late 1960s as local organizations created broader collaborative networks. The Southern Cooperative Development Program was established in 1967 through the Southern Consumers’ Education Foundation, which sought to establish and promote cooperatives among low-income residents across the South. Leaders from twenty-two community-based cooperatives, including those focused on agriculture, met in 1967 to address their common concerns and to discuss strategies for overcoming the challenge of limited access to financial resources and the opposition from reactionary whites who feared black power and saw collective agricultural efforts as socialist enterprises. The meeting resulted in the establishment of an umbrella organization, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, to meet their common needs; it later merged with a land security organization to become the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. Drawing funds from membership dues, service fees, grants, and contracts, the federation provided training in cooperative development, technical assistance, research, and advocacy.
Using membership data reported by the federation in 1969, Marshall and Godwin estimate that it had eighty affiliated cooperatives in fourteen states, with seventeen in Mississippi serving nearly five thousand members. The federation’s state-level affiliate, the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, was founded in 1972 with a primary focus on assisting limited-resource and black farmers, their families, and their communities. Over the years, it has worked with a variety of cooperatives across the state, among them the Beat Four Farm Cooperative (Macon), the Indian Springs Farmers Association (Petal), the Sweet Potato Growers Association (Mound Bayou), and the Winston County Self-Help Cooperative (Louisville). Contemporary efforts include helping cooperatives to organize and operate farmers markets, grow and sell alternative products, and market specialty products such as fair-trade watermelon destined for East Coast markets.
- Delta Black Farmers Oral History Collection and the Jerry Dallas Delta Cooperative Farm Collection, Charles W. Capps Jr. Archives and Museum, Delta State University
- Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund, Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Annual Report (1992)
- John J. Green, “Community-Based Cooperatives and Networks: Participatory Social Movement Assessment of Four Organizations” (PhD dissertation, University of Missouri at Columbia, 2002)
- Ray Marshall and Lamond Godwin, Cooperatives and Rural Poverty in the South (1971)
- Kay Mills, This Little Light of Mine: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (1994)
- Bruce J. Reynolds, Black Farmers in America, 1865–2000: The Pursuit of Independent Farming and the Role of Cooperatives (2003).
- Al Ulmer, Cooperatives and Poor People in the South (1969)