Moooo-ve Over Big Dairy: The True Story of a Goat Dairy Cooperative

Move Over Big Dairy
[ This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of the GreenMoney Journal – www.GreenMoney.com ]

Setting the Stage

I don’t know anything about goats… What do they eat? How do you milk them? Does the milk taste weird? How many babies do they have? Wait, they need to give birth EVERY YEAR to produce milk!? Where do you take them in the winter? Why don’t some of them have ears?”

We hear these questions every day at Mountain Flower Goat Dairy.

Mountain Flower is a nonprofit, working, urban goat dairy and education center located in downtown Boulder, Colorado, one mile north of the city center. For us, the answers to those questions are basic to our knowledge about goat care and the life cycles of mammals. But, as farms get bigger and further from population centers, the secrets of how agriculture, life and nature work are lost bit by bit, inch by inch, row by row.

The Big Bottleneck in Small-Scale Animal Production

Since Mountain Flower Goat Dairy opened its barn doors four years ago, we have been available to the public to foster a reconnection with dairy, agriculture and the Earth. What we have learned is that our community craves this lost knowledge and hands-in-the-earth experience with life. Our volunteer roster is full (with a waitlist), our raw-milk share is more in demand every day, our summer camps and tours are booked solid. We literally don’t have enough goats or goat products to go around.

The logical next step is to expand. However, we started this downtown farm with a mission to provide humanely produced dairy products to the local community; it was never our intent to go big or industrialize. The challenge was to scale up, despite problems intrinsic to large-scale animal operations. How can we meet the demand of our consumers? How can we increase our revenue and capture economies of scale to pay living wages to our workers, charge reasonable prices to our customers and nurture the Earth and our animals? How can we make a living as farmers without industrializing our means and modes of production?

The answers to these questions emerged unexpectedly in July 2015, when we met with Slow Money founder and Chairman Woody Tasch to learn about scale, investment, values and sustainable agriculture. We told him we were ready to scale up and asked how to reach out to investors, something we had never done. We had been a bootstrap operation, relying on a little donated seed money and a lot of help from human and goat friends.

A Brief History of Boulder’s Urban Goat Farm

Mountain Flower was founded with five goats and a personal donation of just $20,000 from founder Taber Ward, now executive director of the dairy. Volunteers labored alongside her, including co-founder Jonathan Vaught, as well as board members, neighbors, relatives, friends and landlords. We managed to keep our heads above water by starting our five goat raw-milk share in 2013, adding summer camps, tours and birthday parties in 2014 and applying for grants and soliciting small donations in 2015.

Amazingly, the dairy has never been in the red. Somehow, just when we need it, money comes in and we get through the last harsh weeks of winter, when the animals are pregnant and we are not producing milk.

We are also very fortunate to be supported by our landlords, Catherine Long Gates and her husband, Dennis Gates, of Long’s Gardens, 25 acres of the last working agricultural land within Boulder city limits. This parcel has been in Catherine’s family since 1916, farmed with flowers, especially iris, their current crop, ever since. Third-generation farmers, the Gates continue to both cultivate the land and foster appreciation for local agriculture throughout the community. They believe in our mission and help us today with infrastructure updates, pasture management and composting, and generously share their knowledge of the cycles, rhythms and ecosystems that we are part of, too.

Fast forward to today. Currently we have 100 herd-share members, to whom we distribute raw milk. This year, we will increase our milk production and membership. We partner with the city’s North Boulder Recreation Center to host seven, week-long summer camps for children ages six to 11 and offer after-school programming through local high schools and social services. Our thriving volunteer program depends on the dedicated people who contribute consistently to the success of our farm, while learning how to raise their own herd and produce their own dairy products. In addition, we have public visiting hours every Saturday, April through November, when visitors learn about goats through hands-on interactions and our mobile education set-up.

Reducing Inefficiencies and Breaking Bottlenecks: Cooperatives as a Way Forward

Back to our July meeting with Woody Tasch: It was clear that traditional investment was not a good route for Mountain Flower. He understood that our mission was not to get big and make a lot of money, so he suggested an alternative: “Have you thought about a dairy co-op model?”

We hadn’t, but, as soon as he suggested it, the course was clear. A co-op would allow us to scale up, increase our purchasing power and capture economies of scale, without denaturing the fabric of our agroecosystem and sacrificing the health of both our animals and the land.

Many of the volunteers working with us also had a dream to start their own farms and, in the two to three years they had been with us, some had purchased land or bought a few of our male goats for grazing. We are proud to report that these are now the first co-op producer members.

