Celebrating Local Foods–Client Spotlight: Our Harvest Cooperative

(Submitted by Hannah Scott, Manager, Ohio Cooperative Development Center, OSU South Centers)

OSU Extension is celebrating local foods in Ohio through special events and programming this week! The Ohio Cooperative Development Center supports local foods through work with a number of local food cooperative businesses. Check out the story of one such business, Our Harvest Cooperative, below and learn more at the Ohio Local Foods Week on the OSU Extension Local Foods Week website.

Our Harvest grows success

Our Harvest Cooperative is a collaborative effort started by a small, dedicated group — namely Phil Amadon, Ellen Vera, and Kristen Barker. In the spring of 2012, they formed Our Harvest Cooperative, a worker-owned cooperative focusing on sustainable agriculture and local food distribution. All have strong backgrounds in the labor movement: Ellen has been working for the UFCW for years, and Phil was highly involved with unions throughout his career as a railroad mechanic. They wanted to find a way to help create family-sustaining jobs that could transform communities. When the United Steelworkers announced a historic partnership with Mondragon to launch union co-ops in the United States, the group felt it was just the ticket.

Mondragon is the world’s most successful network of worker-owned co-ops.IIn the last 60 years it has grown from 5 worker owners to over 80,000. It is a model of a great nexus not an isolated cooperative doing its own thing, but composed of many connected entities. The Our Harvest founders connected with Mondragon’s North American delegate and the United Steelworkers; they were impressed by Mondragon’s structure and wanted to bring that concept to life in Cincinnati.

Our Harvest 2Our Harvest contacted the Ohio Cooperative Development Center (OCDC) at the Ohio State University (OSU) South Centers to do a feasibility study. Tom Snyder, Partnership Program Manager, OCDC, and Brad Bergefurd, Horticulture Specialist, Horticulture Extension Program, conducted the study. Part of that study was a survey of growers from surrounding counties, a 150 mile radius around Cincinnati, to see if growers were interested in working with Our Harvest, if they wanted to expand their production, if they wanted to scale down, what their struggles were among other things. Tom and Brad surveyed growers by phone and in small focus groups. They gathered information that was used to develop Our Harvest’s initial business plan. The feasibility study was instrumental in pointing out the best opportunities for success. If Our Harvest would have started only on the food aggregation and the distribution side, it would have been a real challenge because they did not have enough mid-sized growers to work with at that time. Tom and Brad suggested that Our Harvest start their own farm. That is a big piece of what Our Harvest does that is different than a lot of traditional food hubs.

According to Kristin Gangwer, Food Hub Manager, Our Harvest Cooperative, “Early in development, Tom and Brad identified some gaps in the system and encouraged us to be the solution to those gaps. One gap involved the need for training the next generation of growers. In partnership with Tom and Brad from the OSU South Centers, who had done a lot of work with the Ohio Apprenticeship Council in developing the curriculum for that early program, Our Harvest started a pilot program. The Apprenticeship Pilot Program had two graduates from Our Harvest in 2012 that went through the program and worked on the farm full-time. After the pilot, we partnered with Cincinnati State University to be the practicum site for their Sustainable Agriculture Management Certificate Program – a connection that came as a result of our previous farmer training efforts, which were initiated by Tom and Brad. To help increase farmer training opportunities, Our Harvest has now created a nonprofit (the Our Harvest Research and Education Institute) to lead these efforts.”

Kristin continues, “The information gathered from the Feasibility Study was also used to develop the original business plan. We started trying to capitalize the business in 2012. We also began a small CSA from our leased property in College Hill, the Bar Farm, that year. I came on board with some other staff at the end of 2012. We worked with Christie Welch, OSU OCDC, to develop a plan for the aggregation, marketing, and distribution work for our produce and the produce from many of the other local growers as part of the food hub side of the initiative. In 2013, we grew our CSA to about 200 members throughout that season, growing on 8 acres and developing wholesale accounts. Last year in 2014, we grew our CSA program to approximately 350 members. We grew produce on 15 acres, increased our wholesale accounts, and developed a lot of great relationships. We even started selling to Whole Foods and worked with other local producers to distribute value added items like honey and salsa.”

Our Harvest 1Reflecting on growth, Kristin shares, “We started farming on a second farm property last year, and this year we’ll be growing on a total of about 20 acres. We are planning to increase our CSA, which we call Our Weekly Harvest Box, to about 500 members. Plans are to increase our wholesale sales five fold and we are starting to work with other farmers to incorporate their produce into all of our sales channels. We are also moving our packing and distribution work into a standalone, centrally-located warehouse in Cincinnati, which will be very helpful.”

Kristin expresses appreciation for OSU input, “What we have gained by working with Tom Snyder, Brad Bergefurd, and Christie Welch has been invaluable — from the creation of the co-op, the feasibility studies, and the business planning, to the ongoing guidance and resources they have shared. Tom, Brad, and Christie provide support whenever we need them, and they continue to serve as great confidants and cheerleaders as we navigate this process.”