Fellow Update: Gailmarie Kimmel

April 21, 2017

Innovating a Farmland Cooperative in Northern Colorado, USA

The story so far…

      It all started when a diverse but complimentary group of seven people—a farm couple, a community organizer, a local philanthropist, two small business owners, and an agricultural extension agent—decided to prioritize retaining and stabilizing our local young farmers (an idea whose time has come). We understood the nationwide conundrum: farmers were “ageing out” without a succession strategy and their farmland was disappearing to development while a new generation of farmers needed land access and tenure but lacked the financial resources to make that possible. (The business model of these younger farmers relies on land being adjacent to urban areas where supportive consumers seek out easy, face-to-face contact with the producers growing their food … and those land prices are invariably very high.)  Our Northern Colorado community had already lost some young farmers when they moved elsewhere, tired of short-term leases and having no prospects of either inheriting land or ever affording it here. So the seven of us agreed on the goal of “community-owned farmland” and committed ourselves to pursuing the strategy that local food enthusiasts—and their money—could be mobilized to play an active role in farmland ownership/stewardship.

 

Our participating farm couple: Nic Kootz and Katie Slota (& baby Henry on her back)

Their Native Hill market stand in Fort Collins

       Early in 2015, we started meeting every other week and then, rather quickly, every week. We realized that we already had two essential ingredients: 1) a willing and patient seller with 50 acres, water and good soil ($30K/acre or $1.5 million…yes, anticipated pricing but still sobering) and 2) the successful young farming couple on our team who after 6 years of puzzling together land leases was looking to either get stabilized (“land-sustainable”) or go back to the 9-to-5.  These pointed to our first group task: deciding the type of intermediary business entity to develop – the usual choices being nonprofit, LLC or the lesser-known L3C.  We dug further and discovered that Colorado is one of six states that offer the possibility of incorporating as a multi-stakeholder co-operative (!).  Further research led us to believe that this option best matched our values, had potential to support the entire food system, and would give us the most flexibility into the future.  We found a good lawyer ready to build this legal structure of new economy and, together, we tackled the multi-layered paperwork for both incorporating and shareholder membership. 

      Poudre Valley Community Farms, A Land Cooperative (PVCF), was born in June 2015.  Our mission is to purchase threatened agricultural lands in Northern Colorado to provide long-term leases to farmers and ranchers who agree to enhance soil fertility, grow sustainably and sell locally.  We believe that working collaboratively toward farmland conservation and young farmer retention and stabilization will lead, over the long-term, to enhanced soil health, increased and diversified local food production, and improved ecosystem services. 

      After ground-truthing our vision via dozens and dozens of conversations at farmers markets, and meetings with CSA supporters (Community Supported Agriculture) and Slow Money investors, PCVF was ready to sign up member-owners in our multi-stakeholder co-op, which meant they could buy a share—or multiple ones—at $2500 each.  We were so gratified by the outpouring of purchases, and by the questions that overwhelmingly supported the PVCF strategy … several even asked about other ways to give us money!  

      Wanting to capture all of this funding interest, we had to first establish a fiscal sponsor relationship with Rocky Mountain Farmers Union to take tax-deductible donations.  Sooner than anticipated, we also created a private placement option when local and regional investors expressed interest more in supporting and propagating the model than in membership itself. We gapproached a local foundation and successfully secured their financial investment commitment, too.  Along the way, we hosted fundraisers, including a film night, a “Party with a Purpose”, a farm dinner and a Wisconsin-inspired “meat raffle.”

3 Founder/Board Members in our Co-op hats Meat “raffle” at The Kitchen restaurant –
 “raffling” off cuts of pork
Set up for Sept 2016 Farm Dinner A wonderful fall evening in Colorado for the Dinner

      Simultaneous with the fundraising (thus proving that our community would indeed step up financially), we had been pursuing another essential ingredient of the pilot model—a conservation partner able and willing to purchase the conservation easement.  This critical ingredient would bring down the price within reach for us as a community and set the our Co-op fundraising goal at ~$600K.  While we got an early “thumbs up” from Larimer County, over time we ran into both their competing priorities and the need to exhaust all options before asking for a large chunk of public funds.  Fortunately, Colorado Open Lands (COL) took over our local land trust (a win-win) and showed great excitement about our project.  Together in late 2016, we successfully secured funds for the easement (just shy of $640K) from Great Outdoors Colorado.

Members of Colorado Open Lands staff, Board and supporters, walking the pilot farmland

      By the end of 2016, it appeared that we had lined up all the puzzle pieces. After weaving an extensive web of relationships involving land, water, future farm tenants, conservation easement, funds from 100 members and investors, and hiring a staff member (one of our founders), we finally got the farmland under contract in late January 2017 (nothing has been quick about this adventure’s legalities).  However, while we were aiming for the closing by the end of March, we got the gobsmacking news that a concrete batch plant was being proposed 500 feet upwind of the farmland…!  Our hearts skipped several beats.  

      As I am writing this in mid-April 2017, PVCF and our conservation partners remain committed to testing this new model of community-owned farmland–even more so now that the threats have come closer and into sharper focus.   Our partners and members share our concerns about the impacts on air and water from the proposed mining and industrial operation on what-was-to-be a certified organic farm—impacts that could affect the health of the farm workers, the quality of the food produced and, at the least, the perceptions about “clean, local vegetables”.  Amidst all the unknowns—too many to list here—PVCF is strategizing as to how best to bring the full weight of our 100-strong co-op shareholders to this challenge.  Do we purchase the land with the strong likelihood of an industrial neighbor and wind up stewarding a hay-for-bison field? Do we take on the David-Goliath legal battle of environmental and zoning technicalities?   Do we ask for a contract extension, thus buying time, and potentially witness the up-until-now willing landowners opt out?   Or do we walk away, identify another potential land purchase and start over with that landowner and all the due diligence?

 

      Northern Colorado’s population is expected to boom by 2040, nearly doubling or approaching close to 3 million … and PVCF intends to play a positive role in homeland  (scratch that) farmland security.  Stay tuned.