A cooperative model allows us to partner with other producers, consumers, workers and distributors to scale up our model without compromising the integrity and values of small, family-run farms. We will all work together – cooperate – to purchase common infrastructure (i.e., grade A dairy equipment to pasteurize our milk); share knowledge and labor (even dairy farmers need vacations!); increase our purchasing power by buying necessities like grain, alfalfa and nutritional supplements in larger quantities; and share marketing and distribution channels. The co-op model allows each farm to retain its own identity as an L.L.C., while sharing a common brand, standards for treatment of animals, sanitation, herd health and land stewardship. Members sign agreements that bind them to uphold these standards.

Cooperatives are nothing new; Organic Valley, Land o’ Lakes, Ocean Spray and REI have withstood the test of time. Cooperatives are not a get-rich-quick endeavor, so the model is not appealing to folks seeking an immediate, high return on investment. Instead, members receive slow and steady dividends from sales of the product, after an initial membership buy-in investment.

Once a member joins a cooperative, the total value of that member’s contributions of service or labor, (if a worker cooperative), or the value of the member’s consumption, (if a purchasing/consumer cooperative), is deemed that member’s “patronage.” Return on equity comes in the form of a “patronage dividend,” which is based upon a formula of the total patronage of the cooperative, divided by each member’s individual patronage. The amount of “patronage dividend” or “patronage refund” distributed to members and the amount retained by the cooperative to support continued operations and growth is determined by each individual cooperative based on the needs of the members and the business.”[1]

While our new dairy cooperative is a for-profit enterprise, the intent is to share the risk, maintain our values around sustainable agriculture and support the viability of our local community of farmers and land stewards.

Vote Goat! – Beetcoin Crowdfunding

The newly established Mountain Flower Cooperative applied to Slow Money to participate in its entrepreneurial showcase at the Snowmass Slow Money Gathering in the fall of 2015. Our application was accepted and we had our first shot at talking to investors. Our pitch to the investor crowd at the event did not lead to any financial investments, but we were elated when the Beetcoin crowdfunding campaign resulted in $44,000 granted to us as a three-year, 0 percent-interest loan. We paid a lawyer to help us incorporate our cooperative properly and bought a machine bucket milker to start milking our herd mechanically. The funds also will be used to initiate work on our new grade A dairy, to bring pasteurized milk to market.

For us, the crowdfunding campaign leveraged Slow Money’s national network and we raised much more money than we could have alone. In fact, we tried a crowdfunding campaign in 2014, which fell flat, yielding only about $400. The Beetcoin campaign enabled us to work with other farmers and Slow Money’s networks to form a local-farm platform that was much more compelling to donors and local-farm advocates nationwide. Most of our donations were just $25, but that small amount made a world of difference.

We don’t know yet if this cooperative model will work for us, but we’ve changed our paradigm from “success or failure” to “this is all a big experiment.” We try to remember that there is no endpoint, no destination, but an aspiration to fit into the cycles and rhythms of life – and maybe even relax and have fun along the way. As poet Mary Oliver reminds us, “…the world offers itself to your imagination…over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”


Article by Taber Ward and Madelynn Eversen

Taber Ward – Co-Founder and Executive Director

Mountain Flower’s daily operations, employee supervision, herd-health, food safety protocol, volunteer programs, milk shares and education programs are overseen and directed by Taber Ward, J.D., Co-Founder and Executive Director of MFD. Taber has a background in goat husbandry, farm management and a law degree with a focus on public health, food and agricultural policy. Taber also sits on the State of Colorado Farm to School Task Force and was appointed to the Boulder County Food and Agriculture Policy Council in 2014.

Madelynn Evensen – Education Coordinator and Herd Manager

Madelynn started volunteering at Mountain Flower in 2013, and in 2014 became our part-time education coordinator. During this time she was also the Market Coordinator for the Boulder County Farmers’ Market where she worked to support local agriculture and provide a space for the community to learn about where their food comes from. We are happy to announce that Madelynn joined Mountain Flower full-time as of September 2015. Madelynn moved to Boulder in 2012, shortly after graduating from the University of California Santa Barbara, where she studied Anthropology with a focus on food systems. While attending UCSB she began working on local farms, which ignited an interest in a more hands-on agricultural learning experience. That interest lead her to Growing Gardens in Boulder, where she interned for two seasons, and then to Mountain Flower in 2013 where she began to assist with education projects.

Article Note:

[1]  R.P. Burrasca, Susan Grossberg, Anne Misak, and Jason Wiener Editors: Anne Misak and Michelle Sturm, An Introduction to Financing for Cooperatives, Social Enterprises, and Small Businesses, June 2015, available at http://www.jrwiener.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/finance_guide_final_june_2015.pdf

[ This article was originally published in the March 2016 issue of the GreenMoney Journal – www.GreenMoney.com ]

 

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