Feature: Agricultural Cooperatives: A Way Forward for the Sector?

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Barbadian consumers would be quite familiar with the popular North American brands Ocean Spray and Sunkist, retailer Do it Best as well as the international hotel chain Best Western, but what do they have in common with the Barbados Public Workers’ Credit Union or even the St. George Farmers’ Marketing Society?

They are all cooperatives, that is, autonomous associations of persons who come together voluntarily to meet common economic, social and cultural needs. They include non-profit community organisations and businesses that are owned and managed by and for their members, whether they are customers, employees or residents. They are also democratically controlled, so each member has one vote and they share the profits.

Among the various types of cooperatives found around the world are hotel/tourism, consumers, housing, agricultural, workers, utility, credit unions, social, volunteer, retailers and even elderly care.

Cooperatives are big business internationally. Do it Best is a retailer’s cooperative which was formed in the United States in 1945. Presently, it has over 4,000 members in every state of the US and in 47 countries, with sales of more than US $3 billion.

In the United States, agricultural cooperatives such as the Dairy Farmers of America and Unified Grocers have revenues of billions of dollars. The popular brand Ocean Spray is one of America’s most prominent agricultural cooperatives, cited by business analysts as the most successful bottled juice brand for some 30 years.

The grouping began in 1930 with three farmers and has grown to some 600 grower families. ??

With its cranberry juices and dry and fresh fruit, Ocean Spray, according to Forbes.com, has generated revenue of some 2 billion US dollars in 2010, with 30 per cent of that figure coming from outside the United States.

The role of cooperatives has come into sharp focus this year, with 2012 designated as the United Nations International Year of Cooperatives, which is being held under the theme Cooperative Enterprises Build a Better World. The World Food Day celebrations in October are also being held under the theme Agricultural Cooperatives: Key to Feeding the World. ??According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, the subject was chosen to highlight the role of agricultural cooperatives in improving food security and contributing to the eradication of hunger.

According to the Department of Cooperatives of the Ministry of Commerce and Trade, there are 47 cooperatives in Barbados and of that number, four are agricultural. These are the Barbados Agricultural Trading & Investment Cooperative Society Ltd (BATICS, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, ‘, NULL, NULL, 0); Barbados Pig Farmers’ Cooperative Society Limited; the St. George Farmers’ Marketing Cooperative Society Limited; and the South Eastern Farmers’ Cooperative Society Limited.

Registrar of Cooperatives, Sharon Drayton, explained that there were several advantages in establishing such an enterprise, most notably that group members could enjoy benefits which a single person or business might not be able to receive.

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"A cooperative is made up of a group of people working together for a common good and mutual benefit. So, anytime you have persons who are willing to pool their limited resources or work to buy things together, then that arrangement can be beneficial. For example, you can buy in bulk and save money," she said.

According to the Registrar, cooperatives also tend to support local enterprise and similar associations and this approach was one which could have tremendous benefits for farmers’ groups, which are seeking a market for their goods.

"When you have a hotel cooperative, for example, you will find that they tend to buy more local products such as agricultural produce from other cooperatives. That happens in other places and it is something we hope to see in Barbados," she stated.

Other advantages for farmers include: being part of a large movement that can lobby Government; the ability to seek out markets as a group rather than individually; organised production; group members can complement each other thus creating synergies; every member has an equal say in the affairs of the society and the ability to provide a service that other enterprises are not offering.

Most importantly, cooperatives are owned and controlled locally, therefore, the earnings of the cooperative stay in the community and are directed by members of the community.

Ms. Drayton stressed that farmers should seriously consider joining or forming cooperatives, as this could make a difference in such challenging economic times.

"Farmers are complaining about??tractor services and other areas they want access to. Persons might not be able to buy tractors on their own…What they would need to do is come together and form an agricultural cooperative which can provide those services. It is also difficult to form a cooperative and sell at the same time. That is where a marketing cooperative such as the St. George Farmers Co-op. is helpful, where the produce is sold through the organisation.

"We tend to believe that farmers should be able to get supplies and inputs, carry out farming and at the end of the day package and sell the produce. These are full-time jobs. So, coming together you can share your resources and some of these duties. You can concentrate on farming and have others deal with marketing your products," she pointed out.

Noting that some 100 million people worldwide were members of cooperatives, Ms. Drayton said once such a body was properly established, organised and managed, members could have ???peace of mind’ knowing that they were part of a viable organisation which could benefit them and their community.

"Having a structure where you know your money is safe, you have checks and balances, and there are laws and acts which govern it are crucial. The benefits in terms of coming together and working together are really important because unless we learn to work together… we are not going to succeed," the Registrar underscored.

Establishing a cooperative in Barbados is relatively simple and further information ??may be obtained?? by?? contacting?? the?? Cooperatives Department ??of ??the Ministry of ??Commerce and ??Trade, Thomas Daniel Building, Hincks Street ??at ??

426-5270 or 429-8638, or by visiting the website www.commerce.gov.bb.

Barbadians are also invited to a Farmers’ Cooperative Expo and Plant Clinic which will be held in the St. George Parish Church’s car park on World Food Day, tomorrow, Tuesday, October 16. It will be a chance to meet members of various local agricultural co-operatives and learn more about their work.

The event, which runs from 11:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m., will also be an opportunity for patrons to purchase agricultural products and goods, learn more about agricultural services and products and how to care for their plants among other activities.

The establishment of agricultural cooperatives should go a long way in securing the sector’s future. In light of the challenging global marketplace, farmers and other stakeholders joining forces to provide fresh, nutritious produce and essential services would not only ensure there are significant economic and social benefits for the local agricultural community, but help to feed Barbados’ growing population and decrease the rising food import bill.

andre.skeete@barbados.gov.bb

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