Swanton Berry Farm’s Cochran has hand in plan for regional farming, food distribution system

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DAVENPORT – With easily accessible, locally produced food as their goal, two men are working to create a regional farming and distribution system with the idea that decentralized agriculture can supplement the nation’s present agribusiness system.

Friday, Swanton Berry Farm owner Jim Cochran and Larry Yee were in Ojai, literally working on a jigsaw puzzle design whose final image will illustrate the concept behind Food Commons.

"Imagine a small system somewhere where you have local farms that produce food for a local food shed, and think of what it takes to do that, and then scale that up across the country," Yee said.

The idea is to create a framework to support a nationwide network of farmland and infrastructure, which would produce and distribute locally grown fruits and vegetables in communities across the country.

It is envisioned as an alternative to an industrial system in which produce is hauled thousands of miles to big-store outlets such as Safeway and Walmart. Food Commons will not only produce healthier communities and have fewer environmental impacts, they believe, but create a new socioeconomic order by creating worker-friendly jobs and getting more money circulating in local economies.

Cochran came up with the idea about six years ago, but it wasn’t until the recession hit in 2008 that he and Yee – who’s worked for decades on national projects related to sustainable food systems – began collaborating. Supporters from a group with backgrounds in business, agriculture and finance – Cochran said Maria Echaveste, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton’s Deputy, is also on board – are putting the final touches on a document that defines their concepts and outlines their next steps.

"What we’re presenting is so complex that it takes a long time for people to get their heads around it," Cochran said with a laugh.

As envisioned, Food Commons has three main components – land trusts, community banks and food centers – and would be operated like a public utility commission.

"The idea is that the entity would be a hybrid of local owners and worker owners and customer owners in the form of a co-op," Cochran explained. "It’s kind of a blend of a consumer co-op, a stock-trading company and an employee-stock ownership company. It blends all three together so there’s a way that all three sets of interests are participating in the process."

The trust would own and lease out the farmland and infrastructure, but put those assets in perpetual community trusts. Meanwhile, the banks would offer low-cost loans to farmers, producers and consumers, as well as operate local stock exchanges, allowing residents to invest money in mutual funds that have a stake in the venture. Finally, the food would be sold at the local centers.

The system would operate under an umbrella organization, the Food Commons Federation, that would support the regional systems by coordinating at the national level. The federation itself would operate as a nonprofit entity, Yee said, but would work closely with regional farms, retail and food-service outlets and distribution centers.

Once the final concept paper is completed, the group will then conduct feasibility studies to find the best location for a demonstration site – preferably in an "urban food desert" where fresh produce is scarce – and create a business plan. Yee estimated the initial costs would be several million dollars, but once it’s up and running, it could have annual gross revenue of $50 million.

"People are finally waking up again and realizing that good food equals good health," Yee said. "We’re proposing a system that will produce healthier, tastier food for people within a locale" while simultaneously promoting worker rights and environmental consciousness.


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