A cooperative network for regional food supply – Die Kooperative

Two friends Silas Müller and Christoph Graul founded die Kooperative (the cooperative) in 2018. Their vision of an agriculture close to the city where consumers and producers are in closer contact has become reality last year.

Die Kooperative is organised as a cooperative. The members buy shares of the harvest, which are delivered on a weekly base. The various products (vegetables, fruit, bread, eggs, etc.) come either from the cooperative’s own cultivation or from one of the 16 cooperation partners in the region. Currently, the cooperative has about 350 members who receive shares of the harvest on a weekly basis.

The farm

Die Kooperative has its own areas on which various types of vegetables are grown. However, the idea is to develop a network consisting of many partner farms that produce agricultural products near Frankfurt. The contributions for the harvest boxes come from all partner farms.  Currently, the cooperative has two locations with their own production areas. They produce a variety of vegetables, fruit and cereals at two different locations in and around Frankfurt. In the urban district of Oberrad the cooperative cultivates an area of 5.5 hectares. In addition, a further 17 hectares will be cultivated in Steinbach, 15 km southwest of Frankfurt, since the farm there will become part of the cooperative. Their own areas give them the opportunity to supplement the offer of the 16 partner farms. The cooperation partners also produce their food organically and in the vicinity of Frankfurt. Once a week, the harvest is packed into boxes and distributed to numerous collection points in Frankfurt and the surrounding area. The members then have to collect their harvest portions independently at the respective collection point within a certain period of time. The cooperation partners each have a contract with the cooperative in which the quantity and price of the goods purchased by the cooperation is determined. This ensures a certain planning security for the farmers as well.

Development paths                                          

The idea for this extraordinary and ambitious project has developed over a long period. The two founders got to know each other during their vocational training and started to think about solutions that could counteract the different challenges of today, such as loss of biodiversity, decline of farm numbers, climate change and social division. As they were not tied to a specific location at the onset, they looked for a suitable location for the implementation of their concept using their own success criteria. The most important criteria were a “wine-growing” climate to ensure diverse growing opportunities and that the potential area was located in a metropolitan region. They were looking for a suitable farm with a cultivation area that they could take over. This search turned out to be very difficult, as all potential farms rejected their offer. Most of them doubted that their concept could be successful and did not want to take the risk. During this time, they also consulted organisations that have already implemented similar projects. One of persons they consulted recommended to change the strategy and first set up a network of businesses and customers who want to support the idea. In the beginning, the cooperative had only a few hectares of arable land in the south of Frankfurt for its own cultivation.

As second step, the cooperative was founded in autumn 2018. Initially they distributed their share of the harvest to only 30 members. However, the growth rate and the interest of the local population were very high and today they supply 350 members with harvest boxes every week. The rapid growth was also favoured by some coincidences. On the one hand, they were surprised to be offered a 5.5-hectare former gardening business, which the cooperative has officially taken over since March 2019. And a few month later it was certain that they would take over the farm Steinbacher Quellenhof because the owner was ill. The Quellenhof is already engaged in organic farming and also has a farm shop. Thus, the centre of the cooperative will be moved to the Quellenhof in the future.

Due to the many events that have occurred this year in a short period of time, the processes and staff structure, have to be adapted. The development of the cooperative is therefore anything but complete.

Business model                       

It was a conscious decision to set up the business in form of a cooperative, as it was clear from the outset that consumers should be able to have a say. In a cooperative, each member has one vote and thus this legal form was appropriate. In order to receive a share of the harvest, you have to become a member of the cooperative in the long term. However, there is the possibility to take out a three-month trial subscription by finding out whether this system is suitable for you.

The concept aims to bring consumers back into direct contact with the producers. Consumers (members) can decide in what quantity they want to purchase certain portions of the harvest (vegetables, fruit, bread, eggs) and the producers (cooperation partners) have better planning security because they have concluded a fixed contract with the cooperative with fixed prices for at least one season. The members are involved in cultivation decisions and can, for example decide which chicken breed the cooperative should keep. Thus, the producers have to adapt to a certain extent to the wishes of the members, but also the members have to learn that not every type of vegetable or fruit is available all year round.

Innovative practices                                         

The link between producers and consumers is in part a return to earlier trade structures, but the way this network works can be described as innovative. On the one hand, the cooperative is currently developing its own Internet platform for its members, so that the exchange of information and the formation of thematic working groups will be more successful. This should make it easier to quickly communicate support needs and identify potentials within the network.

The contribution of own ideas from all members is expressly desired and additionally they provide space for the realization of individual projects. For example, one of the employees started to breed quails on the farm area.

For their own chickens, they invested in a completely self-sufficient and mobile chicken house that belongs to the latest generation. The chickens are fed and let in and out completely automatically. A solar system mounted on the roof also supplies the henhouse with electricity. Thus the work is mainly reduced to collecting eggs (approx. one hour a day).

The cooperative wants to go explicitly new ways to achieve a sustainable agriculture for humans, animals and nature. In the long term, negotiations with the partner farm should be area-based (price per ha) instead of quantity-based (price per kg). In practice this the cooperative is currently discussing with a partner farm how much money the farmer needs for a certain vegetable per hectare in order to make a good living from it. On this basis the contracts are to be concluded in the future, independent of the actual harvest. Thus, both good and bad harvests are carried by the members and give the farmer an additional security.

Future                                        

The network and the entire structure of the cooperative have grown very rapidly within a year. For this reason, the existing network of different companies in and around Frankfurt is to be consolidated in the near future. It is assumed that with the existing cooperation partners a total of 1000 members could be supplied with local food. In addition, small steps will be taken towards reversing the currently prevailing negotiation structures (from a quantity-based to an area-based contract).

In the long term, the vision of the two founders is to provide 30,000 people in Frankfurt and the surrounding area with food. However, this would mean that there would be several hubs so that the structure would not become too anonymous and the participatory character and personal contact would not be lost.

However, the goal is not to grow as fast as possible, on the contrary the structures should grow slowly and nothing should be rushed.

Tips for the learner                                           

  • Practical training can be very helpful, but you also have to be able to constantly acquire new knowledge.
  • Especially if it is a complete new start and there is no operating site yet, it is important not to give up and to be able to adapt the strategy flexibly to new developments and conditions.
  • As already mentioned, you always need allies, if only to secure the financing. In order to achieve this, the first thing to do is to make sure that you are convinced of your concept. This is the only way to get more people involved and convince them of the potential of your idea.
  • In order to enable long-term cooperation, it is especially important at the beginning to prove punctuality and reliability in order to win the trust of the partners.

Authors: Corinna Sass, Simone Sterly