Cooperative Farming: A Time-tested Strategy to Support Regenerative Land Use

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

Carbon Harvest, a regional cooperative initiative of Co-operate WNC, brings together farmers, eaters, and organizations to scale up regenerative agroforestry in Western North Carolina.

Image: Alley cropping

What happened to the Commons?

Until industrial agriculture broke up the commons and forced farmers to “get big or get out”, cooperation was a ubiquitous feature of farming cultures. Traditional agriculturists maintained resilience by means of informal and formal cooperation, whether harvesting crops, sharing equipment, loaning money, planning crop rotations, responding to crop failure, or helping each other survive war and oppression.

In many parts of western Europe, villagers collectively managed enormous tracts of land through long-term, coordinated rotational practices. In England, people who managed this collectively owned common land were called “commoners.” The Enclosure Acts, from the sixteenth until the nineteenth century, forcibly replaced the open field system of farming with private land ownership, which was then commandeered by aristocrats. Many Native American tribes, such as the Huron and the Iroquois, had a collective system of land ownership. Pre-invasion Cherokee farming had a strong cooperative dimension via their gadugi and clan systems. In the US, traditions like barn-raising, organizations like the Grange and migrant farmworkers’ unions, seed and plant exchanges, and economic institutions like mutual insurance and credit unions have arisen to meet farmers’ economic and social needs through collective action.

Image: Cows in a sylvapasture system

A New Generation of Cooperative Farming

Now, facing the challenges of climate change and economic inequality and instability, we’re germinating a new generation of cooperative farming strategies. In addition to grassroots and informal ways of working together, people are innovating sophisticated and sometimes tech-savvy cooperative tools that can help to scale up what is often called regenerative agriculture – the kind of farming that grows the most delicious food, builds healthy soil and in so doing draws down carbon from the atmosphere.

Online platforms such as Regen Network and NORI are using blockchain currencies to get farmers paid for carbon-sequestering farming practices. Regen Network, in particular, uses smart technology such as satellite imagery, remote sensors, and drones to measure and verify the on-the-ground results. Online crowdfunding platforms such as Grow Ahead, and “CO2 subscription” programs such as Ithaka Institute’s, allow individuals to donate to agroforestry systems in the Global South with the click of a button.

Co-operate WNC is exploring the application of these kinds of higher-tech cooperative economic tools as part of the approach to scaling up regenerative farming here in western North Carolina. Our new initiative, Carbon Harvest (working title), will support regional farmers who are ready to adopt regenerative farming practices, by connecting them with specialized resources, the mentorship and knowledge base of our regional mutual aid network, a like-minded customer base, with direct funding via organizations and individuals who pay “carbon offset” payments to sequester their greenhouse gas emissions, and via cooperative financing tools such as Community Savings Pools and Investment Coops.

Regenerative agriculture has generated much attention over the last few years as a new label for a collection of traditional wise practices, with an emphasis on climate resilience and soil health. In addition to farmers, consumers and the natural foods industry are using the term. Through accessible and low-tech methods such as reducing tillage, incorporating more perennial crops, and managing grazing, regenerative farmers are not only storing more carbon in the soil; they are also increasing biodiversity, buffering against extreme weather events such as flooding or drought, and making more profits than with conventional practices. The potential is enormous: we can do something we already need to be doing – growing more high quality food and fiber – while reducing the amount of excess CO2 in the atmosphere.

One of the main barriers to adoption is the initial cost of transitioning to regenerative systems, such as the installation of tree-based agroforestry systems.

Carbon Harvest Program

Carbon Harvest works to address these financial barriers by leveraging cooperative financing tools, such as regional carbon offsets, community savings pools, non-monetized labor pooling, and grant funding to help farmers pay for the planting of agroforestry systems right here in western North Carolina. And, the context of Co-operate WNC’s mutual aid network provides several kinds of cultural and relational support so farmers making these transitions are not alone.

Based on our research, this initiative is the first of its kind, due to its emphasis on a regional-scale, farming-based carbon offset market which prioritizes long-term relationships, social benefits and holistic ecological health, rather than only carbon sequestration. Our intention is to create an open-source model that could be replicated in other regions.

If you’re wondering how you can participate in the Carbon Harvest initiative:

  • Get in touch with Co-operate WNC’s Carbon Harvest Co-ordinator, Mari Stuart, at

  • Join us for a day-long intensive on cooperative farming strategies at Living Web Farms, Saturday, February 15, 2020 10am-4pm

  • Join us for a Learning Circle and Potluck Dinner focused on Carbon Harvest, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020, 6-9 pm in Asheville (location TBD)

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