Community by Design: New model combines land trust, farmers co-op, customers

By Malaika Maphalala

Out on the edges of Portland, in a pretty suburb called Sherwood, my friend Narendra Varma has established a noteworthy new model of community-based sustainable agriculture.  It’s an interesting, well thought out project that began with the lovely name “Community by Design.”  Having been a founding member of an intentional community, I was very curious to hear the details of the organizational infrastructure that is designed to foster the growth of a land-based, cooperative economic and social system. 

MM OurTable vision map

I came to know Narendra through Slow Money, a national movement to catalyze investment into sustainable regional food systems.  Narendra, inspired by the movement, decided to invest his personal assets into creating a model that could benefit his own family, local farmers, and the greater community. Based on 58 acres of farmland with a pond and year round creek, Narendra’s project is just two years old.  The vision is supported by a constellation of three entities: the Community by Design LLC, a not-for profit land trust that owns the land; a member-owned cooperative of farmers, producers, and local customers called Our Table, which leases the land and manages an integrated organic food production business; and the Manav Foundation, a 501c3 educational non-profit dedicated to promoting a locally adapted culture and economy. 

Narendra gathered a great team of people together and drew from several key resources in fleshing out his vision.  The project is based on permaculture and biodynamic principles of farming and land stewardship, and a design team that included permaculture greats Jenny Pell and Doug Bullock of Permaculture Now! were integral in the initial planning stages. The Northwest Cooperative Development Center helped draft their articles of incorporation and provided valuable advice along the way.  

The Our Table Cooperative is modeled after Equal Exchange, a trailblazing fair-trade company that has evolved a beautiful model of a successful democratically-run cooperative over its 25 years of existence.  Our Table drew from their wisdom-through-experience and structured themselves using the same tools Equal Exchange has honed over time.  Being an integrated farming operation, the cooperative is made up of many small-scale “business units” that function in a coordinated and interdependent fashion under the Our Table brand.  Livestock producers, vegetable growers, beekeepers, and value added producers, all share space and practical resources including processing, storage and packaging, marketing, and distribution.  Already, Our Table produces and sells blueberries, popcorn, chickens, geese, seasonal produce through its Community Supported Agriculture program, and grass-fed beef from cattle managed in a rotational grazing system that brings them to fresh pasture every day.  This fall, they’ll be breaking ground on a commercial kitchen and processing facility and an on-farm retail space.  

Everyone who is part of their “shared value network” – whether farmer, marketing director, value added producer, or distributer – is an employee or member of the Our Table Cooperative.  In its first year of development, the Community by Design LLC is the host entity for the cooperative, hiring employees and helping to guide it through its formative stages until an official board of directors can be elected.  In their first year, all staff at Our Table are simply employees of the cooperative.  After one year they become eligible to become member-owners by purchasing a share in the company.  As member-owners, they have the power to vote in decisions about the cooperative, elect members of the board of directors, and share profits in the form of patronage dividends.  The cooperative is made up of multiple stakeholders, however – not just the workers.  Other stakeholders include regional producers who sell their products through the cooperative, and individuals and families who purchase food shares and wish to be active members of the coop. Each of these stakeholders is represented on the seven member board of directors and will share in the guidance and direction of the cooperative.

The beauty of the whole vision is in its intention to preserve this land for the purpose of sustainable food production in perpetuity. The LLC is structured to prevent it from being able to sell the land, and should the cooperative ever dissolve, the land can only be donated to the Manav Foundation, which has a charter in place to ensure the land is always used primarily for permaculture and agricultural production.  Also impressive to me is that Narendra has thought long and hard about what it will take to make the critical transition from one man’s dream to a truly shared economic and social cooperative community and he has taken very deliberate steps to establish a thoughtful legal framework that will support this journey.  In the tradition of some of the best examples of cooperative projects, Our Table has maintained a very open, transparent process.  Their website is deeply informative and offers easy access to their Articles of Incorporation.  In this way, they are a clear expression of their hope to inspire others to develop similar cooperative systems that benefit people, communities, and the earth.  

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